After encountering Jesus, the Magi from the east “returned by another way,” warned of Herod’s treachery in a dream (Matt. 2:12). Dignitaries from afar, they perhaps found it proper to first meet with the dignitary of a foreign region, but did not know of Herod’s pride and malice. Thus, their discovery of Christ the King met with an unforeseen danger, one that required them to depart from their usual course, to take a detour, to find a hidden way off the beaten path. Had they known of the danger before encountering Christ, perhaps their human fears would have kept them back.
Once we encounter Christ, we cannot stay the same. We must change, or return “by another way.” But it is often hard to imagine changing habits, especially bad ones. Changing habits is often frustrating and disappointing because it meets with challenges that were not foreseen when the resolution was made. Polls suggest that the vast majority of new year’s resolutions fail by February. But St. John Henry Newman’s sermon “Apostolic Abstinence” provides both hope and realism in a rousing call to the Christian duty of fasting, of working hard at forming better habits, a timely reflection to prepare ourselves for Lent.
In our human frailty, we too often begin with the end instead of the beginning, and so never begin. We worry that we are not now, immediately, capable of the final result, and so give up even taking the first step. Newman tells us to begin with the beginning, and trust that God will progressively expand our capacity “according to our strength.” We must “mount up the heavenly ladder step by step,” mindful that Christ and the Scriptures exhort us to the duty of fasting, of warring against the flesh, of avoiding excess and indulgence in order to deny ourselves and embrace Him. We must start with something small, and trust God to grow us in accord with His will. In time, gradually tempering our appetites in this way will begin to form our “tastes and likings” for a “heavenly rule,” and we will become less desperate to satisfy our cravings, more selfless, and more prayerful throughout the day. Eventually, the lofty goal is a real, tangible kind of holiness: “To those who are accustomed to self-denials, it is more painful to indulge than to abstain.” Abstinence will become a joy to the true disciple, and self-indulgence undesirable.
Newman exhorts us to look to the Apostles and Saints as exemplars, but cautions us to not depart from our duties, to be attentive to our own capacity, and to above all listen to an “inward voice,” our conscience, that will help us learn proper balance, attempting “nothing but what we can do” and what is right in our particular circumstance. We must be attentive to our conscience to discern between “a fashion or an impulse” and “true excellence,” which is a consistent habit formed with peace and firm resolution.
Even so, we must “strive for that holiness without which we cannot see God,” and that striving is bodily, moral, and spiritual (Hebrews 12:14). Moses saw God’s glory and received the Law while fasting. Elijah heard the “still small voice” on Mount Horeb while fasting. The disciples fasted and wept over their crucified Lord, but their mourning was turned into joy when he cooked fish for them by the seaside. The degree of our self-deprivation is the degree to which we “may look for Him in holiness, and behold His power and glory,” but this is not instantaneous; it is the acquired habit of a lifetime.
And we cannot presume to rise to such prayerful holiness if we persist in sin and grieve our neighbors. Sin darkens the mind, (Eph. 4:18), and willful sin is opposed to finding God in prayer. “If a man says, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar” (1 John 4:20). We must diligently seek out our sins to remove them, and continue to rise on the path of holiness through self-deprivations that increase our capacity for self-lessness and diminish our selfishness. “You must in some way or another deny the flesh, or you cannot possess Christian love.”
Changing habits will not come by magic; it requires consistent discipline and openness to grace. Newman looks to the Apostles as exemplars of embracing not only external hardships at the hands of Gentiles and Jews opposed to the Gospel, but also “voluntary sufferings,” “self-imposed hardships” that are pleasing to Christ, as St. Paul describes (2 Tim. 3:10). Doing so helps us discern the best use of things of this world for the sake of the next. In this context St. Paul exhorts St. Timothy, his missionary companion and first Bishop of Ephesus, to “Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake, and thine often infirmities” (1 Tim. 5.23). Timothy had apparently accustomed himself to stringent self-discipline, drinking only water, and fasting to such a degree that he became unwell. In the ancient and medieval age, wines and beers had low alcohol content, and were most often safer to drink than water. The process of fermentation killed harmful bacteria found in plain water. So St. Paul is concerned with Timothy’s health; he is not necessarily telling him to enjoy himself more, but to take care of his body and avoid an excess in mortification that would expose him to harm. Abstinence, if “Apostolic,” requires proper balance, using things of the body for the sake of fulfilling natural and supernatural duties.
While our own station in life is different than that of the Apostles, it does seem that the issue of our time and culture is the reverse – not to be less strict, but more, not to be less religious, but more. Our world is so busy and rushed, we do not do the world favors by acting more like the world, and perhaps too often justify doing so by thinking we should not seem gloomy, unattractive or too rigorous to those outside the Church. Newman encourages us to be more of what we are: courageous Christians who do all we can, to our utmost, for His Kingdom, fulfilling his commandments strictly and clinging to Him above all things. In this way, we must make the world more otherworldly.
Make a slow beginning. We cannot make it to the end of holiness based on how we are at the beginning; but we must begin humbly, small, in hiding, and trust that God will give us just what we need to take each subsequent step on the path of holiness. Lent is a season in which God’s grace is particularly abundant for those who take up penitential ventures for His sake; may we take new risks for His glory and find Him providing all we need.