instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Not if, but when

I like the way St. Vincent Ferrer takes something familiar --
But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face....
-- and puts it in a new light simply by paying attention to the words:
In this Christ shows us three necessary things, which we should be busy about at this time [of Lent]....

First is penitential affliction (afflictio penitentialis), where, "When you fast."

Second, spiritual prayer (oratio spiritualis), where "Anoint your head."

Third is sacramental confession (confessio sacramentalis), where, "Wash your face."
Now, you may or may not buy St. Vincent's take that the spiritual sense of "wash you face" is "go to Confession." But it's hard to deny that going to Confession is something we should be busy about at this time. And I'd also say that getting "go to Confession" out of "wash your face" surely beats getting "wash your face" out of it, since most of us wash our faces regardless.

And on the matter of taking that phrase literally, St. Vincent says this:
O who washes the face of his body only once a year? How much dirt and grime would it have!
By playing with the literal sense, he makes ridiculous (maybe even repugnant) the idea of going to Confession only once a year. Without that spiritual sense as a guide, though, who would spend much time thinking about this phrase at all. (Other than the annual wearing-ashes-at-work-on-Ash-Wednesday scrap, I mean.)

But what particularly stands out for me in St. Vincent's slow reading of Matthew 6:17 is the word "when. "When you fast."

St. Vincent lived at a time when the Roman Catholic Church required "eating only once in the day, not meat, but Lenten food," from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday, excluding Sundays. That's not "giving something up," that's honest to goodness fasting!

Granted, fasting wasn't required of pregnant or nursing women, the sick, the poor, those journeying on foot, manual laborers, children under 21, or the aged. But the value of fasting, the unique ability of this physical discipline to affect the spiritual life, was recognized and preached to everyone.

The question for the Christian isn't whether you fast, but when.