Unlearning Ourselves in Lent

The season of humiliation, which precedes Easter, lasts for forty days, in memory of our Lord’s long fast in the wilderness. . . .We fast by way of penitence, and in order to subdue the flesh. Our Saviour had no need of fasting for either purpose. His fasting was unlike ours, as in its intensity, so in its object. And yet when we begin to fast, His pattern is set before us; and we continue the time of fasting till, in number of days, we have equalled His.

There is a reason for this; in truth, 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. He says, “Without Me ye can do nothing.” [John xv. 5.] No work is good without grace and without love.

St. Paul gave up all things “to be found in Christ, not having his own righteousness which is of the law, but the righteousness which is from God upon faith.” [Phil. iii. 9.] Then only are our righteousnesses acceptable when they are done, not in a legal way, but in Christ through faith. Vain were all the deeds of the Law, because they were not attended by the power of the Spirit. They were the mere attempts of unaided nature to fulfil what it ought indeed, but was not able to fulfil.

None but the blind and carnal, or those who were in utter ignorance, could find aught in them to rejoice in. What were all the righteousnesses of the Law, what its deeds, even when more than ordinary, its alms and fastings, its disfiguring of faces and afflicting of souls; what was all this but dust and dross, a pitiful earthly service, a miserable hopeless penance, so far as the grace and the presence of Christ were absent?

And this is singularly the case with Christians now, who endeavour to imitate Him; and it is well they should know it, for else they will be discouraged when they practise abstinences. It is commonly said, that fasting is intended to make us better Christians, to sober us, and to bring us more entirely at Christ’s feet in faith and humility. This is true, viewing matters on the whole. On the whole, and at last, this effect will be produced, but it is not at all certain that it will follow at once.

On the contrary, such mortifications have at the time very various effects on different persons, and are to be observed, not from their visible benefits, but from faith in the Word of God. Some men, indeed, are subdued by fasting and brought at once nearer to God; but others find it, however slight, scarcely more than an occasion of temptation. For instance, it is sometimes even made an objection to fasting, as if it were a reason for not practising it, that it makes a man irritable and ill-tempered. I confess it often may do this.

Or again, weakness of body often hinders him from fixing his mind on his prayers, instead of making him pray more fervently; or again, weakness of body is often attended with languor and listlessness, and strongly tempts a man to sloth.

Yet, I have not mentioned the most distressing of the effects which may follow from even the moderate exercise of this great Christian duty. It is undeniably a means of temptation, and I say so, lest persons should be surprised, and despond when they find it so. And the merciful Lord knows that so it is from experience; and that He has experienced and thus knows it, as Scripture records, is to us a thought full of comfort.

I do not mean to say, God forbid, that aught of sinful infirmity sullied His immaculate soul; but it is plain from the sacred history, that in His case, as in ours, fasting opened the way to temptation. And, perhaps, this is the truest view of such exercises, that in some wonderful unknown way they open the next world for good and evil upon us, and are an introduction to somewhat of an extraordinary conflict with the powers of evil.


Stories are afloat (whether themselves true or not matters not, they show what the voice of mankind thinks likely to be true), of hermits in deserts being assaulted by Satan in strange ways, yet resisting the evil one, and chasing him away, after our Lord’s pattern, and in His strength; and, I suppose, if we knew the secret history of men’s minds in any age, we should find this (at least, I think I am not theorizing), viz. a remarkable union in the case of those who by God’s grace have made advances in holy things (whatever be the case where men have not), a union on the one hand of temptations offered to the mind, and on the other, of the mind’s not being affected by them, not consenting to them, even in momentary acts of the will, but simply hating them, and receiving no harm from them.

Let it not then distress Christians, even if they find themselves exposed to thoughts from which they turn with abhorrence and terror. Rather let such a trial bring before their thoughts, with something of vividness and distinctness, the condescension of the Son of God. For if it be a trial to us creatures and sinners to have thoughts alien from our hearts presented to us, what must have been the suffering to the Eternal Word, God of God, and Light of Light, Holy and True, to have been so subjected to Satan, that he could inflict every misery on Him short of sinning?

This then is, perhaps, a truer view of the consequences of fasting, than is commonly taken. Of course, it is always, under God’s grace, a spiritual benefit to our hearts eventually, and improves them, through Him who worketh all in all; and it often is a sensible benefit to us at the time. Still it is often otherwise; often it but increases the excitability and susceptibility of our hearts; in all cases it is therefore to be viewed, chiefly as an approach to God– an approach to the powers of heaven – yes, and to the powers of hell.

And this is another point which calls for distinct notice in the history of our Saviour’s fasting and temptation, viz. the victory which attended it. He had three temptations, and thrice He conquered, at the last He said, “Get thee behind Me, Satan;” on which “the devil leaveth Him.” This conflict and victory in the world unseen, is intimated in other passages of Scripture.

The most remarkable of these is what our Lord says with reference to the demoniac, whom His Apostles could not cure. He had just descended from the Mount of Transfiguration, where, let it be observed, He seems to have gone up with His favoured Apostles to pass the night in prayer. He came down after that communion with the unseen world, and cast out the unclean spirit, and then He said, “This kind can come forth by nothing but by prayer and fasting,” [Mark ix. 29.] which is nothing less than a plain declaration that such exercises give the soul power over the unseen world; nor can any sufficient reason be assigned for confining it to the first ages of the Gospel.

“He shall give His Angels charge over Thee, to keep Thee in all Thy ways;” [Ps. xci. 11.] and the devil knows of this promise, for he used it in that very hour of temptation. He knows full well what our power is, and what is his own weakness. So we have nothing to fear while we remain within the shadow of the throne of the Almighty. “A thousand shall fall beside Thee, and ten thousand at Thy right hand, but it shall not come nigh Thee.” While we are found in Christ, we are partakers of His security. He has broken the power of Satan; He has gone “upon the lion and adder, the young lion and the dragon hath He trod under His feet;” and henceforth evil spirits, instead of having power over us, tremble and are affrighted at every true Christian.

Therefore let us be, my brethren, “not ignorant of their devices;” and as knowing them, let us watch, fast, and pray, let us keep close under the wings of the Almighty, that He may be our shield and buckler. Let us pray Him to make known to us His will, to teach us our faults, to take from us whatever may offend Him, and to lead us in the way everlasting.

And during this sacred season, let us look upon ourselves as on the Mount with Him – within the veil – hid with Him – not out of Him, or apart from Him, in whose presence alone is life, but with and in Him – learning of His Law with Moses, of His attributes with Elijah, of His counsels with Daniel – learning to repent, learning to confess and to amend – learning His love and His fear – unlearning ourselves, and growing up unto Him who is our Head. – from Parochial and Plain Sermons, Vol. 6, No. 1


*Image: Still Life with Skull by Paul Cezanne, c. 1897 [Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, PA]

John Henry Newman (1801-1890) was made a cardinal by Leo XIII in 1879, beatified by Benedict XVI in 2010, and canonized by Pope Francis on October 13, 2019. He was among the most important Catholic writers of the last several centuries.