The below is an excerpt from an interview Mr. Julian Kwasniewski conducted with Fr. Cassian Folsom, OSB of the Benedictines of Norcia at the Sacred Liturgy Conference in Salem, Oregon, June 27-30, 2018. The entire interview can be found at this website: https://onepeterfive.com/norcia-monk-prayer-fasting/
We culled out this section of the interview to highlight Fr. Folsom’s great response to Mr. Kwasniewski’s question about chastity and fasting.
– The Editors
Q: In the Holy Rule, St. Benedict mentions chastity only once. He just says the brothers should “love chastity.” How can young people take that as an example of how to approach chastity, even if they are not called to consecrated virginity?
A: It’s a wonderful question, and very timely. This particular phrase can be understood best by referring to one of Benedict’s sources – that is, St. John Cassian, who has three treatises on chastity. Cassian makes a distinction between continence and chastity. Let me talk about that for the celibate first, and then everyone.
For the celibate, continence means the self-discipline of restraining your natural impulses. We don’t love continence because it is a struggle, a battle. Chastity, in Cassian’s vocabulary, is the peace that comes as a result of the struggle: it’s the prize. It is the tranquility of body and spirit that comes at the end of the struggle. So we can certainly love that, and desire that ardently.
Now, I said that first about the celibate, but it applies to every Christian as well. In a sex-saturated culture like our own, with enormous confusion in the sexual realm, the notion of self-restraint seems “out of place” in our times, or something…like you have three heads! But I would say unrestrained sexual liberty is devastating to the human person and leads only to unhappiness. Why people can’t see that is because sexual pleasure acts like a drug. So to learn self-restraint is a wonderful quality that should be part of every human life, including married life. Being married doesn’t mean you can have sex whenever you want to! That’s the most absurd notion that a lot of people have. It does not work that way.
So, there is a lot of confusion in this area, in our culture and in our Church. St. Benedict is saying that to love chastity is a thing for everyone: chastity in the sense of the proper use of the sexual faculty according to your state in life. For a married man, it means, frequently enough, self-restraint and abstinence. Likewise for the woman. It’s a very attractive virtue that we should cultivate.
This is related to fasting. It’s not the struggle [that we want], but the tranquility that comes at the end of a fast period, just as we love chastity as a sort of physical and spiritual integrity, and peace that comes from abstinence. The two are related. We see this in the desert fathers. They say, “If you want sexual purity, fast.” Because they are both controlling physical appetites.
Q: Fasting is not an end in itself; it’s a tool that develops our will so that when we are used to denying ourselves in small things, we can also deny the big things when they come along.
A: Exactly. That sense is gone, completely gone. But it can be recovered!
Q: One meal a day: that may be unrealistic for many laity, but what about an internet fast?
A: Absolutely! But even in terms of fasting, our [Eastern] Orthodox friends look on us with disdain, because their laity fast before certain feasts! A two-week fast in the summer, before the Assumption: well, we are just wimps! And that is because, in our society, the proposal is “fulfill your desires; whatever you want, just do it.” This comes especially through commercials, over and over again. It’s a lie. And we are in a mess! But it was Bishop Schneider who was saying: “It seems like we are in a winter, but there are signs of flowers coming through the snow.”