Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Fathers of the Church

Letter XXXVI


”Augustine’s correspondence, the mark and expression of the influential personality and apostolic zeal of the author, is rich in historical, philosophical, theological, exegetical, spiritual, literary, and autobiographical content” (Agostino Trapè). Here he replies to an anonymous work sent him by Casulanus, which argued that Christians were bound to fast on Saturday. Augustine defends a legitimate diversity of custom; he notes that the traditional days for fasting are Wednesday and Friday, that there is nothing against fasting on Saturday, but that fasting on Sunday is problematic.


The correspondence of St. Augustine that has been preserved includes more than 270 letters, including well over 200 written by him. Those numbered 31-123 span the period from his episcopal ordination until the conference between Catholic and Donatist bishops held in 411.

by Augustine of Hippo in 396 | translated by J. G. Cunningham


CHAP. I. — 1. I know not how it was that I did not reply to your first letter; but I know that my neglect was not owing to want of esteem for you. For I take pleasure in your studies, and even in the words in which you express your thoughts; and it is my desire as well as advice that you make great attainments in your early years in the word of God, for the edification of the Church. Having now received a second letter from you, in which you plead for an answer on the most just and amiable ground of that brotherly love in which we are one, I have resolved no longer to postpone the gratification of the desire expressed by your love; and although in the midst of most engrossing business, I address myself to discharge the debt due to you.

2. As to the question on which you wish my opinion, "whether it is lawful to fast on the seventh day of the week," I answer, that if it were wholly unlawful, neither Moses nor Elijah, nor our Lord Himself, would have fasted for forty successive days. But by the same argument it is proved that even on the Lord's day fasting is not unlawful. And yet, if any one were to think that the Lord's day should be appointed a day of fasting, in the same way as the seventh day is observed by some, such a man would be regarded, and not unjustly, as bringing a great cause of offence into the Church. For in those things concerning which the divine Scriptures have laid down no definite rule, the custom of the people of God, or the practices instituted by their fathers, are to be held as the law of the Church. If we choose to fall into a debate about these things, and to denounce one party merely because their custom differs from that of others, the consequence must be an endless contention, in which the utmost care is necessary lest the storm of conflict overcast with clouds the calmness of brotherly love, while strength is spent in mere controversy which cannot adduce on either side any decisive testimonies of truth. This danger the author has not been careful to avoid, whose prolix dissertation you deemed worth sending to me with your former letter, that I might answer his arguments.

CHAP. II. — 3. I have not at my disposal sufficient leisure to enter on the refutation of his opinions one by one: my time is demanded by other and more important work. But if you devote a little more carefully to this treatise of an anonymous Roman author, the talents which by your letters you prove yourself to possess, and which I greatly love in you as God's gift, you will see that he has not hesitated to wound by his most injurious language almost the whole Church of Christ, from the rising of the sun to its going down. Nay, I may say not almost, but absolutely, the whole Church. For he is found to have not even spared the Roman Christians, whose custom he seems to himself to defend; but he is not aware how the force of his invectives recoils upon them, for it has escaped his observation. For when arguments to prove the obligation to fast on the seventh day of the week fail him, he enters on a vehement blustering protest against the excesses of banquets and drunken revelries, and the worst licence of intoxication, as if there were no medium between fasting and rioting. Now if this be admitted, what good can fasting on Saturday do to the Romans? since on the other days on which they do not fast they must be presumed, according to his reasoning, to be gluttonous, and given to excess in wine. If, therefore, there is any difference between loading the heart with surfeiting and drunkenness, which is always sinful, and relaxing the strictness of fasting, with due regard to self-restraint and temperance on the other, which is done on the Lord's day without censure from any Christian,—if, I say, there is a difference between these two things, let him first mark the distinction between the repasts of saints and the excessive eating and drinking of those whose god is their belly, lest he charge the Romans themselves with belonging to the latter class on the days on which they do not fast; and then let him inquire, not whether it is lawful to indulge in drunkenness on the seventh day of the week, which is not lawful on the Lord's day, but whether it is incumbent on us to fast on the seventh day of the week, which we are not wont to do on the Lord's day.

4. This question I would wish to see him investigate, and resolve in such a manner as would not involve him in the guilt of openly speaking against the whole Church diffused throughout the world, with the exception of the Roman Christians, and hitherto a few of the Western communities. Is it, I ask, to be endured among the entire Eastern Christian communities, and many of those in the West, that this man should say of so many and so eminent servants of Christ, who on the seventh day of the week refresh themselves soberly and moderately with food, that they "are in the flesh, and cannot please God;" and that of them it is written, "Let the wicked depart from me, I will not know their way;" and that they make their belly their god, that they prefer Jewish rites to those of the Church, and are sons of the bondwoman; that they are governed not by the righteous law of God, but by their own good pleasure, consulting their own appetites instead of submitting to salutary restraint; also that they are carnal, and savour of death, and other such charges, which if he had uttered against even one servant of God, who would listen to him, who Would not be bound to turn away from him? But now, when he assails with such reproachful and abusive language the Church bearing fruit and increasing throughout the whole world, and in almost all places observing no fast on the seventh day of the week, I warn him, whoever he is, to beware. For in wishing to conceal from me his name, you plainly showed your unwillingness that I should judge him.

CHAP. III. — 5. "The Son of man," he says, "is Lord of the Sabbath, and in that day it is by all means lawful to do good rather than do evil." If, therefore, we do evil when we break our fast, there is no Lord's day upon which we live as we should. As to his admission that the apostles did eat upon the seventh day of the week, and his remark upon this, that the time for their fasting had not then come, because of the Lord's own words, "The days will come when the Bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall the children of the Bridegroom fast;" since there is "a time to rejoice, and a time to mourn," he ought first to have observed, that our Lord was speaking there of fasting in general, but not of fasting upon the seventh day. Again, when he says that by fasting grief is signified, and that by food joy is represented, why does he not reflect what it was which God designed to signify by that which is written, "that He rested on the seventh day from all His works,"—namely, that joy, and not sorrow, was set forth in that rest? Unless, perchance, he intends to affirm that in God's resting and hallowing of the Sabbath, joy was signified to the Jews, but grief to the Christians. But God did not lay down a rule concerning fasting or eating on the seventh day of the week, either at the time of His hallowing that day because in it He rested from His works, or afterwards, when He gave precepts to the Hebrew nation concerning the observance of that day. The only thing enjoined on man there is, that he abstain from doing work himself, or requiring it from his servants. And the people of the former dispensation, accepting this rest as a shadow of things to come, obeyed the command by such abstinence from work as we now see practised by the Jews; not, as some suppose, through their being carnal, and misunderstanding what the Christians tightly understand. Nor do we understand this law better than the prophets, who, at the time when this was still binding, observed such rest on the Sabbath as the Jews believe ought to be observed to this day. Hence also it was that God commanded them to stone to death a man who had gathered sticks on the Sabbath; but we nowhere read of any one being stoned, or deemed worthy of any punishment whatever, for either fasting or eating on the Sabbath. Which of the two is more in keeping with rest, and which with toil, let our author himself decide, who has regarded joy as the portion of those who eat, and sorrow as the portion of those who fast, or at least has understood that these things were so regarded by the Lord, when, giving answer concerning fasting, He said: "Can the children of the bride-chamber mourn as long as the Bridegroom is with them?"

6. Moreover, as to his assertion, that the reason of the apostles eating on the seventh day (a thing forbidden by the tradition of the elders) was, that the time for their fasting on that day had not come; I ask, if the time had not then come for the abolition of the Jewish rest from work on that day? Did not the tradition of the elders prohibit fasting on the one hand, and enjoin rest on the other? and yet the disciples of Christ, of whom we read that they did eat on the Sabbath, did on the same day pluck the ears of corn, which was not then lawful, because forbidden by the tradition of the elders. Let him therefore consider whether it might not with more reason be said in reply to him, that the Lord desired to have these two things, the plucking of the ears of corn and the taking of food, done in the same day by His disciples, for this reason, that the former action might confute those who would prohibit all work on the seventh day, and the latter action confute those who would enjoin fasting on the seventh day; since by the former action He taught that the rest from labour was now, through the change in the dispensation, an act of superstition; and by the latter He intimated His will, that under both dispensations the matter of fasting or not was left to every man's choice. I do not say this by way of argument in support of my view, but only to show how, in answer to him, things much more forcible than what he has spoken might be advanced.

CHAP. IV. — 7. "How shall we," says our author, "escape sharing the condemnation of the Pharisee, if we fast twice in the week?" As if the Pharisee had been condemned for fasting twice in the week, and not for proudly vaunting himself above the publican. He might as well say that those also are condemned with that Pharisee, who give a tenth of all their possessions to the poor, for he boasted of this among his other works; whereas I would that it were done by many Christians, instead of a very small number, as we find. Or let him say, that whosoever is not an unjust man, or adulterer, or extortioner, must be condemned with that Pharisee, because he boasted that he was none of these; but the man who could think thus is, beyond question,, beside himself. Moreover, if these things which the Pharisee mentioned as found in him, being admitted by all to be good in themselves, are not to be retained with the haughty boastfulness which was manifest in him, but are to be retained i with the lowly piety which was not in him; by I the same rule, to fast twice in the week is in a man such as the Pharisee unprofitable, but is in one who has humility and faith a religious service. Moreover, after all, the Scripture does not say that the Pharisee was condemned, but only that the publican was "justified rather than the other."

8. Again, when our author insists upon interpreting, in connection with this matter, the words of the Lord, "Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven," and thinks that we cannot fulfil this precept unless we fast oftener than twice in the week, let him mark well that there are seven days in the week. If, then, from these any one subtract two, not fasting on the seventh day nor on the Lord's day, there remain five days in which he may surpass the Pharisee, who fasts but twice in the week. For I think that if any man fast three times in the week, he already surpasses the Pharisee who fasted but twice. And if a fast is observed four times, or even so often as five times, passing over only the seventh day and the Lord's day without fasting,—a practice observed by many through their whole lifetime, especially by those who are settled in monasteries,—by this not the Pharisee alone is surpassed in the labour of fasting, but that Christian also whose custom is to fast on the fourth, and sixth, and seventh days, as the Roman community does to a large extent. And yet your nameless metropolitan disputant calls such an one carnal, even though for five successive days of the week, excepting the seventh and the Lord's day, he so fast as to withhold all refection from the body; as if, forsooth, food and drink on other days had nothing to do with the flesh, and condemns him as making a god of his belly, as if it was only the seventh day's repast which entered into the belly.

[The editors have omitted the following chapters, in which Augustine continues to respond in considerable detail to the anonymous treatise sent him by Casulanus.]

CHAP. XI. — 25. As to the succeeding paragraphs with which he concludes his treatise, they are, like some other things in it which I have not thought worthy of notice, even more irrelevant to a discussion of the question whether we should fast or eat on the seventh day of the week. But I leave it to yourself, especially if you have found any help from what I have already said, to observe and dispose of these. Having now to the best of my ability, and as I think sufficiently, replied to the reasonings of this author, if I be asked what is my own opinion in this matter, I answer, after carefully pondering the question, that in the Gospels and Epistles, and the entire collection of books for our instruction called the New Testament, I see that fasting is enjoined. But I do not discover any rule definitely laid down by the Lord or by the apostles as to days on which we ought or ought not to fast. And by this I am persuaded that exemption from fasting on the seventh day is more suitable, not indeed to obtain, but to foreshadow, that eternal rest in which the true Sabbath is realized, and which is obtained only by faith, and by that righteousness whereby the daughter of the King is all glorious within.

26. In this question, however, of fasting or not fasting on the seventh day, nothing appears to me more safe and conducive to peace than the apostle's rule: "Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not, and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth:" "for neither if we eat are we the better, neither if we eat not are we the worse;" our fellowship with those among whom we live, and along with whom we live in God, being preserved undisturbed by these things. For as it is true that, in the words of the apostles, "it is evil for that man who eateth with offence," it is equally true that it is evil for that man who fasteth with offence. Let us not therefore be like those who, seeing John the Baptist neither eating nor drinking, said, "He hath a devil;" but let us equally avoid imitating those who said, when they saw Christ eating and drinking, "Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners." After mentioning these sayings, the Lord subjoined a most important truth in the words, "But Wisdom is justified of her children;" and if you ask who these are, read what is written, "The sons of Wisdom are the congregation of the righteous:" they are they who, when the, eat, do not despise others who do not eat; and when they eat not, do not judge those who eat, but who do despise and judge those who, with offence, either eat or abstain from eating.

CHAP. XII. — 27. As to the seventh day of the week there is less difficulty in acting on the rule above quoted, because both the Roman Church and some other churches, though few, near to it or remote from it, observe a fast on that day; but to fast on the Lord's day is a great offence, especially since the rise of that detestable heresy of the Manichaeans, so manifestly and grievously contradicting the Catholic faith and the divine Scriptures: for the Manichaeans have prescribed to their followers the obligation of fasting upon that day; whence it has resulted that the fast upon the Lord's day is regarded with the greater abhorrence. Unless, perchance, some one be able to continue an unbroken fast for more than a week, so as to approach as nearly as may be to the fast of forty days, as we have known some do; and we have even been assured by brethren most worthy of credit, that one person did attain to the full period of forty days. For as, in the time of the Old Testament fathers, Moses and Elijah did not do anything against liberty of eating on the seventh day of the week, when they fasted forty days; so the man who has been able to go beyond seven days in fasting has not chosen the Lord's day as a day of fasting, but has only come upon it in course among the days for which, so far as he might be able, he had vowed to prolong his fast. If, however, a continuous fast is to be concluded within a week, there is no day upon which it may more suitably be concluded than the Lord's day; but if the body is not refreshed until more than a week has elapsed, the Lord's day is not in that case selected as a day of fasting, but is found occurring within the number of days for which it had seemed good to the person to make a vow.

28. Be not moved by that which the Priscillianists (a sect very like the Manichaeans) are wont to quote as an argument from the Acts of the Apostles, concerning what was done by the Apostle Paul in Troas. The passage is as follows: "Upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight." Afterwards, when he had come down from the supper chamber where they had been gathered together, that he might restore the young man who, overpowered with sleep, had fallen from the window and was taken up dead, the Scripture states further concerning the apostle:" When he therefore was come up again, and had broken bread, and eaten and talked a long while, even till break of day, so he departed." Far be it from us to accept this as affirming that the apostles were accustomed to fast habitually on the Lord's day. For the day now known as the Lord's day was then called the first day of the week, as is more plainly seen in the Gospels; for the day of the Lord's resurrection is called by Matthew mia sabbatôn, and by the other three evangelists hê mia (tôn) sabbatôn, and it is well ascertained that the same is the day which is now called the Lord's day. Either, therefore, it was after the close of the seventh day that they had assembled,—namely, in the beginning of the night which followed, and which belonged to the Lord's day, or the first day of the week,—and in this case the apostle, before proceeding to break bread with them, as is done in the sacrament of the body of Christ, continued his discourse until midnight, and also, after celebrating the sacrament, continued still speaking again to those who were assembled, being much pressed for time in order that he might set out at dawn upon the Lord's day; or if it was on the first day of the week, at an hour before sunset on the Lord's day, that they had assembled, the words of the text, "Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow," themselves expressly state the reason for his prolonging! his discourse,— namely, that he was about to! leave them, and wished to give them ample instruction. The passage does not therefore prove that they habitually fasted on the Lord's day, but only that it did not seem meet to the apostle to interrupt, for the sake of taking refreshment, an important discourse, which was listened to with the ardour of most lively interest by persons whom he was about to leave, and whom, on account of his many other journeyings, he visited but seldom, and perhaps on no other occasion than this, especially because, as subsequent events prove, he was then leaving them without expectation of seeing them again in this life. Nay, by this instance, it is rather proved that such fasting on the Lord's day was not customary, because the writer of the history, in order to prevent this being thought, has taken care to state the reason why the discourse was so prolonged, that we might know that in an emergency dinner is not to stand in the way of more important work. But indeed the example of these most eager listeners goes further; for by them all bodily refreshment, not dinner only, but supper also, was disregarded when thirsting vehemently, not for water, but for the word of truth; and considering that the fountain was about to be removed from them, they drank in with unabated desire whatever flowed from the apostle's lips.

29. In that age, however, although fasting upon the Lord's day was not usually practised, it was not so great an offence to the Church when, in any similar emergency to that in which Paul was at Troas, men did not attend to the refreshment of the body throughout the whole of the Lord's day until midnight, or even until the dawn of the following morning. But now, since heretics, and especially these most impious Manichaeans, have begun not to observe an occasional fast upon the Lord's day, when constrained by circumstances, but to prescribe such fasting as a duty binding by sacred and solemn institution, and this practice of theirs has become well known to Christian communities; even were such an emergency arising as that which the apostle experienced, I verily think that what he then did should not now be done, lest the harm done by the offence given should be greater than the good received from the words spoken. Whatever necessity may arise, or good reason, compelling a Christian to fast on the Lord's day,—as we find, e.g., in the Acts of the Apostles, that in peril of shipwreck they fasted on board of the ship in which the apostle was for fourteen days successively, within which the Lord's day came round twice,—we ought to have no hesitation in believing that the Lord's day is not to be placed among the days of voluntary fasting, except in the case of one vowing to fast continuously for a period longer than a week.

CHAP. XIII. — 30. The reason why the Church prefers to appoint the fourth and sixth days of the week for fasting, is found by considering the gospel narrative. There we find that on the fourth day of the week the Jews took counsel to put the Lord to death. One day having intervened,— on the evening of which, at the close, namely, of the day which we call the fifth day of the week, the Lord ate the passover with His disciples,—He was thereafter betrayed on the night which belonged to the sixth day of the week, the day (as is everywhere known) of His passion. This day, beginning with the evening, was the first day of unleavened bread. The evangelist Matthew, however, says that the fifth day of the week was the first of unleavened bread, because in the evening following it the paschal supper was to be observed, at which they began to eat the unleavened bread, and the lamb offered in sacrifice. From which it is inferred that it was upon the fourth day of the week that the Lord said, "You know that after two days is the feast of the passover, and the Son of man is betrayed to be crucified;" and for this reason that day has been regarded as one suitable for fasting, because, as the evangelist immediately adds: "Then assembled together the chief priests and the scribes and the elders of the people unto the palace of the high priest, who is called Caiaphas, and consulted that they might take Jesus by subtilty and kill Him." After the intermission of one day,—the day, namely, of which the evangelist writes: "Now, on the first day of the feast of unleavened bread, the disciples came to Jesus, saying unto Him, Where wilt Thou that we prepare for Thee to eat the passover?—the Lord suffered on the sixth day of the week, as is admitted by all: wherefore the sixth day also is rightly reckoned a day for fasting, as fasting is symbolical of humiliation; whence it is said, "I humbled my soul with fasting."

31. The next day is the Jewish Sabbath, on which day Christ's body rested in the grave, as in the original fashioning of the world God rested on that day from all His works. Hence originated that variety in the robe of His bride which we are now considering: some, especially the Eastern communities, preferring to take food on that day, that their action might be emblematic of the divine rest; others, namely the Church of Rome, and some churches in the West, preferring to fast on that day because of the humiliation of the Lord in death. 'Once in the year, namely at Easter, all Christians observe the seventh day of the week by fasting, in memory of the mourning with which the disciples, as men bereaved, lamented the death of the Lord (and this is done with the utmost devoutness by those who take food on the seventh day throughout the rest of the year); thus providing a symbolical representation of both events,—of the disciples' sorrow on one seventh day in the year, and of the blessing of repose on all the others. There are two things which make the happiness of the just and the end of all their misery to be confidently expected, viz. death and the resurrection of the dead. In death is that rest of which the prophet speaks: "Come, my people, enter thou into thy chambers, and shut thy doors about thee: hide thyself as it were for a little moment, until the indignation be overpast." In resurrection blessedness is consummated in the whole man, both body and soul. Hence it came to be thought that both of these things [death and resurrection] should be symbolized, not by the hardship of fasting, but rather by the cheerfulness of refreshment with food, excepting only the Easter Saturday, on which, as I have said, it had been resolved to commemorate by a more protracted fast the mourning of the disciples, as one of the events to be had in remembrance.

CHAP. XIV. — 32. Since, therefore (as I have said above), we do not find in the Gospels or in the apostolical writings, belonging properly to the revelation of the New Testament, that any law was laid down as to fasts to be observed on particular days; and since this is consequently one of many things, difficult to enumerate, which make up a variety in the robe of the King's daughter, that is to say, of the Church,—I will tell you the answer given to my questions on this subject by the venerable Ambrose Bishop of Milan, by whom I was baptized. When my mother was with me in that city, I, as being only a catechumen, felt no concern about these questions; but it was to her a question causing anxiety, whether she ought, after the custom of our own town, to fast on the Saturday, or, after the custom of the Church of Milan, not to fast. To deliver her from perplexity, I put the question to the man of God whom I have just named. He answered, "What else can I recommend to others than what I do myself?" When I thought that by this he intended simply to prescribe to us that we should take food on Saturdays—for I knew this to be his own practice—he, following me, added these words: "When I am here I do not fast on Saturday; but when I am at Rome I do: whatever church you may come to, conform to its custom, if you would avoid either receiving or giving offence." This reply I reported to my mother, and it satisfied her, so that she scrupled not to comply with it; and I have myself followed the same rule. Since, however, it happens, especially in Africa, that one church, or the churches within the same district, may have some members who fast and others who do not fast on the seventh day, it seems to me best to adopt in each congregation the custom of those to whom authority in its government has been committed. Wherefore, if you are quite willing to follow my advice, especially because in regard to this matter I have spoken at greater length than was necessary, do not in this resist your own bishop, but follow his practice without scruple or debate.

Taken from "The Early Church Fathers and Other Works" originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. in English in Edinburgh, Scotland, beginning in 1867. (NPNF I/I, Schaff). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.

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