The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 20
"Self-Denial." A Sermon
"Self-Denial." A Sermon,
On Sunday (March 9), at the St. George's Hall, the Rev. C. Voysey took his text from Isaiah lviii, 5, 6, 7. "Is it such a fast that I have chosen? A day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I have chosen? To loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? When thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?"
The season of Lent, which some of the Churches of Christendom are now observing, suggests the consideration of the true and false views of Self-denial.
Self-denial, in some shape or other, and at certain times, is universally admitted by man to be a duty. In his higher moods, it becomes natural to him to forego some pleasure or to incur some pain, either to benefit his own spiritual being or to do good to his fellow-creature. What we have to do then is to see that this noble tendency is neither abused nor perverted. We cannot eliminate it from our nature without loss, we cannot exercise it excessively, or in a wrong direction, without injury to ourselves or others. By common consent we have abandoned—if indeed we ever practised—the custom of fasting and such abstinence as the Churches enjoin. Let us examine the grounds on which this page 2 form of Self-denial may be regarded as a perversion of it. The present custom of fasting weekly in the Catholic Church, and of fasting periodically at longer intervals in the Protestant Churches, may be traced back to Pagan origin, and found to be in its earliest history mixed up with a worship impossible to describe in this place. A less corrupt kind of fasting was practised in order to produce that cerebral excitement in which raving prophets or seers announced their oracles. This form is still to be found among certain savage tribes. It is known as a fact in physiology that starvation often produces a highly excited state of the brain, in which the patient not only sees visions and dreams dreams but gives utterance to his fancies with unwonted eloquence. This excitement is understood by ignorant bystanders to be evidence of Divine inspiration, and it corresponds with an old saying of the Greeks, "The Gods fill the breast of the frenzied."
The modern practice of fasting, however, cannot be identified with the ancient practice so far as regards its objects. Men and women no longer fast, or take fish instead of meat, in honour of the goddess Freya; nor do they fast to produce in themselves an ecstatic fervour of devotion or preaching. They fast because the Churches of which they are members have commanded them to fast. In many cases it is practised by persons of stainless lives, of the largest charity, and of great practical usefulness; and it would be in the highest degree unfair to attribute to them any unworthy motive in doing what seems to us so absurd and injurious.
But why have the Churches enjoined it? Partly, I believe, from the best of motives. Originating in times when people were over-fed, and even gluttonous—their passions pampered and unduly strong through too much luxury and too little toil—it was manifestly good to have weekly days of abstinence and frequent periods of absolute fasting, in which surfeited nature might have time to recover itself, and some check be put upon indulgence. Whether any such necessity for fasting exists in the present, I leave others to determine. We certainly have neither gluttony, drunkenness, nor profligacy so gross and offensive as in "the good old times." Such degradation of the human being is regarded as degradation, and to a great extent has been driven out of the higher page 3 into the lowest stratum of society. Familiarity with rules of health, and a multiplicity of medical advisers, have superseded the necessity for fasting as a means of restoring health; but I believe it will be admitted that we are in danger still of becoming slaves to luxurious living. From that danger there is a better safeguard than abstinence from meat on Fridays, Ember days, and forty days of Lent. The Church, however, had another object in ordaining the fast besides that of conserving or restoring the health, and making a protest against excessive luxury. It was ordained to recall people to a sense of sin. It was intended as a sort of penance, by which the careless or the profligate might be reminded of their transgressions, and in that way their consciences might quicken them into amendment of life. That horrible Comminution Service in our old Prayer Books, which is appointed for Ash Wednesday, with its obsolete curses and maledictions, was well-meant, considering the ignorance and spiritual darkness of those who composed it. Bad as it is, useless as it, it is at least a protest against sin, and designed to promote morality.
These two objects, viz., the restoration of health and the rebuke of sin constitute, in my opinion, the only favourable aspect of Church Fasting. So far it was well meant; and no doubt, in past times, it did a great deal of good. But when we have said this we have said all. For the rest, fasting is an absurd mistake. It is a mistake because it is done as an act of religion, as an act which will please God, and conciliate His favour. Priests may repudiate this in words as much as they please; but they know as well as we do that the practice of fasting is chiefly enjoined as an act of obedience to the Church, and that they teach their people that obedience to the Church is the highest act of obedience to God. Therefore the people cannot help believing that their fasting is pleasing to God and will help to ensure His favour. Now, no mistake can be greater than to suppose God will be pleased with us for going without food, or taking less than a healthy appetite requires, especially if we have been taking too much on all other days in the week. As though we could atone for regular intemperance by rare intervals of sobriety and moderation. Into such a mistake the Hebrew race were often falling, but they were often warned by their prophets that this kind of compromise was page 4 a blunder. Surely Christians, who have professed such profound adoration of the Old Testament as to regard it as the very Word of God, ought to have been less glaringly inconsistent than to have repeated the Hebrew mistake, and to have left unheeded the Hebrew prophet's rebuke. It strikes me that on this subject of fasting we are not beholden to Christianity for enlightened views. Christianity has retained the corrupt idea of Self-denial, and to a large extent abandoned the true. It was a pity that Jesus set the example of a forty days' fast, without recording the beautiful words of my text as a corrective. Perhaps he had not read them; or the influence of the Essenes, or of John the Baptist, was too powerful to be resisted. But, however we may explain his conduct, we can only contrast it unfavourably with the words of the Hebrew prophet five hundred years before him. Let the Christians reconcile this if they can, with their belief in his absolute perfection of wisdom and knowledge.
Isaiah heaps scorn upon the popular method of fasting; he quizzes and caricatures the penitent sitting in sackcloth and ashes, and bowing down his head as a bulrush, and asks in derision, "Wilt thou call this an acceptable day to the Lord?" But even this was not nearly so absurd as some of the penitential ceremonies which have been performed in some of our own Ritualistic Churches, where men and women have crawled on their hands and knees up the aisle to receive a sacred candle from the priest. This sort of fasting is a mistake so easily discernible by human reflection as to be ridiculous as well as wrong. As if sins could ever be compounded for by self-torture; or the Righteous God satisfied for a moment by any affliction of a man's body for the sin of his soul.
But we repudiate fasting on broader grounds still. Whatever really conduces to health of body and mind, to the proper balance between our flesh and our spirit, that ought to be the constant rule of our lives. It is monstrous to regard it as only an occasional duty. It should be uniform and regular. Health implies continuously healthy condition; not intermittent fits of soundness. If it be needful, owing to previous over-indulgence, to restore health by abstinence, it is much more needful to preserve health by habitual temperance. And if we regard fasting as a beneficial influence upon the conscience, calling us back to a forgotten or page 5 neglected sense of duty, that fasting ought to be constant and not intermittent. We ought ever to live so that the claims of duty should be uppermost, and not drowned by any undue indulgence. We have no right to eat, drink, or be merry to such a degree as will cloud the sharp outlines of morality, or dull our sense of what is due to others and to our own highest welfare. Whatever abstinence may be needful to recall us to that moral keenness of perception is ten times more needful to keep us perpetually on the alert and to give our consciences room to be heard. Fasting in Lent, or at other long intervals, thus condemns itself; for those who practise it from worthy motives admit in doing so that it is beneficial to them, and hence that it ought to be the rude and not the exception of their lives. Those who practise it from unworthy motives—e.g., to atone for, and do penance for, past sins, or to ensure their title to Heaven hereafter—condemn themselves as unenlightened and deeply foolish.
One is glad that the observance of Lent has been frowned upon, and even openly violated, in quarters where the rules of fashion are generally moulded; but it is still humiliating to perceive that the priestly element is still powerful enough to diminish the number of marriages during Lent, and to curtail the hospitalities of even worldly people. We repudiate fasting, not only because it is an absurd mistake, but also because it is enforced by the Church. It is degrading to sensible men and women, and injurious to those who are not sensible, to be ordered about in this childish way by priestly lips. To have a man, who claims Divine authority, thrusting himself into your house, and regulating your meals—or what is unspeakably worse, dictating to your very wife at the Confessional, on subjects too sacred to be thought of beyond the innermost shrine of your home—this is degradation indeed! I would rather have for my companions men openly vicious and profligate, than be the tool and slave of one who—while retaining every human attribute, assumes the privileges of a disembodied spirit, and even of the Divine Being Himself.
We go on our way somewhat too easily. We forget what abominations are being wrought through the English Confessional. We are too happy in our own freedom. We forget the poor slaves who are still in thraldom.page 6
What Lent is to some in its vilely corrupting influences, is hardly known to us who look upon it as a mere bit of folly, and have never experienced its vile secrets. Lent is the time of harvest in which silly women laden with sins are reaped and garnered—not into store-houses of purity and peace. Lent is the time when the Confessional has its Carnival. Lent is the time when all that is morbid, and most needs to be rooted out by healthy activity, strikes most deeply in corrupting soils. Of one thing we may be very sure, it is not such a fast as God hath chosen. Even in the hands of those who use it in a pure and holy manner it is utterly foolish; and in the hands of the unholy it is unspeakably debasing. It may be of the Church; but it is not of God. It may serve priestcraft, but it cannot serve mankind. It may pamper the world's luxuriousness, and pander to the world's vices; it can never make men manly, nor women womanly. It may fill the soul with priggishness and self-righteousness; it can never make it sober, righteous, and godly.
What kind of fast would God have instead? Surely that old Hebrew prophet is right in his answer. It commends itself sweetly to our listening hearts. If there is to be any religious outburst; if men are to break off for a while from their self-indulgences, and to call their sins to remembrance; if they are to fast, or to spend a day acceptable to the Lord, is not this the fast which He hath chosen, "To loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke Freedom—freedom—freedom. Its one cry is freedom. To set free oneself first from the chains of sin whereby we have been tied and bound. To put off the fetters of an unlawful or degrading habit; to cease to love unworthy objects, or to be the slave of lust, avarice, or ambition; and then having set free oneself, to set others free; to undo the heavy burdens—to undo the heavy burdens of needless misery, or of enforced sin; to make it easier for others to be good, to take off any burden we have been unconsciously or selfishly laying upon each other by word or deed; so to behave ourselves as to make every one who comes near us feel free and at home with us; that they may almost say what they like and do as they please without our being hurt, or offended; so to assure others of our entire friendliness that their page 7 own private cares seem lighter in our company, and they can breathe freely when we are nigh. Can anything be more acceptable to the Lord, than to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke; to forgive freely and lovingly all past wrongs and present failures; to find less fault; to be more tender in future over weaknesses and mistakes; to turn the service and toil of others, by our loving ways, into perfect freedom. We little know how much we might do to break every yoke, if only we were less concerned to break our own. If, instead of each one trying to get rid of his own life-burden, be were to try to lift off the burdens of others by kindnsss of word and deed, there would be but little lamentation. Contracts are good and needful. But if our relations with each other be all contracts and nothing more? Ah! Woe-betide us, we are only slaves fighting with each other. Man against woman, husbands against wives, fathers and mothers against children, masters against servants, servants against masters, class against class, the rich against the poor, capitalist against labourer, labourer against capitalist—all will be slaves, fighting against each other, each one tied and bound by the contract, and not by love, swearing bitterly and fiercely like Shylock, "I will have my bond."
You bend yourself to this mighty task of setting free, and God will fight for you against the demon of slavery. You need be nobody; you need be no capitalist, or politician, or general. No kingly crown need shine upon your brow, nor deadly weapon be wielded by your arm. In the obscurity of your home, where you may be only a child, or a servant, or a poor relation, or something iuconceivably little in the world's eyes, if you only try to make one heavy burden light, to break only one of the many cruel yokes that press upon those around you—you will have done more for God and man than any prophet, priest, or king that has only made himself famous. Nay, I think it is these poor little souls, half hidden by the wayside of life, who have done the most and the best for the refinement of humanity. The men have done what the women first taught them to do. The uppermost ranks in life learn their most beautiful lessons of love from the lowest. So God chooses the weak things of the world to confound things which are mighty and base things, yea, and things which are despised, and things which are not, to bring to naught the things which are. page 8 Let the fast which God hath chosen be daily—a perpetual fasting from all indulgence which presses painfully or unduly upon others; and let our self-examination be "What have I done this day to lighten the burden of others?" It is not the almsgiving, though that, if timely, may be good. It is not the contribution of our share of work or mirth, though these are essential and indispensable. It is more than these. It is the contribution of such sympathy as we can spare for those who are in any way dependent on us and on what we are. It is the endeavour to remove hindrances, to take away stumbling blocks, to allay unkind suspicions, to soothe irritation, and to banish anger by patient love. This devotion we can all feel for each other in turn, and we can all show it; and where it prevails, there is freedom, there is peace, there is joy.
Of the prophet's words concerning our duties to the poor, especially to poor and disagreeable or despised relatives, I need not speak at any length. They speak for themselves; nothing can be clearer than this line old prophet's meaning, and we ought to be grateful to him for having lived to break one yoke at least; the yoke of superstitious fasting and religious observance. He would have men take that only view of God which is born out of a loving heart, viz., That God requires no service of man which will not benefit his fellow-man; that God requires no self-mortification, no fasting, no sackcloth and ashes, no bowing down of the head like a bulrush, nor anything of the kind whatever; but that the only service which he requires, the only work of Self-denial which can make our days acceptable to Him, is what we can do to make each other more free, more happy, and more holy; to "undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke."