Even at Easter? On spiritual fasting, according to St. Francis de Sales
At the very end of Lent I discovered the sermon given on Ash Wednesday of the year 1622 by St. Francis de Sales. Better late than never! This sermon was given as part of a series to the religious women in the Order of the Visitation, or the Visitandines, which St. Francis founded with St. Jane Frances de Chantal. The subject of the sermon was the need to “fast with our whole heart, that is to say, willingly, whole-heartedly, universally and entirely.” He takes as his point of departure the following instruction of St. Bernard of Clairvaux:
[T]his glorious saint adds that, as it is not our mouth alone which has sinned, but also all our other senses, our fast must be general and entire, that is, all the members of our body must fast. For if we have offended God through the eyes, through the ears, through the tongue, and through our other senses, why should we not make them fast as well? And not only must we make the bodily senses fast, but also the soul’s powers and passions—yes, even the understanding, the memory, and the will, since we have sinned through both body and spirit.
Why do I bring this up now, at the beginning of the Easter season? It is not only because I just discovered the sermon. Rather, it is because I fear that, until we recognize the importance of this concept of universal fasting, our penitential practices will bear very little fruit. What we learn in Lent, I think, must become the foundation for the spiritual life all year round. The notion of universal fasting can become a key to overcoming habitual sins so that more rapid spiritual growth is possible.
As an example of what I mean, let me consider what we might call fasting through the imagination. For if the thought is father to the deed, so indeed is the imagination father to the thoughts that shape our sins. In many instances, it is precisely our failure to discipline our imaginations which makes spiritual progress so difficult. Whether the potential sin is one of pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath or sloth, we frequently indulge it first in the form of imagining things that we find eminently satisfying.
Too often we fail to recognize this use of the imagination either as sinful in itself or, in effect, as a form of keeping bad company. Therefore, we indulge it privately, or perhaps even allude to it in conversation with friends who share our spiritual tendencies: “I’d really like to give so-and-so his comeuppance!” or “I can imagine what a night with her would be like!” Yes, and I wish I were a king with servants to command, or a wealthy man traveling the world in style, or a professional photographer of beautiful women, or a respected commentator on public affairs, or a collector of fine art, or a prince of the Church to put everyone in his place, or an owner of a beautiful boat and a private jet.
I can confess here, without being too specific, that I was well into adulthood before I realized how deadly were such private projections, often indulged at night while waiting for sleep. But at a certain belated time, I began to recognize the need to deliberately turn away from such imaginative indulgences by resorting instead to mental prayer. Being a relatively solitary person, inappropriate conversations were not often an issue for me. But inappropriate use of the imagination was an issue that I was slow to identify, and I still find it can be problematic—for example, in deciding what is appropriate to my state in life when spending money.
The point, of course, is not to list my particular imaginings, whether enacted or not, but to identify a common impediment to spiritual growth. I mean the notion that “thinking about things” is always fine, when sometimes this is simply another version of the expression “there is no harm in looking”. We may believe it is only the doing that leads us into sin, and certainly to “think about” in the sense of pondering a problem is often salutary. But to “think about” in the sense of imagining a pleasure—even when innocent in itself—can be the father of a temptation or a sinful thought—which in turn can be the father of the deed.
What a vicious life we can live in our minds, particularly in the imagination!
I have come to regard ordinary, conventional fasting as relatively trivial in itself, and I think this is precisely the point made by St. Francis de Sales. It is good to discipline the body, of course; if ordinary, small disciplines are relatively trivial, that is no excuse to get out of the habit of performing them. But, again speaking for myself, I find that I adjust within a few days to whatever foods or meals or innocent entertainments I may give up for Lent, and hardly give them another thought. The same is true of slight changes in the disposition of available funds. Such things are important, but I am convinced by St. Francis, St. Bernard and my own experience that they are even more important as pointers to a universal application of the whole concept of fasting.
Now, having disparaged ordinary fasting sufficiently to pop a tiny chocolate bar into my mouth (it is, after all, Easter Thursday), I am taking advantage of my momentarily satisfied taste buds to reflect on the role my imagination may be playing in the current set of decisions before me at my particular stage of life. At age 71, for the past several years the issues raised in my imagination have more often than not had to do with the whole question of retirement. And here again, true to form, I have found it necessary to discipline my imagination with respect to retirement locations, housing, and activities.
But I offer this personal example only to emphasize another truth about the role of imagination in the evasion of spiritual reality. Each of us—and I assure you I am no exception—is bothered by habitual discontents and dissatisfactions which we alleviate through the use of our imaginations. If only we could bring about situation X, then problem Y would trouble us no more—or so we imagine. But it takes extraordinary spiritual maturity to differentiate between particular changes which really would be salutary and those changes which are, in effect, simply mechanisms of denial.
To take but one example, we may think we would find supreme contentment living in a beautiful home overlooking the Pacific coast, and perhaps we can afford it, so why not? Well, the first answer is that within a period from a few days to a few weeks—just long enough for the novelty to wear off—we would find ourselves troubled by the self-same dissatisfactions and discontents that we had pretended to leave behind. These are really interior problems, and no matter what our lifestyle or where we live, we cannot escape ourselves.
It is precisely for this reason that imposing a fast on the imagination can be so valuable. Again, serious reflection is one thing, but indulging escapist dreams is quite another. To deflect such imaginative exercises through prayer is a decision to look more deeply into oneself so that, with Divine help, we may discern with ever increasing clarity what needs to be fixed deep inside. And though I have used the imagination as an example, this applies to the entire range of “universal fasting” or, as Saints Francis and Bernard put it, a fasting which encompasses “the soul’s powers and passions—yes, even the understanding, the memory, and the will.”
We will find, then, that appropriate fasting in our imagination, in the intellectual pursuits we most enjoy, in our desire “to know” (and our desire to “be known”), and in our willful attentions to this or that unnecessary object—in all these, fasting is extraordinarily salutary. For in this spiritual fasting from good things that may replace God in our hearts—to say nothing of what is objectively sinful—we will find ourselves forced to focus on our interior life.
In this we will find ourselves increasingly stripped naked, perhaps even withering away, as we cast off what is inessential in order to get to the very heart of things—which is where we find God. Surely this is what fasting really means. Perhaps we should call it the paradoxical key to joy.
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