As we approach the final week of Great Lent, we consider the purpose of fasting in the following quotes. Fasting was never the goal of Lent, but is a tool of learning to be a disciple of Christ. We have to learn not to pay attention to all of our whims, desires, lusts, wants, so that we can hear Christ teaching us to love God and neighbor. St. Theophan the Recluse (d. 1894) says:
“The rule of fasting is this: to remain in God with mind and heart, relinquishing all else, cutting off all pandering to self, in the spiritual as well as in the physical sense. We must do everything for the glory of God and for the good of our neighbor, bearing willingly and with love the labours of the fast and privations in food, sleep, and relaxation, and foregoing the solace of other people’s company. All these privations should be moderate so as not to attract attention and not to deprive us of strength to fulfill the rule of prayer.” (The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, pg. 217)
Even a strict ascetic like St. Theophan recognizes the fast must not be so severe as to interfere with our ability to pray, and certainly must never be so severe that people notice that we look gaunt, drawn or pallid. Moderation is the rule of fasting, so that we are not so self absorbed as to be incapable of love. St. Makarios of Egypt (d. 392AD) also reminds us that the hardships of lenten fasting are not the goal of the spiritual life. He says:
“When we cultivate a vineyard, the whole of our attention and labour is given in the expectation of the vintage; if there is no vintage, all our work is to no purpose. Similarly, if through the activity of the Spirit we do not perceive within ourselves the fruits of love, peace, joy and the other qualities mentioned by St. Paul (cf. Gal 5:22), and cannot affirm this with all assurance and spiritual awareness, then our labour for the sake of virginity, prayer, psalmody, fasting and vigil is useless. For, as we said, our labours and hardships of soul and body should be undertaken in expectation of the spiritual harvest; and where virtues are concerned, the harvest consists of spiritual enjoyment and incorruptible pleasure secretly made active by the Spirit in faithful and humble hearts. Thus the labours and hardships must be regarded as labours and hardships and the fruits as fruits. Should someone through lack of spiritual knowledge think that his work and hardship are fruits of the Spirit, he should realize that he is deluding himself, and in this way depriving himself of the truly great fruits of the Spirit.” (The Philokalia: Volume Three, pg. 295)
Lent, asceticism and fasting are the road upon which we walk toward our goal. The ability to fast is not a spiritual fruit, but the labor we do to attain the fruit of the Spirit.