Chapter II. The Proper Observance of Lent.
Nor wonder that the widow'd Church should sound
Of sadness; there are mourners CHRIST hath blest,
Who watch with her their annual, weekly round,
And in obedience find the promis'd rest.
WE are told, that in one of the darkest periods of Jerusalem's apostacy, and when her ruin by a powerful invader was just at hand, another reprieve was granted, and one more summons to repentance sent forth. "And in that day did the Lord God of Hosts call to weeping, and to mourning, and to baldness, and to girding with sackcloth; and behold, joy and gladness." Thus it was, that her people scorned the prophet's message, and turned as usual to their worldly pleasures. But the decision of God upon their conduct, is thus given by Isaiah: "And it was revealed in mine ear by the Lord of Hosts, Surely this iniquity shall not be purged from you till ye die, saith the Lord God of Hosts." [Isaiah xxii., 12, 13, 14.]
And thus, by the voice of His Church, is God at this season calling us also "to weeping and mourning." So comprehensive too is the summons, that none who bear the Christian name can plead exemption. The command is--Blow the trumpet in Zion, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly, gather the people, sanctify the congregation, assemble the elders, gather the children, and those that suck at the breasts; let the bridegroom go forth of his chamber, and the bride out of her closet; let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep between the porch and the altar, and let them say, Spare thy people, O Lord, and give not thy heritage to reproach. In this way it is, we are directed, by chastening our spirits, to prepare to celebrate our Lord's solemn sacrifice--that mysterious passion and agony which the world can never fully comprehend, and to the history of which it can only listen, with an awful reverence. How then shall we keep this holy season? How can we most fully enter into the spirit of its services--availing ourselves of these opportunities to approach our God--afflicting the soul now, that hereafter it may be saved forever? In answer to these inquiries, and that we may know how to carry out the design of the Church for our spiritual benefit, let us look at some of the methods in which we may best observe this solemn period of our Ecclesiastical year.
ABSTINENCE FROM WORLDLY AMUSEMENTS, is one particular which most naturally occurs to us. In the early Church, not only was the attendance of her members on all public games and shows forbidden during the season of Lent, but the prohibition was even extended to the celebration of marriages, and the anniversaries of birth days, because these took place with feasting, and tokens of joy and pleasure, inappropriate to a season which should be devoted to deep humiliation and mourning. St. Chrysostom, in his Lent sermons, inveighs with his usual zeal, against any violation of these salutary rules. In the midst of his sharp invectives against those who had attended the Circus at this time, he says: "When I consider, how at one blast of the devil ye have forgotten all my daily admonitions and continued discourses, and run to that pomp of Satan, the horse-race in the Circus, with what heart can I think of preaching to yon again, who have so soon let slip all that I said before? This is what chiefly raises my grief, yea my anger and indignation, that together with my admonition ye have cast the reverence of this holy season of Lent out of your souls, and thrown yourselves into the nets of the devil. What profit is there in your fasting! What advantage in your meeting together so often in this place?" And again, in another Homily, while in a pathetic 'manner exhibiting to them the moral influence of this conduct, his language is--"Subdue, I beseech you, this wicked and pernicious custom. And consider, that they who run to the Circus, not only do much harm to themselves, but are the occasion of great scandal to others. For when the Jews and Gentiles see you, who are every day at Church to hear a sermon, come notwithstanding to the horse-race, and join with them in the Circus, will they not reckon our religion a cheat, and entertain the same suspicion of us all? They will sharpen their tongues against us all, and for the offences of a few condemn the whole body of Christians. Neither will they stop here, but rail at our Head, and for the servant's fault blaspheme our common Lord, and think that a sufficient apology and excuse for their own errors, that they have something to object to the life and conversation of others."
And if worldly amusements have in this age changed their form, still their nature and influence are the same. A ceaseless struggle for our affections is going on, and the choice we make determines our state, not only in this life, but through all the wasteless ages of our immortality. The tempter still arrays before the Christian, the glare and gaudiness of this fleeting scene, that his attention may be 'distracted, and his progress towards Heaven impeded. On the other hand, it is the object of our faith, to cause him to look away beyond "things seen and temporal" to those which are "unseen and eternal." "We must live in this lower world, as pilgrims whose hopes and affections are not here--who bear about with them the consciousness that this is not their home, but that they are only journeyers through the wilderness, toiling onward to the promised land.
We are to be like St. Paul, "crucified with our Lord to the world, and the world to us "--gazing on its pleasures with the same unconcern with which the dying man would from the Cross--putting it from us, and leaving untried no means which may avail, to destroy the witchery of its enchantments, and to break its power over our hearts. We are even to give up its lawful comforts and its innocent enjoyments, when called to this sacrifice for any worthy end; for there may come occasion to the follower of the Lord to "take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake." Thus, in striving to be more conformed to his Master, or more entirely to be disentangled from this scene of temptation, he may be obliged to offer upon the altar of Christian duty, all those affections which twine most closely about the heart, "losing his life for Christ's sake and the Gospel's, that he may save it."
"Sweet is the smile of home; the mutual look
When hearts are of each other sure;
Sweet all the joys that crowd the household nook,
The haunt of all affections pure;
Yet in the world even these abide, and we
Above the world our calling boast:
Once gain the mountain top, and thou art free
Till then, who rest, presume; who turn to look, are lost."
It was to escape the unholy influence of this world's fascinations, that the followers of our Lord were accustomed, in the olden time, to flee from this scene of trial, and in the solitary hermitage, or the desert waste, where no man was, to pass their lives in communion with their God, and in making ready for their last account. But no precept of Scripture authorized them to rend the ties of duty, and for a selfish motive, to burst the chains which bound them to home and kindred. "It is a wretched righteousness"--says Luther, in one of his letters to Spenlein--"which will not bear with others, because it deems them evil, and seeks the solitude of the desert, instead of doing good to such, by long suffering, by prayer, and example. If thou art the lily and the rose of Christ, know that thy dwelling-place is among thorns."
Nor did they by this desertion attain their object. The piety at which they aimed, was tinged with dreamy reveries, and evaporated in contemplation of an imaginary purity. The passions in their breasts which they had hoped to root out, turned inward, and centered in themselves, and they found that if they could escape from the world without, they must still carry with them that little world within, in subduing which the conflict chiefly consists. They had cast from them the weapons of their warfare, and fled from the strife, leaving an ungodly world to roll on to destruction, unrebuked and unaided, and they reaped their retribution. They deprived themselves of all those high and ennobling feelings, which purify the heart, while they animate men to exertion. Their selfishness recoiled upon themselves, and the dreamy enthusiast who wished to be wiser than Scripture, and to improve upon the example of his Lord, found that he had not added to the fortitude of his virtue. He had sacrificed his happiness, and become but too often only a gloomy misanthrope. [These remarks will of course apply only to the solitaries. While their cells were the very nurseries of superstition, they were said, in the language of Alcuin, "to lead an angelical life." Archbishop Leighton, however, much more truly describes an angelical life, as "a life spent between ascending in prayer to fetch blessings from above, and descending to scatter them among men." The monastic institutions were free from many of those difficulties of which we have spoken, and in the purer days of the Church rendered essential service to the cause of religion, when society around was in a rude and almost barbarous state. The monks were often learned and industrious--the patterns of active virtue--the liberal dispensers of charity--and the zealous promoters of learning and the useful arts. "It was a great benefit, that there should be places of education, where the young might be trained for the service of the Church or State: it was well that there should be places of retirement where the aged might end their days in penitence and prayer; and places of refuge, where the orphan and friendless might find support and protection." (CHURTON'S Early Eng. Church, p. 104. See chap, v, vi.) They who in the reign of Henry VIII. were grasping at the wealth of monasteries, eagerly united to villify their occupants, and succeeding generations have quietly received their report, with scarcely the trouble of a doubt. But the true history of the monastic institution is yet to be written, by one, who with a philosophical eye can read its influence on the spirit of the age and the character of society, and who is ready with an unprejudiced, impartial feeling to acknowledge its benefits, while he points out the evils to which it ultimately gave birth. It is probably not known to many of our readers, that there are in the kingdom of Hanover, eleven Protestant convents, or (to give them a better name) "religious houses." They are asylums, to which respectable females "when thrown out upon the world by the dissolution of their families, can retire, without experiencing those mortifications which are so frequently attendant upon adversity." (Dwight's Germany, p. 100.) An English lady has of late years founded a similar house, at Clifton, near Bristol (CHURTON'S Early Eng. Church, p. 382.) The inmates of none of these institutions, however, are bound by those ensnaring vows which produced much of the evil in the Romish Church.]
The true trial of our life here is to meet with evil, and yet by God's grace to overcome it--to be in the world, and yet so to trample it under our feet as to show, that we are not of the world--to have its fascinations around us, and yet to turn from them. Its Circean song may float sweetly to our ears, but yet it must not beguile us to pass over into the land of its enchantments. It is in the fiery ordeal of temptation, and amidst the din and struggle of the conflict, that man learns to know himself, and to estimate aright his own spiritual powers. His hopes become more clear after every conquest which he makes--his reliance upon things unseen and eternal is strengthened--and his whole Christian character is matured and perfected. "This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith." There is true wisdom indeed in the eloquent words of Milton, when he says--"lie that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, lie is the true wayfaring Christian. I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. That which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary. Which was the reason why our sage and serious poet Spencer, describing true Temperance under the person of Guion, brings him in with his Palmer through the cave of Mammon, and the bower of earthly bliss, that he might see and know, and yet abstain."
'Yet it is evident, on the other hand, that a temporary retirement from the bustle and tumult of this busy life, is requisite to enable the spirit to shake off the worldliness which has been insensibly growing upon it, and to plume its wings again for Heaven. It is necessary, that man should now and then withdraw within himself, think of his eternal interests, and examine with peculiar care, his account with God. "We must retire inward"--says St. Bernard,--"if we would ascend upward." It is with this view, therefore, that the Church from the earliest age, has yearly in the season of Lent, recalled her children from the absorbing cares of time, and gathered them into her own bosom, to meditate and pray.
The question--how much under ordinary circumstances, we may mingle in the gayeties and amusements of the world--is one which each individual must determine for himself. He knows their effect upon his own heart, and the influence of his example upon those around him, and must act accordingly. If after having in baptism solemnly renounced "the pomps and vanities of this wicked world," he still thinks it right to devote himself to them, he must be guided by his own conscience in this important decision. If he thinks it fit, that on Sunday his friends should see him kneeling at the altar, professing to forsake the world, and then on the week day, meet him in all its frivolities and gayeties, until they suspect that his religion is only intended to be put on in Church, his is the responsibility, and his must be the retribution. To his own Master he must stand or fall. But the hour is rapidly coming, when from the bed of death and the bar of judgment, each one will be forced to look back upon these scenes, and decide whether he acted well and wisely while life was going on.
[One of the most common charges against the Church is, that her members are permitted to mingle in the gayeties of the world in a manner inconsistent with the Christian character, and particularly to frequent theatrical amusements. This is no place, of course, to discuss the question, whether they do so more than those who are connected with the different denominations around them. "We can only say, that when Churchmen are found in this situation--thus bringing discredit on their profession--it is in utter violation of the rules of the Church, and at variance with the spirit she endeavors to inculcate upon them by every one of her services, from the comprehensive Baptismal Vow, even to that last solemn prayer in the Visitation of the Sick, which commends the departing soul to the mercy of its God. As conclusive evidence of the sense of the Church on this point, we can give the highest authority--that of the House of Bishops in General Convention. It stands thus recorded on their Journal:
"Tuesday, May 27th, 1817. Resolved, That the following be entered on the Journal of this House and be sent to the House of Clerical and Lay Deputies, to be read therein:
"The House of Bishops, solicitous for the preservation of the purity of the Church, and the piety of its members, are induced to impress upon the Clergy the important duty, with a discreet but earnest zeal, of warning the people of their respective cures, of the danger of an indulgence in those worldly pleasures which may tend to withdraw the affections from spiritual things. And especially on the subject of gaming, of amusements involving cruelty to the brute creation, and of theatrical representations, to which some peculiar circumstances have called their attention--they do not hesitate to express their unanimous opinion, that these amusements, as well from their licentious tendency, as from the strong temptations to vice which they afford, ought not to be frequented. And the Bishops can not refrain from expressing their deep regret at the information that in some of our large cities so little respect is paid to the feelings of the members of the Church, that theatrical representations are fixed for the evenings of her most solemn Festivals."--Jour. of Gen. Con. 1817, page 46.
Yet there are times and seasons, when there can be no mistake on this subject, and when the Church has decided that her children must retire, in a peculiar manner, from this world, to think of that which is to come. Such, for instance, is the week which precedes the administration of the Holy Communion. It is with reference to this, that her ministers are commanded, "to give warning for its celebration upon the Sunday or some holy day immediately preceding." And at the same time it is made their duty to their hearers, "to exhort them in the mean season, so to search and examine their own consciences, that they may come holy and clean to such a heavenly feast, in the marriage garment required by God in Holy Scripture, and be received as worthy partakers of "that holy table." Now unless this appeal is a mere formality, and means nothing, surely we are expected in the interval to prepare ourselves for uniting in that solemn mystery, and no one needs this preparation more than the individual who loves this world so well that he finds it hard to obey the injunction. But is this to be done, amidst the bustle and excitement of worldly pleasure? No--it is not there that God is accustomed to meet us, with the influences of His grace, or the rich aids of His Spirit. Let us not then endeavor, thus to mingle earth with Heaven, or to come to our Master's solemn feast with thoughts distracted by frivolity and amusement. Let us walk entirely as "children of the light," or not attempt to worship at the altars both of Christ and Belial.
Any one acquainted with the regular steps of degradation through which the theatre has passed during the last twenty-five years, will acknowledge that if it had "a licentious tendency "in 1817, that demoralizing influence is doubly powerful in this day. Let not then occasional inconsistencies of members of the Church--inconsistencies, we believe, becoming each year more rare--be brought forward as any illustration of the spirit of the Church. These are the exceptions, and their conduct is looked upon by their fellow members with sorrow and shame.
Such a season, again, is that of Lent. Listen to the tones of earnest repentance which the services of the Church breathe forth, and then say, whether after giving utterance to these, we can rush at once into the embraces of a world, from which we have just prayed to be delivered. But are there any, who feel that six weeks is too long a time to withdraw from earthly pleasures? What--we would ask in reply--what must be the state of that spirit--what its preparation for Heaven--in which such thoughts could be entertained? This cleaving to the objects of our earthly worship--this miserable hankering after pleasures we profess to have abandoned--proclaim but too clearly a self-deceived heart, still unbaptized by the Spirit from on high. Such an one has reason to fear, lest the day of solemn trial find him without the wedding garment. When at this season then, God calls to "weeping and mourning," shall it be said of us, "behold, joy and gladness?"
SELF-EXAMINATION is another obvious duty which we must perform during the period of Lent. This naturally follows from what has been already advanced. If we withdraw from the world, it is not that we may spend our time in listless idleness, but that we may employ ourselves in girding up our loins anew, and trimming our lamps, to be ready for our Lord's appearing. It is that we may "commune with our own hearts and be still." It is, that we may review the past, and as we compare our actions with the law of God, decide whether or not we are walking in the way of His commandments.
And who that knows the deceitfulness of the human heart--who that has ever read our Master's repeated warnings that we should "watch"--will say that this is unnecessary! We go forth to the world, with our decision made to serve the Lord, and our Christian hopes burning brightly; but as one day after another passes by, insensibly we lose the simplicity of our religious character, and become at last "of the earth earthly," before we even suspect that we have departed from the fervor of our earliest love. "The gold becomes dim, and the fine gold changed." Our thoughts are drawn off from our Master and his cause, until the excitements and allurements which are around produce their
natural result, and we "begin to be willing to take our portion with those whom we had professed to leave. We learn to persuade ourselves, to yield in things which a more tender conscience would have taught us to refuse, until our service becomes partial and worldly, and we are no longer heartily devoted to the Lord.
Now, how many thus pass through life? At times, the monitor within utters its voice, and they are forced to doubt, whether or not they are in the faith. Yet they at once dispel these disagreeable thoughts. From a natural indolence of disposition, they shrink from the task of investigating their own hearts. They seem willing to live along, trusting that it may in the end be well with them. They postpone to the last day, the decision of the most solemn question this world can furnish, although then it will be too late to rectify an error. Is it not therefore well for us, at times to stop in our worldly career, and settle this point? Many are the lessons of solemn caution which our Master gave, to guard against this very danger. The rich man who thought not of death--the servants who ate and drank, but remembered not their Lord's return--and the virgins who slept When the bridegroom was at hand, and then awoke only to bitter disappointment--are all set forth for our warning. And how miserable would be our state, should the summons thus be heard when we expect it not, and then for the first time the full consciousness burst upon us, that we have been deceiving our own hearts, and serving the world! Let us therefore watch and examine ourselves, that as time passes by, there may grow no rust upon our souls, and no habitual sin darken the mirror on which the pure light of Heaven should be reflected. Let us not, when once we have girded on our armor, lay it aside or be found sleeping at our post. In the solemn day of our Master's appearing, when "all kindreds of the earth wail because of Him," let us be found among those chosen ones, whom the Church has gathered into her fold, trained in every holy work, and purified for her Lord, that they might be found ready when His marriage hour should come.
There is one more way, by which we should peculiarly mark this season as one of penitence--it is by FASTING. On the morning of Ash-Wednesday, we prostrate ourselves before our God and say--"Be favorable, O Lord, be favorable to thy people, who turn to Thee in weeping, fasting and praying." And yet by how many, have we not reason to fear, are these words uttered, who shrink from the Christian duty of which they speak! It is much more easy to offer unto God the tribute of our lips, than to chasten and discipline the body. We believe it is for this reason, that in these days when men seek their own comfort, this practice which has prevailed through all ages of the Jewish and Christian Churches, has fallen so much into disuse.
Yet take up the word of God, and what duty is spoken of more decidedly, or the performance of which is more frequently followed by a blessing! Joshua and the elders of Israel, when defeated by the men of Ai, kept a solemn fast, as they remained all day, "until the even-tide," prostrate on the earth before the ark, with dust upon their heads, in humiliation and prayer. And the result was, that victory again attended them. David fasted as well as prayed, when he humbled himself before God after his sin against Uriah, and although deprived of his child, yet his iniquity was forgiven. The inhabitants of Nineveh, in fear of judgments obeyed the decree of their King, when he proclaimed--"Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing; let them not feed nor drink water; but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God"--and their city was spared. The devoted Ezra, when setting out for Jerusalem, assembled the returning captives at the river Ahava, and there "proclaimed a fast, that they might afflict themselves before God, and seek of Him a right way for themselves and their little ones, and for all their substance "--and he obtained the blessing he asked. And thus we might go through the Old Testament, and show that on every important occasion, the ancient saints under the former dispensation not only prayed but fasted also.
And so it continued to be, when the Gospel dawned upon the earth. Anna was "serving God with fastings and prayers, night and day," when her petition was answered, and she saw her Saviour. Our Lord himself, before he entered on His public ministry, passed through a long period of preparatory fasting. The Apostles did so, before every solemn act in which they engaged. They were "in fastings often." St. Paul frequently refers to the use of this means of grace. He declares, that he "approves himself a minister of God," as in other things, so "in fastings also;" and he writes to the Corinthians--"Give yourselves to fasting and prayer." Cornelius, "the devout centurion," was engaged in fasting, when the angel announced to him, that his alms and prayers had "come up for a memorial before God." St. Peter was fasting, when that wonderful vision revealed to him the admission of the Gentiles into the Church of God, and commissioned him to be to them, the earliest herald of the Gospel. The Church at Antioch was fasting, when the Holy Ghost said, "separate me Barnabas and Saul."
Neither can it be argued, that this was not expressly commanded by our Lord. He found the practice in use, and spake of it as one which should be continued. He gave directions to His disciples, how they ought to fast, and promised that they should be recompensed for the right performance of this duty. "But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly." Well therefore has Hooker remarked--"Our Lord and Saviour would not teach the manner of doing, much less propose a reward for doing, that which were not both holy and acceptable in God's sight." [Eccles. Polity, b. v., sec. 72.] But our Master also expressly declared, that after His departure His children in sorrow for his absence, should thus afflict themselves. "The days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast." Does not this clearly prove the truth, that He considered it as a duty?
What again, we would ask, means that declaration of His, with respect to the faith which could remove mountains? "Howbeit this kind goeth not out, but by prayer and fasting." Do not these words imply, that there are nobler attainments in the Christian life to be gained by those, who through severity to themselves are able to strive after them? And do they not point out, "the unseen strength" of fasting as that which is to enable the Christian warrior to win the brightest crown? Yes, this is that "more excellent way" which is opened to those "who will receive it."
And this was the light in which the early Church regarded this duty. In those days, when they stood near to their Lord, and walked in His hallowed footsteps, how often is this practice mentioned as one, whose value the Church fully appreciated! Thus St. Chrysostom says:--"Though at other times when we preachers cry up and preach the duty of fasting never so much all the year, scarce any one hearkens to what we say, yet when the season of forty days is come, though none exhort or advise them, the most negligent set themselves to it, taking admonition and advice from the very season.10 And again he adds--"If a Jew or a Heathen ask you, why do you fast? Do not tell him, it is for our Saviour's Passion on the cross; for so you will give him an handle to accuse you. For we do not fast for the Passion or the Cross, but for our sins, because we are come to the Holy Mysteries. The Passion is not the occasion of fasting or mourning, but of joy and exultation. "We mourn not for that, but for our sins, and therefore we fast."
The manner too of their fasting in those ancient days, shows how thoroughly they desired to fulfill this duty. Instead of considering a change of food only as being sufficient, they entirely abstained from all sustenance through the whole day until the evening. Thus we find St. Ambrose, in one of his exhortations to his hearers to observe the Lent Fast, bidding them--"defer eating a little, because the end of the day is not far off." St. Chrysostom in his Lent sermons frequently alludes to the same circumstance. "Let us"--he says--"set a guard upon our ears, our tongues, and minds, and. not think that bare fasting till the evening is sufficient for our salvation." And again in another passage, which we cannot forbear quoting entire, on account of the admirable view which it gives of this whole duty.
"The true fast is abstinence from vices. For abstinence from meat was appointed upon this occasion, that we should curb the tone of our flesh, and make the horse obedient to his rider. He that fasts, ought above all things to bridle his anger, and learn meekness and clemency, to have a contrite heart, to banish the thoughts of all inordinate desires, to set the watchful eye of God before his eyes, and his uncorrupted judgment; to set himself above riches, and exercise great liberality in giving of alms, and to expel every evil thought against his neighbor out of his soul. This is the true fast. Therefore let this be our care, and let us not imagine, as many do, that we have fasted rightly, when we have abstained from eating until evening. This is not the thing required of us, but that together with our abstinence from meat, we should abstain from those things that hurt the soul, and diligently exercise ourselves in things of a spiritual nature.
Yet we must not forget, in considering their manner of fasting, that an Asiatic climate rendered comparatively easy what to us would appear to be an excessive severity. The lassitude of constitution, and languor of the whole system, which were produced "by that genial temperature, enabled them to carry it to an extent, which in this latitude, or among the nations of Northern Europe, would be oppressive, and totally defeat the object for which it was undertaken.
Even in that day, however, this duty was performed with great allowance to human infirmities; thus showing plainly, that instead of being made a superstitious form, it was used with reference to its spiritual benefits. "Let no one"--says St. Chrysostom--"place his confidence in fasting only, if he continue in his sins without reforming. For it may be, one that fasts not at all, may obtain pardon, if he has the excuse of bodily infirmity. But he that does not correct his sins, can have no excuse. Thou hast not fasted by reason of the weakness of thy body; but why art thou not reconciled to thy enemies? Canst thou pretend bodily infirmity here? If thou retainest hatred and envy, what apology canst thou make? In such crimes as these thou canst not fly to the refuge of bodily weakness." [ST. CHRYS., Hom. 22, de Ira, tom, I.,] And again, in another Homily, he dwells upon this subject still more fully. "If thou canst not pass all the day fasting, by reason of bodily weakness, no wise man can condemn thee for this. For we have a kind and merciful Lord, who requires nothing of us above our strength. He neither requires abstinence from meat, nor fasting simply of us, nor that for this end we should continue without eating only; but that withdrawing ourselves from worldly affairs, we should pass all our leisure time in spiritual things. For if we would order our lives soberly, and lay out our spare hours upon spiritual things, and eat only so much as we had need of, and nature required, and spend our whole lives in good works, we should not need the help of fasting. But because human nature is negligent, and gives itself rather ease and pleasure, therefore our kind Lord, as a compassionate Father, hath found out this medicine of fasting for us, that we should abridge ourselves in our pleasures, and transfer our care of secular things to works of a spiritual nature. If therefore there be any here present who are hindered by bodily infirmity, and cannot continue all day fasting, I exhort them to have regard to the weakness of their bodies, and not upon that account deprive themselves" of spiritual instruction, but for that very reason to pay more diligent attendance on it. For there are many ways besides abstinence from meat, which will open to us the door of confidence towards God. He therefore that eats, and cannot fast, let him give the more plentiful alms, let him be more fervent in his prayers, let him show the greater alacrity and readiness in hearing the divine oracles. For the weakness of the body is no impediment in such offices as these. Let him be reconciled to his enemies, and forget injuries, and cast all thoughts of revenge out of his mind. He that does these things, will show forth the true fasting, which the Lord chiefly requires. Therefore I exhort you who are able to fast, to go on with all possible alacrity in this good and laudable work, for by how much more our outward man perishes, so much more our inward man is renewed."
And the same rule of moderation continues to be that of the Church in our day. Caring for the bodily as well as the spiritual health of her members, she prescribes only such a degree of fasting, as may keep our lower nature in subjection to that which is spiritual. Thus we are taught to pray on the first Sunday in Lent--"O Lord, who for our sake didst fast forty days and forty nights; give us grace to use such abstinence, that our flesh being subdued to the Spirit, we may ever obey Thy godly motions in righteousness and true holiness, to Thy honor and glory."
We would also observe, that united with this fast, or rather flowing from it, were more abundant deeds of charity. What they saved by their abstinence they expended on the poor. Thus, we find an Apostolic Father saying:--"A true fast is not merely to keep under the body, but to give to the widow or the poor, the amount of that which thou wouldst have expended upon thyself; that so he who receives it may pray to God for thee." Origen says--"He found it in some book as a noted saying of the Apostles, "Blessed is he who fasts for this end, that he may feed the poor; this man's fast is acceptable unto God." St. Chrysostom, in the extracts already given, alludes to this duty, and at a later period, we find St. Augustine writing--"Fasting without almsgiving, is a lamp without oil."
Such then is the argument for this practice, drawn from Scripture, and also the manner of its performance in the early Church. It may be thought by some, that too great a space has been devoted to this discussion; but we must remember, that in the present day, there is probably no duty so little understood, and so lightly evaded. "We will practice mortification and self-denial for learning's sake, but not for Christ's. We will abstain from joys, and pleasures, and company, and numberless indulgences, and put restraint even on our loves, when ambition calls, but not at the bidding of the Church. We will neglect our health and rest, and become worn and pale, and weary and weak, to gain earthly wisdom, and power of intellect, and shorten our lives to leave our names among posterity lifted some very little, it may be, above the obscurity of the unnumbered dead. But to smooth down the severity of discipline, to have an easy Lent, or go softly through a fast, we are ready to talk of our health and habits, and way of living, and the hardness of our duty, and the weakness of our flesh, and in a light way of the mercy of our God. We are strong to do all things for ourselves, our own ambition strengthening us. We are weak for Christ, even though He be ready to give us strength."18 And it is, we believe, because this duty is so little practised as a regular habit, that its benefits are so undervalued. It is often eagerly commenced in a fit of transient zeal, but the natural inclinations raise their remonstrance--it is found wearisome and painful--and after one or two attempts entirely laid aside. But is it not true, that this is scarcely giving it a trial? To be appreciated, and its benefits felt, it must be a habit--be practised often--and become, as it were, a portion of our regular religious service. Thus, that which at first was performed with difficulty, is rendered easy; and we learn at last, that the ancient saints in Primitive days, knew human nature "better than we do, and when they urged those who should come after them, to "crucify the flesh" as a source of spiritual "benefits, were only giving the result of their own experience. [GOETHE somewhere makes a remark, which may be applied to the whole circle of our religious duties: "Neither in moral or religious, more than in physical and civil matters, do people willingly do any thing suddenly or upon the instant; they need a succession of the like actions, whereby a habit may be formed; the things which they are to love, or to perform, they cannot conceive as insulated and detached; whatever we are to repeat with satisfaction, must not have become foreign to us."]
This then is that discipline, "by whose severity we are to weaken the force of passion, and of those appetites which else assert the mastery over the soul, and "bind it down to earth. "I keep under my body"--says St. Paul--"and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means when I have preached to others, I myself should be a cast away." And St. Chrysostom declares--"Fasting restrains the body, and checks and bridles its inordinate sallies, but makes the soul much lighter, and gives it wings to mount up and soar on high." It teaches too, the habit of self-denial--leading us at intervals to remember that our object in this life is not to please ourselves, but rather to overcome temptation--to restrain and mortify the cravings of appetite. Thus we conquer that self-indulgence, which if permitted unfits us for spiritual duties. how forcibly also does it cause us to realize things unseen and eternal! It is an act so contrary to the spirit of this world, that it brings at once before us the truth, that here is not our home. All religious feelings therefore are kindled up, and our habits of prayer and devotion are quickened into exercise. And in this active, busy age, when outward excitement has taken the place of earnest, holy contemplation, how necessary becomes any discipline, which can thus withdraw us from the things of time and sense! By its means we gather strength for the conflict yet before us, in which "we wrestle not against flesh and blood," but our enemies are those mighty spirits who once bore a nobler nature than our own--"powers which erst in Heaven sat on thrones"--and who still, in their dark apostacy, retain for the accomplishment of evil, the same radiant intellects, with which they were gifted for the service of God. We come forth from our retirement, more subdued and chastened in spirit--with a calm and abiding consciousness, that we must be the true followers of "the man of sorrows." Then, like His servants of old, to whom revelations came in the hours of holy abstinence, we are better prepared to listen to the voice of God--our own prayers go up more earnestly to His throne--and our affections are crucified to a world which is fast fleeting away. Therefore it was, that when the Church was reformed from the corruptions of Rome, fasting was still prescribed "to discipline the flesh, to free the spirit, and render it more earnest and fervent to prayer, and as a testimony and witness with us before God of our humble submission to His High Majesty, when we confess our sins unto Him, and are inwardly touched with sorrowfulness of heart, bewailing the same in the affliction of our bodies." There is therefore, as much truth as poetry in the exhortation--
"Deem not such penance hard--thence from the soul
The chords of flesh are loos'd, and earthly woes
Lose half their power to harm; while self-control
Learns that blest freedom, which she only knows."
Thus it is then that we may keep this Holy Season--by withdrawing from the world--by self-examination--by prayer and fasting--so that when it has passed, we shall find that we have gained new strength for our onward course. And how strong the argument to do so, as one year after another goes silently by, and we press forward to the grave! Now indeed is our reward nearer than when first we believed. Now is the bridegroom with some of us, almost at hand. Soon we shall hear that warning cry, which will startle even the slumbering from their dreams, and then His train will sweep along, and the glorious band of the Elect who are with Him, go in to the marriage. But does each season, as it thus bears us nearer to the tomb, carry us also nearer to Heaven? Are we ready for that summons, with our account made up, and so living in watchfulness that the coming of the Son of Man can not surprise us? Are we numbered with those "little ones" whose "angels do always behold the face of our Heavenly Father," and whom the Church, by the quiet influence of her rites and services, is diligently training up for immortality? When this decaying life is over, and we are waiting in silence that stroke which dismisses the spirit to its Judge, shall we "be able to feel, as we review our days, that we have availed ourselves of all the opportunities our Master afforded, of preparing for that solemn crisis? Life with each one of us must be employed, in "becoming meet for the recompense of the just, and in gathering spoils for Eternity. This is the only true use of existence here, and thus only can it be something more than an empty dream. It must be a life, spent in looking forward to its close, and in preparing diligently for that solemn change which is to pass upon all men--
"Life that shall send
A challenge to its end,
And when it comes, say 'Welcome, friend.'"