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The Fathers on Fasting

A seminarian friend of mine, Fred, sent me the following article, titled “The Fathers of the Church on Fasting.” It’s timely counsel for this first Friday of Lent, 2008, though it first appeared in the Feb. 18, 1888 edition of The Ave Maria: A Magazine Devoted to the Honor of the Blessed Virgin. There’s no byline on the piece, but it’s copyrighted in the name of Rev. D.E. Hudson, C.S.C.

The following is from a Lenten pastoral of one of the English bishops, published last year. It was out of season when it came under our notice, but the passage seemed so pointed and so forcible that we put it by for reproduction at a future time. A re reading has only confirmed our impression of its excellence. Few, indeed, nowadays set a just value on the practice of fasting, the privileges of which are so real and so precious. The Bishop’s own words, not less than the eloquent passages he quotes, will show that it is one of the principal means of spiritual progress, as well as a remedy against sin and other evils:

The Apostle of the Gentiles did no more than carry on the tradition of penance, in himself setting the example of a life in which he well knew the minister of God ought to take the lead. “In all things let us exhibit ourselves as the ministers of God, in much penance . . . in labors, in watching, and in fastings.” Can there be any doubt that what has always been the spirit of the Church has its source in the will of Our Lord, made known to us, through the interpretation of that will, by those of whom St. John speaks in his first Epistle, in these striking words: “That which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled of the Word of Life . . . that which we have seen and heard, we have declared unto you”? And in later times the Doctors of the Church took up and continued the same traditional teaching; and their eloquent words, while they indicate their own practice, were commonly such a panegyric on fasting as to give a very high idea of the esteem in which they held it. “What is fasting,” asks St. Ambrose, “but that which is heavenly, both in meaning and substance? Fasting is the nourishment of the soul, and the food of the mind. Fasting is the life of the angels. Fasting is the death of sin, the destruction of guilt, the remedy of salvation, the source of grace, and the foundation of chastity. By this path God is more easily approached.” The great St. Jerome writes: “Fasting is not merely a perfect virtue: it is the foundation of all the other virtues; it is sanctification, purity, and prudence, – virtues without which no one can see God.” In a discourse upon fasting, St. Peter of Ravenna uses the following beautiful words: “Fasting, a we all know, is God’s fortress, the camp of Jesus Christ, the rampart of the Holy Ghost, the standard of faith, the mark of charity, and the trophy of holiness.” The passages just quoted deal mainly with the virtues which fasting indicates, promotes, and fosters. Let us add the words of some of the Fathers, who speak of it as a remedy against sin and other evils. “Fasting,” says St. Leo, “gives strength against sin, represses evil desires, repels temptation, humbles pride, cools anger, and fosters all the inclinations of a good will, even unto the practice of every virtue.” One Father more, the great St. John Chrysostom, shall give us his authoritative teaching on this important subject: “Fasting purifies the mind, calms the senses, subjects the flesh to the spirit, renders the heart humble and contrite, disperses the clouds of concupiscence, extinguishes the heat of passion, and lights up the fire of chastity.”

How strongly do all these sentiments of the Fathers of the Church contrast with the notions and language of men in the days in which we live! One might almost suppose, at the first glance, that we belonged not only to a different age, but to a different Church. And yet the Church has never ceased, on her part, to inculcate on her children the duty of fasting; and in willing obedience to her, multitudes in every age have sanctified their souls. Open the life of any saint or servant of God, and all of them, in their manifold variety of person and character and holiness, will be found to practice fasting as one of the principal means of their spiritual progress. Yes, the tradition and the practice endure to this day with the children of the Church, and will endure unto the end of time. But it is still true, nevertheless, that the spirit of penance has so far decreased, that a very large and, we fear, an increasing proportion of the faithful, from one cause or another, or without cause at all, fail to observe the law of fasting. It is just possible that so serious a relaxation may have led some to suppose, either that the law is not of strict obligation, or that they at least may with a safe conscience elude it if they can. But the precept of the Church is clear enough. We learned it as children in our Catechism; it is proclaimed yearly for the season of Lent; we know that it has ever been observed; it comes to us hallowed by the example of Our Lord; and we know well that after “the bridegroom was taken away,” the general precept that man should fast has been definitely fixed by the Church for the season of Lent and its forty days, that so we might more nearly imi¬tate our Divine Redeemer. The Church herself was, so to speak, cradles in the rigors of fasting; her Apostles and her first pastors followed her example; and the first observance of this holy season took place in so early an age of her existence, that its beginnings are lost in obscurity. History knows no time when it was not observed; and the Church in all ages has never ceased to proclaim the fast and its obligations, to the utmost limit of her world wide domain.

9 thoughts on “The Fathers on Fasting

  1. excellent proclaimation to the faithful!,thankyou,one thing is troubling me though,I was reading a pamphlet given to me by a catholic priest about a saint whom i can unfortunately not remember the name of,anyway,they were said to be a seer of Christ and when asking about heaven was given a simple but direct response of”Heaven is beyond human perception”,this still rings in my mind to this day and when i see articles even of my earthly brothers and sisters on heaven and hell but heaven inparticular I wonder if maybe we are getting ahead of ourselves and even getting into dangerous waters,for even the Lord said to his disciples that they couldn’t even grasp worldly concepts ,so how then could they understand those of the heavenly kingdom.I really just wanted to hear from someone learned if human understanding of heaven and hell could have changed since the time of Jesus.

  2. Hello Mike,

    On a related subject; what were the strictures concerning fasting in the ancient Church? I imagine it varied depending on the time and the place. I’m interested in learning how fasting was practiced by the early Christians. Any ideas or sources?


  3. Gerard: Heaven and hell are indeed beyond natural perception, but the vision has certainly been granted to believers — St. Paul, for example (2 Cor 12:2-3) and John the Seer (Rev 1:10f). You’re right in saying that human nature hasn’t changed; but, then again, neither has divine grace.

    John: Yes, the disciplines of fasting varied from time to time and place to place. Irenaeus and Eusebius witness to a 40-hour fast extending from Christ’s death to his resurrection. In the third century there was a trend toward extending the fast through Holy Week. According to Augustine and Jerome, the 40-day fast arose in the early fourth century. Nicaea (canon 5) treats it like an established custom.

  4. Hello Mike,

    Thanks for your reply. I probably should have been more clear. I’m trying to find out what was allowed and what wasn’t. For example; were fasts total or was some bread and water allowed. I seem to remember reading that the Desert Monks allowed for a certain amount of bread to be eaten after a certain time of the day. Did the Church have any basic rules in this regard that you know of?

    Anyway, thanks for your time.


  5. John: There are good articles on the subject in Ferguson’s Backgrounds of Early Christianity and in Cross’s Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Both sources suggest a wide range of customs, varied from place to place and time to time, and also according to one’s state in life. The later ascetics of the desert went to the limits of human endurance. I can’t imagine the average barrister pulling that off and keeping up with his workload.

  6. Hello Mike,

    Thanks for the tip. It’s greatly appreciated. As luck would have it, I already have Ferguson’s book, but haven’t gotten to it yet. I will now.

    Pax et bonum

  7. I’m doing some research on fasting in the early church. Do you know of any other good resources. The ones mentioned were great Thanks!

  8. […] ~ AQUILINA: “The Fathers on Fasting” …. ( […]

  9. Isn’t there something in Scripture or a writing of one of the early Church Fathers on fasting on Wed. and Fri. rather than other days?

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