Unlearning Ourselves in Lent: Newman on Fasting

At our first gathering of NINS's Lenten Series, we began with a reflection on Blessed Newman's sermon "Fasting a Source of Trial." This challenging homily gives a sense of just how Christocentric (Christ-centered) so much of Newman's theology is. For Newman, the disciplines of Lent—in this case, fasting—are a way for the Christian to participate mystically in the life of Christ. By intensifying our self-denial for these forty days of Lent, we come to know, in part, what Christ experienced in full measure: "Christ's temptation is but the fulness of that which, in its degree, and according to our infirmities and corruptions, takes place in all His servants."

This truth can be a source of consolation to us as we strive to maintain our Lenten commitments.We should not practice Lenten disciplines as mere external formalities, but should view them for what they are—a patterning of our lives after the example of the Incarnate Word: "This is what it is to be one of Christ's little ones," Newman writes, "to be possessed by [Christ's] presence as our life, our strength, our merit, our hope, our crown … mystically reiterating in each of us all the acts His earthly life."

Alongside these inspiring reflections on the theological underpinnings of Lent, Newman also demonstrates a keen sense of how the human psyche operates and of the obstacles that we face in struggling to cooperate with grace. In this sermon, Newman cautions his audience that when they commit to fasting they should expect to encounter various forms of temptation that might not be as pressing for them in other circumstances. It is important that Christians know about the possibility of inflamed temptations, "for else they will be discouraged when they practice abstinences." So, Newman warns his listeners that "what very often follows from fasting is, a feebleness which deprives [the Christian] of his command over his bodily acts, feelings, and expressions." Or, as he puts it elsewhere in this sermon, fasting can make a person "irritable and ill-tempered." Many of us, I'm sure, can identify with that.

Recognizing these dangers should not cause us to try harder—as if practicing well the disciplines of Lent were somehow dependent on our own efforts. Rather, we should ever more readily place our lives in the hands of God, trusting in his grace to lift us up in those times when "the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Matt. 26:41). As we continue the season of Lent, then, it's all the more imperative that we fix our gaze upon Christ. "In truth," Newman reiterates, "we must do nothing except with Him in our eye. As He it is, through whom alone we have the power to do any good thing, so unless we do it for Him it is not good. From Him our obedience comes, towards Him it must look." The practice of fasting, in other words, is not meant to make us more self-focused, but to turn our attention back to God. In our own weak state, prone as we are to exchange the gifts of God for lesser goods, we sometimes need the painful reminder of hunger pangs or a little less money in our wallets to return our focus to eternal realities.

Through this journey of Lent—and, indeed, the journey of life—"we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal" (2 Cor. 4:16-18). With these eternal realities in view, let us ask God for the grace to, in Newman's words, "unlearn ourselves" during this sacred season.

If you are interested in hearing more reflections like this one, please consider joining us on Monday evenings during Lent as we journey together through Newman's sermons. These discussions are held from 7–8 pm at the National Institute for Newman Studies (211 N. Dithridge St., Pittsburgh, PA 15213). For more information and to register, click here. 

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