On Giants' Shoulders

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Why Don't We Hear Homilies Like This Anymore?

This week I began reading The Sermons of St. Francis de Sales For Lent, Given in 1622. The introduction to the book makes it clear that St. Francis used a homiletical style, not the formal sermons of many of his contemporaries. These particular sermons were addressed to religious, but as is usually the case with St. Francis are also applicable to lay people as well.

Here's a snippet: "It will be well to state clearly what must be done to fast well these forty days. Flrst although everyone is bound to know it and to practice it, religious and persons dedicated to Our Lord are more particularly obliged to it. Now among all the conditions required for fasting well, I will select three principal ones and speak familiarly about them.

The first condition is that we must fast with our whole heart, that is to say, willingly, whole-heartedly, universally, and entirely. If I recount to you St. Bernard's words regarding fasting, you will know not only why it is instituted, but also how it ought to be kept.

He says that fasting was instituted by Our Lord as a remedy for our mouth, for our gourmandizing and for our gluttony. Since sin entered the world through the mouth, the mouth must do penance by being deprived of foods prohibited and forbidden by the Church, abstaining from them for the space of forty days. But this 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."

He goes on to talk about the various practices that would be appropriate for these interior sorts of fasts. He also discusses the need for humility, and the need for not fasting more than is required as well as not less than is required. We are to avoid the vanity and being "particular."

One thing he points out is that those who fast during the season of Lent ought not to conceal it, since it is a requirement of the Church and the Church wishes everyone to be aware that we are actually following her orders. "We must not, then deny this, to those who expect it of us for their edification, since we are obliged to remove every cause of scandal to our brothers."

Now we seldom hear much about fasting at all. Of course the rules have changed somewhat, especially in plaes like the United States where even abstaining from meat on all the Fridays of the year seems to be uncommon. We hear a lot more about almsgiving (a laudable thing in its own right) than we do about fasting. We certainly don't tend to hear about joining the fast of the mouth with a fast of the eyes, ears, memory, etc.

Anyway, I highly recommend St. Francis de Sales sermons as Lenten reading.

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