But it will be asked: ‘Are there, then, no lawful dispensations?’
We answer that there are; and that they are more needed now than in former ages, owing to the general weakness of our constitutions.
Still, there is great danger of our deceiving ourselves. If we have strength to go through great fatigues when our own self-love is gratified by them, how is it we are too weak to observe abstinence?
If a slight inconvenience deter us from doing this penance, how shall we ever make expiation for our sins for expiation is essentially painful to nature. The opinion of our physician that fasting will weaken us, may be false, or it may be correct; but is not this mortification of the flesh the very object that the Church aims at, knowing that our soul will profit by the body being brought into subjection?
But let us suppose the dispensation to be necessary: that our health would be impaired, and the duties of our state of life neglected, if we were to observe the law of Lent to the letter: do we, in such a case, endeavour, by other works of penance, to supply for those which our health does not allow us to observe?
Are we grieved and humbled to find ourselves thus unable to join with the rest of the faithful children of the Church, in bearing the yoke of Lenten discipline?
Do we ask of our Lord to grant us the grace, next year, of sharing in the merits of our fellow Christians, and of observing those holy practices which give the soul an assurance of mercy and pardon?
If we do, the dispensation will not be detrimental to our spiritual interests; and when the feast of Easter comes, inviting the faithful to partake in its grand joys, we may confidently take our place side by side with those who have fasted; for though our bodily weakness has not permitted us to keep pace with them exteriorly, our heart has been faithful to the spirit of Lent.
How long a list of proofs we could still give of the negligence, into which the modern spirit of se1f- indulgence leads so many among us, in regard of fasting and abstinence!
Thus, there are Catholics to be found in every part of the world who make their Easter Communion, and profess themselves to be children of the Catholic Church, who yet have no idea of the obligations of Lent. Their very notion of fasting and abstinence is so vague, that they are
not aware that these two practices are quite distinct one from the other; and that the dispensation from one does not, in any way, include a dispensation from the other.
If they have, lawfully or unlawfully, obtained exemption from abstinence, it never so much as enters into their minds that the obligation of fasting is still binding upon them during the whole forty days; or if they have had granted to them a dispensation from fasting, they conclude that they may eat any kind of food they wish upon any day. Such ignorance as this is the natural result of the indifference wherewith the commandments and traditions of the Church are treated.
So far, we have been speaking of the non-observance of Lent in its relation to individuals and Catholics; let us now say a few words upon the influence which that same non-observance has upon a whole people or nation. There are but few social questions which have not been ably and spiritedly treated of by the public writers of the age, who have devoted their talents to the study of political economy; and it has often been a matter of surprise to us that they should have overlooked a subject of such deep interest as this: the results produced on society by the abolition of Lent; that is to say, of an institution which, more than any other, keeps up in the public mind a keen sentiment of moral right and wrong, inasmuch as it imposes on a nation an annual expiation for sin.
No shrewd penetration is needed to see the difference between two nations, one of which observes, each year, a forty-days’ penance in reparation of the violations committed against the law of God, and another, whose very principles reject all such solemn reparation. And looking at the subject from another point of view — is it not to be feared that the excessive use of animal food tends to weaken, rather than to strengthen, the constitution? We are convinced of it: the time will come when a greater proportion of vegetable, and less of animal, diet will be considered as an essential means for maintaining the strength of the human frame.
Let, then, the children of the Church courageously observe the Lenten practices of penance. Peace of conscience is essential to Christian life; and yet it is promised to non but truly penitent souls. Lost innocence is to be regained by the humble confession of the sin, when it is accompanied by the absolution of the priest; but let the faithful be on their guard against the dangerous error, which would persuade them that they have nothing to do when once pardoned.
Let them remember the solemn warning given them by the Holy Ghost in the sacred Scriptures: ‘Be not without fear about sin forgiven!’ (Ecclesiasticus 5:5) Our confidence of our having been forgiven should be in proportion to the change or conversion of our heart; the greater our present detestation of our past sins and the more earnest our desire to do penance for them for the rest of our lives, the better founded is our confidence that they have been pardoned. ‘Man knoweth not,’ as the same holy Volume assures us, ‘whether he be worthy of love or hatred’ but he that keeps up within him the spirit of penance, has every reason to hope that God loves him.
But the courageous observance of the Church’s precept of fasting and abstaining during Lent must be accompanied by those two other eminently good works, to which God so frequently urges us in the Scripture: prayer and alms deeds. Just as under the term ‘fasting’ the Church comprises all kinds of mortification; so under the word ‘prayer’ she includes all those exercises of piety whereby the soul holds intercourse with her God.
More frequent attendance at the services of the Church, assisting daily at Mass, spiritual reading, meditation upon eternal truths and the Passion, hearing sermons, and, above all, approaching the Sacraments of Penance and the holy Eucharist — these are the chief means whereby the faithful should offer to God the homage of prayer, during this holy season.
Alms deeds comprise all the works of mercy to our neighbour, and are unanimously recommended by the holy doctors of the Church, as being the necessary complement of fasting and prayer during Lent. God has made it a law, to which He has graciously bound Himself, that charity shown towards our fellow- creatures, with the intention of pleasing our Creator, shall be rewarded as though it were done to Himself.
How vividly this brings before us the reality and sacredness of the tie which He would have to exist between all men! Such, indeed, is its necessity, that our heavenly Father will not accept love of any heart that refuses to show mercy: but, on the other hand, He accepts as genuine and as done to Himself the charity of every Christian, who, by a work of mercy shown to a fellow-man, is really acknowledging and honouring that sublime union which makes all men to be one family with God as its Father. Hence it is that alms deeds, done with this intention, are not merely acts of human kindness, but are raised to the dignity of acts of religion, which have God for their direct object, and have the power of appeasing His divine justice.
Let us remember the counsel given by the Archangel Raphael to Tobias. He was on the point of taking leave of this holy family, and returning to heaven; and these were his words: ‘Prayer is good with fasting and alms, more than to lay up treasures of gold: for alms delivers from death, and the same is that which purges away sins, and makes to find mercy and life everlasting.’ (Tobit 12:8-9)
Equally strong is the recommendation given to this virtue by the Book of Ecclesiasticus: ‘ Water quenches a flaming fire, and alms resists sins!’ (Ecclesiasticus 3:33)
And again: ‘Shut up alms in the heart of the poor, and it shall obtain help for thee against all evil.’ (Ecclesiasticus 29:15) The Christian should keep these consoling promises ever before his mind, but more especially during the season of Lent. 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.
Nothing, surely, could be more opposed to the spirit of this holy season, than keeping up a table as richly and delicately provided as at other periods of the year, when God permits us to use all the comforts compatible with the means He has given us.
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!
Poor and rich would then present themselves, with all the beauty of fraternal love upon them, at the divine Banquet of the Paschal feast, to which our risen Jesus will invite us after these forty days are over.