The Monastic Fast
“My meat is to do the will of Him Who sent Me, that I may perfect His work … For in this is the saying true: That it is one man that soweth and another that reapeth” (John 31-37).
While we have covered the importance of fasting and considered several different ways that fasting has changed over the Church’s history, one area that has not yet been considered is the monastic fast. While we often think of fasting as it concerns lay Catholics (i.e., those of us who are not under vows in a religious order and who have not received Holy Orders), we would be remiss if we did not consider the great army of soldiers of Christ who are even today observing the venerable monastic fast.
We can trace the roots of the monastic fast through Chapter 41 of The Rule of St. Benedict (circa 515 A.D.). While the entirety of a monk’s life was one of moderation in food and in drink, the monastic fast added additional self-denial starting on September 15th, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, and continuing until Ash Wednesday. When Ash Wednesday arrived, the monk would then follow the stricter Lenten fast. As a result, over half the year of a monk’s life would be spent in fasting.
The monastic fast and the Divine Office governed the monk’s life. In fact, the only part of the year in which the monk was to eat two meals each day was from Easter to Pentecost! Chapter 41 of The Rule of St. Benedict states:
“From holy Easter to Pentecost, the brothers eat at noon and take supper in the evening. Beginning with Pentecost and continuing throughout the summer, the monks fast until mid-afternoon on Wednesday and Friday, unless they are working in the fields or the summer heat is oppressive. On the other days they eat dinner at noon. Indeed, the abbot may decide that they should continue to eat dinner at noon every day if they have work in the fields or if the summer heat remains extreme. Similarly, he should so regulate and arrange all matters that souls may be saved, and the brothers may go about their activities without justifiable grumbling. From the thirteenth of September to the beginning of Lent, they always take their meal in mid-afternoon. Finally, from the beginning of Lent to Easter, they eat towards evening. Let Vespers be celebrated early enough so that there is no need for a lamp while eating, and that everything can be finished by daylight. Indeed, at all times let supper or the hour of the fast-day meal be so scheduled that everything can be done by daylight.”
There are still orders of monks and nuns who are faithful to Tradition who maintain this fast. Even today they are praying for us and observing this self-denial for our benefit and to avert the wrath of God. How often do we thank God for their sacrifices and pray for them when they do so much for us through prayer and fasting?
The Example of St. John of the Cross
The story of St. John of the Cross, who worked tirelessly to reform the Carmelites and restore the Primitive Rule, including the fast, is a source of inspiration for us today. May we pray for many of the religious in the world today to embrace Tradition, to remain faithful to it, and to willingly pick up the more assiduous fasting needed for our times.
At the age of 21, St. John entered the Carmelite Order by a prompting from the Holy Ghost on February 24, 1563. At that time, he took the name John of St. Mathias, since he received the habit on the Feast of St. Mathias. At the onset, St. John felt called to personally keep the ancient Rule of the Carmelites that was given by St. Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem, which was approved by Pope Innocent IV (+1254). His superiors permitted him to do so. However, the Carmelites at that time instead kept a mitigated rule which had been approved by Pope Eugenius IV (+1447). The mitigated rule allowed the consumption of meat; it did not require the fast that lasted from the Feast of the Holy Cross all the way to Easter and allowed the friars to wear shoes.
Yet, St. John was called by God to observe the ancient Rule. He did so while at the Carmelite Monastery, even though this brought the ridicule of his brethren down upon him. Many days he would go hungry as there were no special meals of food prepared for him. Yet, he continued to observe the ancient observance and would permit himself no excuse from any function at the monastery.
At the age of 25, St. John was asked to prepare for the priesthood even though he felt far too unworthy to do so. Yet, he submitted – his whole life he submitted to his superiors – and was ordained. Feeling unworthy to offer the Holy Sacrifice, St. John prayed at his first Mass to persevere in purity his whole life. God answered Him at that Mass through a voice which said, “Thy prayer is granted.”
The young St. John felt drawn to the Carthusian Order, but he was asked by St. Teresa of Avila to help her in the restoration of the primitive Carmelite Rule of Life. He agreed and received the habit of the primitive Order. Along with two other friars in 1568, Saint John renewed his solemn vows and renounced the mitigations of the rule sanctioned by Pope Eugenius IV. And they promised both Our Lord and Our Lady that they would live under the Primitive Rule until death. In keeping with the custom St. Teresa established for the sisters to change their names to avoid all connection with their family names, the saint changed his name to John of the Cross.
During the years that followed, again with the support of his superiors, St. John founded many monasteries. These religious observed the stricter ‘discalced’ rule with the approval of the Order. St. John chose to live at one that was abject and completely impoverished. Within it, he chose the poorest and smallest room for himself. He had the gift of ‘reading souls’ and counseled many nuns and friars. It was during this time that he received many mystical experiences, including trances and visions while in prayer or saying Holy Mass
It is well documented that on several occasions St. John performed exorcisms to relieve the possessed. In one of the better known incidents, he freed a nun from the devil whom many learned theologians at the famed University of Salamanca mistakenly thought to be exceptionally wise and prophetic. St. John discerned the presence of the evil one because the nun refused to say the Creed correctly. He then began the process of exorcism by insisting that she learn well the basics of the catechism. This particular incident helps show us how important it is for all confirmed Catholics to study and know the catechism well. Moreover, it illuminates one of the most over-looked aspects of studying the Faith, namely that it is a powerful protection against the attacks of the infernal demons.
After nine years of his keeping the Primitive Rule, St. John was forcibly arrested by the Carmelite Order which wished to suppress the Primitive Rule. St. John underwent severe punishment as a prisoner in a Carmelite monastery. There, the prior treated him with great irreverence, forbade him to say Mass, starved him, and refused to let him change his habit or bathe for the entire nine months of his imprisonment. The monks even employed a kind of ‘psychological warfare’ by whispering all kinds of untruths outside the door of his cell; for example, that the monasteries he helped found had been destroyed by ecclesial authorities.
St. John was treated with the utmost contempt, but he welcomed it all in a spirit of penance and making reparation. He longed to suffer and was most docile and patient of sufferings. By the accounts that were written, the patient endurance of his unjust torture resembled the patience of Our Lord in His Passion. After nearly a year, he received a vision from Our Lady with the means to escape; and he did so.
He spent the remaining years of his life in constant prayer and work for the Order. He served as Vicar-Provincial, he performed miracles, and he continued to found monasteries. This lasted for many years, and then in 1587 Pope Sixtus V sanctioned separation of the friars of the reform from the friars of the mitigation. At last, in 1588 the first General Chapter of the Reform was held where St. John of the Cross was made the first Consultor and Prior of Segovia.
Around this time, he was in deep prayer when Our Lord spoke to Him in a vision and asked, “John, what shall I give thee for all thou hast done and suffered for Me?” And after He asked three times, St. John responded, “To suffer and to be held in contempt for Thy sake.” And his prayer was granted.
In the ensuing years, he was relieved of all offices as superior, he spent his remaining years under a superior who was unkind and hateful towards him for having corrected a fault of his years before, and he died in humiliation. But St. John endured it all and desired the physical and spiritual torment he endured all for the graces and for the sake of God. At last, he died in December 1591 on a Saturday, the day dedicated to Our Lady, which was revealed to Him.
Miraculously, his body and his bandages gave forth a great perfume whose smell could not be contained. Great light filled his tomb just days after he died, and his body was incorrupt. It was determined that some of his limbs were to go to some of the houses of the Order, so it was divided up. And the relics of his body brought many miracles to those who touched them.
I highly recommend Saint John of the Cross by Father Paschasius Heriz for more on the story of this heroic saint. St. John of the Cross suffered immensely for holding fast to strict discipline. He provides an ideal example for Offering Reparation to Our Mother, which is central to the Message of Fatima and The Fatima Center’s theme for 2021.
May St. John pray for us to return to traditional disciplines for the glory of God and the good of souls.
 The origins of such a venerable and pious devotion are shrouded in the annals of Christian history. We have numerous accounts of the superhuman fasts performed by the Desert Fathers, such as St. Paul the Hermit, St. Antony of the Desert, and St. Pachomius the Cenobite. They, of course, were striving to imitate the glorious fasts of such biblical personages as Moses, Elias, and St. John the Baptist – whose acts were sanctified by Our Lord’s own fasting. The Rule of St. Benedict did not originate or institute a ‘monastic fast’ but rather sought to normalize and propagate an existing tradition. As one of our oldest extant records – one which has been in continual use – it is an extremely important historical reference.
 Published in 1919 and with an imprimatur and glowing review by Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, Saint John of the Cross by Father Paschasius Heriz is a true treasure. Fr. Paschasius of the Carmelite Community at the Catholic University of America was a scholar and an expert on the Carmelite Order.