August 1 each year marks the beginning of the Dormition Fast. This 14 day summer fast prepares us for the Feast of the Dormition which is the last of the 12 Great Feasts in the Orthodox church year calendar. In Orthodoxy, the human problem is often understood to be an issue of the human will. In order for God to heal the fallen will, humans have to learn to control their own will and even to deny it. It is our own will and self-centered demand to have our own way which separates us from God. By denying our self, we open our heart and mind to seeking God’s will. This opens us up to the healing and saving action of Christ. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes:
“An essential aspect of guarding the heart is warfare against the passions. By ‘passion’ here is meant not just sexual lust, but any disordered appetite or longing that violently takes possession of the soul: anger, jealousy, gluttony, avarice, lust for power, pride, and the rest. Many of the Fathers treat the passions as something intrinsically evil, that is to say, as inward diseases alien to man’s true nature. Some of them, however, adopt a more positive standpoint, regarding the passions as dynamic impulses originally placed in man by God, and so fundamentally good, although at present distorted by sin. On this second and more subtle view, our aim is not to eliminate the passions but to redirect their energy.
Uncontrolled rage must be turned into righteous indignation,
spiteful jealousy into zeal for the truth,
sexual lust into an eros that is pure in its fervor.
The passions, then, are to be purified, not killed; to be educated, not eradicated; to be used positively, not negatively. To ourselves and to others we say, not ‘Suppress’, but “Transfigure’. This effort to purify the passions needs to be carried out on the level of both soul and body. On the level of the soul they are purified through prayer, through the regular use of the sacraments of Confession and Communion, through daily reading of Scripture, through feeding our mind with the thought of what is good, through practical acts of loving service to others.
On the level of the body they are purified above all through fasting and abstinence, and through frequent prostrations during time of prayer. Knowing that man is not an angel but a unity of body and soul, the Orthodox Church insists upon the spiritual value of bodily fasting. We do not fast because there is anything in itself unclean about the act of eating and drinking. Food and drink are on the contrary God’s gift, from which we are to partake with enjoyment and gratitude. We fast, not because we despise the divine gift, but so as to make ourselves aware that it is indeed a gift – so as to purify our eating and drinking, and to make them, no longer a concession to greed, but a sacrament and means of communion with the Giver. Understood in this way, ascetic fasting is directed, not against the body, but against the flesh. Its aim is not destructively to weaken the body, but creatively to render the body more spiritual.” (The Orthodox Way, pp 155-156)