Monday 2 December 2013

The Advent Fast in the Irish Church - 2

Below is the text of a fuller response by Father Sylvester Malone to the challenge posed to him on the antiquity of the Advent Fast and on the Irish loan word for fasting. It is worth noting that even in modern Irish, the days of the week reflect the practice of fasting. Wednesday, Dé Céadaoin is literally the day of the first fast, céad aoin, Friday, Dé hAoine is literally the day of the fast, whilst Thursday, Déardaoin , is literally dia idir dhá aoin, the day between two fasts. In his paper Father Malone musters some interesting evidence, including the observation of a 'Lent of Saint Martin' in the wider church as well as for the existence of a 'Summer Lent'. What was particularly noteworthy to me though was his reference to the statement of the Irish compiler of the law of fasting "that fleshmeats may be used in the great Lent;" because then "other things are scarce." In the latter part of the paper it is confirmed again that the old habits of strict fasting died hard among the Irish. So, there is much of interest in this paper. I regret that I cannot easily reproduce the footnotes giving the various sources which the author used, but the original volume can be consulted online.


[We publish with much pleasure the following interesting paper on a question started in the last number of the RECORD.]

In my hurried note to the RECORD, I alluded to two references as indicating the lines on which an argument might be constructed in proof of Advent fasts prevailing from the beginning in the Irish Church, and I now hasten to open up these lines, and complete the argument.

St. Adamnan, born in the year 620, in warning the Irish people of the visitations which in vision he saw impending over them because of neglect of religious duties, recommends, among other remedies, the observance of a Triduum four times a year. The first Triduum was to take place on the first Wednesday of the Winter Lent, the second on the first Wednesday of the Spring Lent. In the first place here there is question, I contend, of the Advent fast. Irish writers, when explaining the fasts of the year, state that there may be a " relaxation on the eves of the principal festivals of the year, to wit, Christmas and the two Easters." The second Easter was to take place in summer. Its date was thus fixed: "The 17th of the month of July takes place, and the Sunday next in succession to it is the Summer Pasch." Now as we learn that among other reasons for Lent one was in order "to prepare for the reception of the Body of our Lord," we may clearly infer then, as the Spring and Summer Paschs had fasts preceding them, that Christmas, classed as the third fundamental solemnity of the year, also had its Lent. Hence the relaxation of the fast on the eve of Christmas. Because if the fast had not been of unusual duration there would not be need of relaxation, and because otherwise the fast preceding it, though one of the three chief ones of the year, would not equal the fasts that preceded minor feasts.

The relaxation at the end of the Winter Lent or Advent above referred to is only an application of a general Canon. An Irish writer, after speaking of various kinds of fasts, of the besetting temptations attendant on them, and of the other weapons to be used by Christians in the spiritual warfare, goes on to speak of a tempered fast: " A tempered fast is one which grants release at the endings of high celebrations, or noble solemnities, or on grand festivities, or Sundays." Surely if any solemnities had noble endings it was Advent the eve of one of these three festivals declared to be the most fundamental in the Calendar.

Nor need we be surprised at the term Winter Lent ; for there was even the Summer Lent. The venerable Leabhar Breac, after speaking of Ascension-Thursday and Pentecost, which was preceded by fasts, says, " the Sunday next following the 25th of June is the Sunday on which begins the Summer Lent." Quadrages or Lent was the term applied to the fast of Advent, Easter, and Summer, indifferently, and its peculiarly distinctive meaning was determined by the adjunct specifying the season at which the Lent occurred.

That this designation of Advent was not peculiar to the Irish Church is made abundantly evident. Almost contemporaneously with its use in the ancient Vision of St. Adamnan we find Advent referred to, as in Irish manuscripts, so also in the annals of the Continental Church. For instance, there was question of seeking a relaxation of the observance of Advent, for which a fine had to be paid. Thus a diploma, dated 735, required forty Lucii (coins) from the monks of Nomantula for the Lent of St. Martin. Martene assures us that by this was understood the Advent. And St. Peter Damian, who lived in the 11th century, speaks of "the Quadrages or Lent which was usually observed by the faithful before the birthday of our Lord." If then in other churches Advent was understood as designated by the name of St. Martin's Lent, surely there can be no difficulty in understanding what Irish manuscripts meant by the Winter Lent.

Now that we are certain of the existence of the Advent fast from the earliest ages in the Irish Church, our inquiry shall be as to its duration. At present it is of uniform length through the Church, but it was not so in earlier times. It lasted for a month here, for six weeks elsewhere, and in some places extended to nearly two months, beginning on the first of November. In looking into a ninth century Missal, the Irish Corpus Missal, all we learn from it is that there was a Mass for the first Sunday of Advent, thus implying that there was at least a second Sunday. The Epistle is the same as we have now for the first Sunday of Advent, but this should not lead us to pronounce that its duration then was the same as now: for the Gospel is that of our present third or fourth Sunday. But in looking into the Festology of Aengus, Cele De, the question is at at once settled. Under the 13th of November, I read:

" On the Ides (of November) the death of Eutaic, a martyr was he whom you praise near Christmas, high and all prayerful festival, at the appearance of the beginning of Lent."

This entry puts beyond question the fact that the Advent fast had a place among the observances of the Irish Church. Its duration then was nearly commensurate with that in the Ambrosian Liturgy.

And while the Festology written before the end of the 8th century gives a very high antiquity to the Advent fast, a still older date may be vindicated for it by the Vision of St. Adamnan already referred to. The Saint, in warning the people of Erin against impending woes, prescribes the fasts of the Tridua during the Winter and Spring Lents, and in doing so, says that he only urges on them the observance of the " covenants left them by God and St. Patrick." Here we have the authority of a Saint and Irishman for tracing the Advent fast to the days of St. Patrick. Those who witnessed the death of St. Patrick could have lived to see the birth of St. Adamnan. Such testimony must render quite improbable the opinion of Martene and Benedict XIV., which attributes the origin of the Advent fast in the sixth century to St. Gregory.

The opinion then which attributes the institution of the Advent fast to St. Martin of Tours in the fifth century, derives some countenance from its introduction by his nephew, our national Apostle, and from the tenacity with which the Irish Church adhered to its observance till after the Reformation.

Notwithstanding the mention of the Advent fast in connexion with the Ides of November, there is reason for judging that it did not begin invariably on the thirteenth of the month, but on the following Sunday: for the other Lents began on Sunday. We have seen already a rule laid down for finding the Sunday on which the Summer Lent began: the Easter Lent began also on Sunday. This we can infer from the rules for the Triduum in the Vision of Adamnan, which prescribed the second Triduum on the first Wednesday of Lent. Now, if the Lent began on Wednesday, as at present, the writer would have spoken of the first of Lent, rather than of the first Wednesday in Lent.

Besides, we know as a matter of fact, that the present four days' fast before Quadragesima was not usual before the middle of the ninth century. If the Summer and Easter Lents began on Sunday, it is inferrible that the Advent Lent also began on a Sunday.

Now, if we suppose, as there is reason for doing, that each day in Advent was a fast day, it would consist, abating the six Sundays, of an average of thirty-four fasting days. In my calculation I presume that the Advent did not begin till the Sunday following the 13th of November; because the entry in the Festology states that the fast did not begin,but that its commencement appeared or approached, on the Ides of November ; and because it was on a Sunday Advent began in other churches.

The duration of the Summer Lent could not have been more than three weeks ; because it began on the Sunday next succeeding the 25th June, and the Summer Pasch began on the next Sunday following the 17th July: now as the Spring Lent ended on Easter Sunday, so should we conclude that the Summer Lent closed on the Sunday of the Summer Pasch. Its length then, was, by this calculation, half that of the Spring Lent.

It is quite certain that the length of the ancient Advent dwindled down to that of the Advent at present before the Reformation. For the Sarum Use and, what is more to the point, a Breviary written in the closing years of the 15th century, by a Killaloe priest, give only four Sundays to Advent.

As in regard to the length, so too in regard to the character of the Advent fast, there was a variety of practices in different countries. In some places the Advent preparation consisted of abstinence, in others fasting formed a part of it; and some of those who fasted confined their fast to special days in the week.

The Irish Church, which yielded to none in Christendom in the strictness of its fasts, in all probability extended the fast to the entire six weeks of Advent.

We must bear in mind that the three Lents in the Irish Church were designated by the common name Corgais or Quadragesima. Whenever an adjunct followed the word it was in order to determine its duration, and the season in which it took place. Therefore, by an acknowledged canon in the use of language and that of common sense, it is only reasonable to attribute, without notice to the contrary, the same meaning to the common word Lent when used by the same writers and applied to the same matter. On that account we are to infer that the character of the Lent was the same in each of the three Lents.

This view of the matter is confirmed by those writers who spoke of the fast on Christmas Eve: "thick milk and honey are mixed on the eve of the chief solemnities; to wit, at Christmas, and the two Easters." The greatness of the solemnity led to the above indulgence, which supposed a fast like the Easter and Summer fast, but different from the mere three days' fast of the Triduum.

I remarked before that a distinction had been kept up between the several Lents not merely as belonging to different seasons, but as qualified by the intervening festivals. Thus during the Easter Lent, in which occurred St. Patrick's festival, rather liberal fare was allowed on his festival, unless it fell on Friday. But with the exception caused by the accompanying festivals, all the Lents were treated as of the same character.

There is, it must be admitted, a distinction sometimes made between the food allowable in Lent and out of it. The expounder of the law on Lent says "that fleshmeats may be used in the great Lent;" but this distinction of the great from the other Lent does not establish a difference in the ordinary character: for the writer assigns a reason for the distinction, because then "other things are scarce."

The writer takes care to assign the reason of the indulgence in the great Lent: because other necessaries, milk, honey, vegetables, were more scarce then than during the other Lents.

But in general the same character was assigned to the various Lents. Hence in the very next line it is stated that "on the high festivals which fall on Thursday or Tuesday during the Lents half selanns " are given. Here the same character and treatment are given of the several Lents.

The Advent fast did not, as stated in a reference to Ferraris, fall into disuse in the twelfth century. It lingered on not only in Ireland but in other countries. Alexander III.,writing in the thirteenth century, says, that " the fast is observed by us during the Advent of the Lord."

The Advent fast which prevailed in the Church through most of the Middle Ages fell into disuse in the fourteenth century. The custom of fasting fell into desuetude now in one country, and by-and-by in another; but it was only in the year 1370 that it may be said to have been repealed by Pope Urban V., at Avignon.

And though not generally binding, the fast, however, was subsequently observed in some countries; but in no country was it more warmly cherished than in Ireland. That Irish Church which was among the first to receive it, was the last to give up the Advent fast. On that account we find the distinction kept between the various Lents to the end of the Middle Ages. Nothing is so common to writers of the fifteenth century in Ireland as the use of the Crucifixion Lent, or Easter Lent as contradistinguished from the Winter and Summer Lents. Hence writers in the fifteenth century lay down rules for determining the recurrence of the latter.

The same reverence for Advent fasts made the Irish Church cling to their observance as to the observance of holidays, even when retrenched. This is so certain that Dr. French, Bishop of Elphin, writing in 1803 to Dr. Moylan, states that the feasts of the Purification, Nativity, and Conception were kept holidays of obligation, though not so in other dioceses, because the Church of Elphin, in previous years, did not avail itself of the Indult extended to the rest of the Church.

Hence, too, when Clement VIII. issued an Indult in the year 1598, exempting the Irish from abstinence, they did not avail themselves of its privileges. The bishops of the Dublin Province met at Kilkenny in 1614 and promulgated anew the Indult. Even then the faithful did not avail themselves of it. And in sixty years subsequently, Clement X. had to issue another Rescript, and another synod had to promulgate it, in order to convince the people that the fasts thitherto binding were relaxed by the Papal Indult. Even this did not prevent the faithful from observing the fasts.

After sending my hurried note to the RECORD, I took an opportunity of looking the O'Renehan Collections through, and failed to see in them a proof against the existence of Advent fasts in our Irish Church. On the contrary, I found an allusion, and only once, in them to Advent in connexion with fasts. The passage runs thus:

"Besides on all Fridays of the year, as on the Vigils of the Nativity, Conception, and Annunciation, and likewise of the Purification of the B. V. M., a fast is observed by the more devout everywhere (as some fast even in the Advent season), which is set down by others to devotion rather than to a strict obligation ; but whether the custom arises from mere devotion or strict obligation, the Vigil of the Purification is transferred by a Decree of the Synod of Armagh in favor of St. Bridget."

Now this entry would rather prove than otherwise the existence of the Advent fast in Ireland before the year 1778. It is a statement made out in the year 1649 of a representative meeting of the priests of the Province of Armagh, which took place in the year 1614.

The fast on the Vigil of the Purification was set down by some to mere devotion; but the provincial synod judged it unsafe to deny the existence of a strict obligation, and therefore transferred the Vigil fast.

The parenthetic clause, asserting the Advent fast, is not spoken of either as observed by the devout merely, or as of doubtful obligation. The synod had no idea of qualifying that clause by what follows, as it did not contemplate legislating for the Advent fast as for the Vigil fast; nor did the synodal statement, on the observance of the Vigil fast by the rather devout, affect the Advent fast in the succeeding parenthesis- as some fast even in Advent time - because the agents in fasting in the latter case are different from those in the former. It is not said jejunatur a devotioribus (prout jejunatur etiam tempore Adventus); but the form given, jejunatur a devotioribus (prout a quibusdam jejunatur tempore Adventus), shows that the Advent fast spoken of as observed is implied to have been of obligation.

For those who observed the doubtfully binding fast of the Vigil are not the same as those who observed the Advent fast, the former were the devout, the latter were different; and we all know it is only a penitential observance of obligation that is respected by the indevout. On that account we may fairly infer the fast of Advent in the seventeenth century to have been regarded as the continuation of an immemorial custom of obligation. And even granted the Advent then to have been of mere devotion, still it militates for my contention.

But though the authority of the Synod at Drogheda is unexceptionable as vouching for the existence of the Advent fast, its conduct in regard to legislation on the holidays is more open to exception. It appears to have acted on its own responsibility in transferring Vigils, specially composed as it was of only the second order of the clergy, and thus practically to have recognised condemned principles of the famous Synod of Pistoia in 1786. However their loyalty is unquestionable.

I may observe that though there is no general law by which the Advent fasts prevail through the Church, yet they are more general than is commonly believed.

There is scarcely a country, to my knowledge, in which they do not obtain. The Supreme Pontiffs took an opportunity, in issuing Rescripts as to the suppression of Vigils and fasts, to restore the old discipline of the Church. Not only in Europe but even in America where no Indult was required, because there had been no suppression of feasts, a fast of one or two days in Advent prevails.

Each theologian, imagining that the Indult in regard to the Advent fast was peculiar to his own country, and it may no doubt be subject to special conditions, did not think it well to discuss its nature on principles of universal application. But the absence of allusion to the fast in the text of theological treatises is no proof that it does not prevail in the country of their writers.

For instance, I refer to Scavini who, though a canon of the Church of Novara, omits all allusion to Advent in his text, but in a note quotes the Indult of Pius VII., which made the same concessions under like conditions to Savoy as to Ireland.

Notwithstanding the various incidental points touched on, the principal aim of this article has been, as well to supplement the few remarks in my last note, as to evolve the suppressed premiss of an enthymeme. On the former occasion I glanced at the existence of several Lents in the Irish Church, and on the present have shewn, at least to my own satisfaction, that these Lents were of different durations, and as such were expressed by the common word corgais, forty.

I therefore feel entitled to repeat as an unquestionable fact now what was only an assertion a while ago, at the close of a short note, when my argument had been incomplete, that corgais supplies a remarkable instance of the conventional signification of a word becoming not only different from, but essentially contradictory to, its etymological and original meaning.

S. M.

Irish Ecclesiastical Record Ser 3, vol 2, 1881, 104-113.

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