March 21st, The 1468th anniversary of the death of St. Benedict of Nursia
At Monte Cassino, the birthday [i.e. day of birth to eternal life] of St. Benedict, Abbot, who restored and in a marvelous way propagated monastic discipline, which had almost perished, in the West. Blessed Pope Gregory wrote his Life, glorious for virtues and miracles. [from the Roman Martyrology]
There is a popular story about a Benedictine postulant who, shortly after entering religious life, was seated at the common table in the refectory. As he looked about himself, he marveled at the elegance of the monastic dining room – the oak tables and chairs, the marvelous windows and priceless paintings. He thought that the furnishings of the monastery must be worth vast sums of money. In his stupor and amazement, the young monk could not help but break the meal-time silence as he spoke to the others exclaiming, “If this is poverty, bring on chastity!”
Reflecting upon this little bit of humor, a group of seminarians – who, at the time were enjoying a relatively nice egg breakfast on a Friday morning in Lent – were inspired to adapt the final line to their own circumstances and say, “If this is fasting, bring on almsgiving!”
While it was meant only as a simple joke at the time, this little jab does seem to pierce to the heart of a relatively serious problem in the modern Church – What is the connection between fasting and almsgiving? And, If we fail to fast with true zeal, will we likewise lose sight of the radical demands of generous giving? On the feast of St. Benedict, who both promoted fasting and also wisely adapted it to fit the needs of his time and place, it will be good for us to consider how a return to a more zealous form of fasting may bring the Christian faithful to a renewed commitment to the giving of alms.
The relaxation of the Lenten Fast
The Catholic Encyclopedia offers a brief history of how the Lenten Fast has been gradually relaxed over the centuries. “In the early Middle Ages, Lent throughout the greater part of the Western Church consisted of forty weekdays, which were all fast days, and six Sundays. From the beginning to the end of that time all flesh meat, and also, for the most part, "lacticinia" [i.e. milk, cheese, and other dairy products], were forbidden even on Sundays, while on all the fasting days only one meal was taken, which single meal was not permitted before evening.” Gradually, the single meal was allowed to be taken earlier in the day – even in the mid-afternoon. Moreover, by the time of St. Thomas Aquinas, it was considered acceptable to take a small evening snack in addition to the one (now afternoon) meal.
“Other mitigations of an even more substantial character have been introduced into Lenten observance in the course of the last few centuries. To begin with, the custom has been tolerated of taking a cup of liquid (e.g., tea or coffee, or even chocolate) with a fragment of bread or toast in the early morning. But, what more particularly regards Lent, successive indults have been granted by the Holy See allowing meat at the principal meal, first on Sundays, and then on two, three, four, and five weekdays, throughout nearly the whole of Lent. In the United States, the Holy See grants faculties whereby working men and their families may use flesh meat once a day throughout the year, except Fridays, Ash Wednesday, Holy Saturday, and the vigil of Christmas. The only compensation imposed for all these mitigations is the prohibition during Lent against partaking of both fish and flesh at the same repast.”
In our own day, it is permitted to eat meat on any day of Lent, excepting Fridays and Ash Wednesday. Moreover, there is no longer any restriction of eggs or milk-foods (as had previously been the case). Finally, excepting Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, there is no restriction on the amount of food or number of meals. There has indeed been a great deal of relaxation in the Lenten discipline in recent years.
If fasting need not be expressed externally, why should almsgiving?
Now I have no axe to grind when it comes to the relaxation of the Lenten Fast – in fact, I have been known to eat eggs and drink milk even on Fridays of Lent! Nevertheless, it seems that we may benefit from considering what effect this relaxation of fasting may have on our modern notion of almsgiving.
The great Benedictine Abbot Prosper Gueranger, who did much to restore monasticism in modern times, has written eloquently of the necessary connection between fasting and almsgiving: “The rich man should show the poor, whose whole year is a fast, that there is a time when even he has his self-imposed privations. The faithful observance of Lent naturally produces a saving; let that saving be given to Lazarus. […] But how thoroughly Christian is it, that during these days of penance and charity, the life of the poor man should be made more comfortable, in proportion as that of the rich shares in the hardships and privations of his suffering brethren throughout the world!”
It is precisely through the external, physical, material fast (which is, of course, essentially spiritual) that the faithful are able to identify with the poor. If fasting be only about an interior attitude, then the real connection with the materially poor will be lost. If our fast is so light as to involve almost no physical sacrifice, neither will it produce any material savings. How then will we be able to give alms more generously?
As almsgiving means giving generously to the poor, so too fasting means generously denying ourselves
There is a trend in modern Catholicism to claim that fasting is almost purely spiritual and interior. Certainly, fasting is essentially spiritual; but the physical or material component is also necessary. What sort of a fast could there be without actually giving something up? All too often, however, there is a trend to give up less and less – as though the less a man exteriorly denies himself, the more he is interiorly free!
How will this greatly mitigated spirit of “fasting” affect our almsgiving? Will it lead the faithful to think that almsgiving is only (or at least almost completely) interior? One could wonder: If the fast has been so relaxed, perhaps also almsgiving need not be so exaggerated. Indeed, we may even be tempted to say to the poor man who is naked and in need of food, “Go in peace, be ye warmed and filled,” yet without giving him those things that are necessary for his body. Then, St. James will tell us, “So faith, if it have not works, is dead in itself.” (James 2:17)
What good is a so-called “spirit” of almsgiving, if it is not expressed in the actual giving of material alms? Likewise, what good is the “spirit” of fasting, if it be not expressed in the concrete denial of food and drink? As we have all but lost the discipline of the Fast, the Christian faithful are soon to abandon the practice of almsgiving.