What Does It Mean to “Fast” for the Saints?

In general, the modern era neglects the practice of honoring excellent people. We idolize the famous and popular and leave the admirable, the truly excellent, to the teachers and textbooks. But we ought to honor the excellent. Why? Because it is part of the virtue of justice; honor is due to the honorable. Furthermore, holy people, i.e. saints, ought to be honored especially because holiness is the highest form of excellence—it is closeness to God. (And keep in mind “honor” does not mean “worship,” which is reserved for God alone.) St. Bonaventure’s biography of St. Francis records several incidents in which Francis honors saints, both in ways that may seem familiar, such as through honoring relics, but also in ways that may seem foreign or confusing to us, namely, by fasting. Why would St. Francis have fasted for a saint? What does that mean? Ought we to imitate his example?

In one scene, Francis finds forgotten relics of saints. Bonaventure writes:

[When] Francis was praying in a certain deserted church, in the providence of Massa, near Mount Casale, he was enlightened in spirit to know that some sacred relics were there concealed. Grieving that they had long been defrauded of their due honor, he commanded his brethren to remove them. (Life of St. Francis, 1904, Ch. 6.7)

St. Francis is worried that the saints, whose relics had been lost, had been somehow wronged by not being honored. He immediately recognizes what is owed to them as holy men of God “because of the love and reverence which they bore to Christ” (Life of St. Francis, 1904, Ch. 9.3).

Bonaventure later details how St. Francis honored the saints. First, he venerates and respects their relics, but St. Francis also honors them by doing something unique: he fasts for them. Bonaventure writes that Francis “dedicated a special Lent in their honor” (Life of St. Francis, 1904, Ch. 9.3) and that he would fast routinely for extended periods of time “in honor of the Archangel Michael” (Life of St. Francis, 1904, Ch. 8.10). Why?

Francis’s practices teach us two things. First, honoring the saints is important. Through the grace of God, they achieved holiness. The Church recognizes their state of complete unity with God in heaven, and for this, in justice, they ought to be honored. This leads us to our second point, that we must honor them through growing in holiness ourselves. To be a saint means to be holy, to be intimately united to God. God wants to be united with us in the closest way possible: in the sacraments here on earth but especially through total unity with Him in heaven. Because the saints are united with God in all things, they share His desire. They, too, want us to grow closer to our Lord and to become saints ourselves. What the saints chiefly care about is that we also become holy, that we also become saints. This leads us to understand that the best way to honor the saints is by doing good in their honor, to pray and fast in their honor.

How can we better understand these prayers and fasts? They are like dedicating a book to someone or making a donation to charity in someone’s name. Through the dedication, the writing of the book honors that person, and that charitable act of making a donation becomes an action that honors another. Another metaphor can be when an athlete dedicates a score or a game to someone: “I did that for you…” When we do a good thing for the sake of another, it honors them. St. Francis’ habit of fasting for the saints was a key practice by which he honored them. This act, in addition to its own goodness, became an act of devotion.

Now, fasting is meant to bring us closer to God by intentionally depriving ourselves so that we may recognize more clearly our need and dependency on the Almighty. However, any honor paid to a saint does not merely remain in the saint; it does not exclusively honor him or her. Since the saints are intimately united to Christ, “devotion to God’s holy ones, dead or living, does not terminate in them, but passes on to God, insofar as we honor God in His servants” (Thomas Aquinas, ST II-II, q. 82, a. 2, ad 3). Therefore, any honor paid to the saints is also honor paid to God. When we do religious acts, such as prayers and fasts, in honor of the saints we are—in a way—praying twice. Firstly, in our prayers and secondly in honoring the saints.

Honor paid to the saints does not detract from God’s honor, nor does it distract us from God and worshipping Him. On the contrary, we are honoring God’s work of making this saint into a saint. St. Bonaventure himself honored God by honoring Francis in the writing of this biography. He recognized that by the saint’s intercession, his life had been spared when he was young. So, out of gratitude and the honor due to him and to the God who made him holy, St. Bonaventure honors St. Francis by his book. We ought to honor the saints more intentionally too. How will you?

Photo by Kamil Szumotalski on Unsplash

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Matthew McKenna is a Ph.D candidate in Theology at Ave Maria University. He studies and teaches on the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, G.K. Chesterton, and J.R.R. Tolkien. His dissertation-in-progress explains the link between the masculine genius and the priesthood.

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