Why Should We Fast?

“We are taught to fast regularly as part of our Christian discipline. Why should we fast? How do we serve God by going hungry? Surely we need adequate food each day in order to work hard in God’s service. Jesus criticized most vehemently those who drew attention to their fasting, urging us to fast in secret; so clearly fasting is not a matter for personal pride. There are two reasons to fast. The first is to break our attachment to material things, of which food is the most central, and so compel us to depend on spiritual things. When we are eating regularly, food not only sustains our bodies, but provides pleasure and satisfaction. In itself there is nothing wrong with such pleasure. But when we do without food, we are reminded that the only true and lasting source of joy is spiritual. The second is to express solidarity with those whose poverty forces them to go hungry. We may fast from time to time as a discipline; but many people fast continually because they have not money to buy food. If we are truly to show compassion to the poor, we must experience within our own bodies the consequences of poverty. Fasting is thus an incentive toward generosity. And the money saved during a fast can readily be given to relieve the enforced hunger of others.”  (St. John Chrysostom, On Living Simply, p. 78)

 

 

Keeping a Strict Fast

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)

As we continue to sojourn through the Apostle’s Fast as we prepare to celebrate the Feast of the Glorious Leaders of the Apostles, Peter and Paul, we are reminded that whether or not we strictly keep food fasting rules, we are as Christians obligated to follow Christ’s commandment to love one another as He loves us .

The monastic elders stressed conversion, compassion, and forgiveness, which they saw as far more important than the most extreme ascetic practices.

As one elder declared, “If a man have humility and poverty and judge not another, that is how the fear of the Lord gets into him.”

Another elder taught, “It is better to eat meat and drink wine than by detraction to devour the flesh of your brother.” (Jim Forest, Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness, p. 31)

The Origins of the Apostle’s Fast

Fr. Paul N. Harrilchak notes in his book, The Divine Liturgy of the Great Church (p 211), that the origins of the Apostle’s Fast are rooted in the ancient Christian practice that there was no fasting or penitential kneeling in the Church for the 50 days from Pascha to Pentecost, which for many centuries was treated as one continuous and great Feast in the Church which lasted 7 weeks plus one day.   In the 4th Century according to documents, following this totally fast-free fifty day festal period, plus an additional week of feasting after Pentecost, a one week fast was observed.  That one week fast which began 8 days after Pentecost morphed, under monastic influence in recent centuries, into the Apostle’s Fast which now stretches from the Monday after All Saints Day until the Feast of Ss Peter and Paul on June 29.  Because Pascha and Pentecost are movable feasts, the length of the Apostle’s fast changes each year.

After having celebrated Pentecost, keep a feast for one week, and after that keep a fast for one week [origin of the so-called Apostles’ Fast–Ed.]: for it is right to rejoice over the Gift of God [meaning the Descent of the Holy Spirit–Ed.], and then to keep a fast after the time of relaxation [of Wednesday/Friday fasting during the 50-day Paschal/Pentecost season]. (Apostolic Constitutions, Syria (ca. 380 A.D.).  

Fasting: Refraining from Sin

Fasting in the body, O brethren, let us also fast from sin.” This is the Church’s song in the lenten season of fasting. It is also the teaching of the saints

…in fasting one must not only obey the rule against gluttony in regard to food, but refrain from every sin so that, while fasting, the tongue may also fast, refraining from slander, lies evil talking, degrading one’s brother, anger and every sin committed by the tongue. One should also fast with the eyes, that is, not look at vain things…not look shamefully or fearlessly at anyone. The hands and feet should also be kept from every evil action.

When one fasts through vanity or thinking that he is achieving something especially virtuous, he fasts foolishly and soon begins to criticize others and to consider himself something great.

 

A man who fasts wisely … wins purity and comes to humility and proves himself a skillful builder’ (St. Abba Dorotheus, 7th c., Directions on Spiritual teaching).”

(Fr. Thomas Hopko, Spirituality: Vol. 4, p. 135)

St. Mary of Egypt: The Flesh Passes Away

St. John of Kronstadt writes that we can take Great Lent seriously while rejoicing in our Christian way of life if we remind ourselves that the world is our temporary home, not the only life we will know.  If we think the world is all there is we cling to it and try to drain every drop of life out of every little thing.  When we truly believe in God’s Kingdom, we realize life on earth is only a tiny portion of all that exists, and that life is very short compared to the eternity in the afterlife.  His thoughts are a good mediation as we honor St. Mary of Egypt on the 5th Sunday of Great Lent.

“The material objects to which we attach ourselves in our hearts, which we passionately desire or grudge others, kill the soul by withdrawing it from God, the Source of life. The heart out to be always in God, Who is the inexhaustible Source of spiritual and material life: for who is the author of the existence of all creatures, and of organic, vegetable and animal life, of the existence, order and life of all worlds, both great and small?  The Lord God.  We must look upon everything material as dross, as unimportant, as nothingness, as transitory, destructible, corruptible, and evanescent, and pay attention to the invisible, single immortal soul which cannot be destroyed: “To despise the flesh, for it passeth away, and to take care for the soul, the thing immortal.” [*Hymn for St. Mary of Egypt – see below] Prove this by your deeds: fast, gladly bestow charity upon the poor, entertain guests heartily; do not grudge anything to those who belong to your household, zealously read the Word of God, pray, repent, lament your sins, strive with all your might after holiness, meekness, humility, patience and obedience.”  (My Life in Christ, pp. 175-176)

The Troparion for St. Mary of Egypt:

The image of God was truly preserved in you, O Mother, for you took up the Cross and followed Christ. By so doing, you taught us to disregard the flesh, for it passes away; but to care instead for the soul, since it is immortal. Therefore your spirit, O Holy Mother Mary, rejoices with the angels.

 

Not the Flesh, But Its Desires

“The Son of man has come eating and drinking; and you say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'” (Luke 7:34)

Ascetic practice including fasting is not supposed to kill the body, but only the sinful desires that arise in our bodies.  We practice self denial not because God’s creation is evil, but rather because of our own attitudes toward the world.  As  John Chryssavgis notes:

“…what is in fact avoided in authentic ascetic practice is not so much the world, or the things in the world…[but] the desire of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride in riches (I John 2:15-16). Flesh of course signifies the whole of one’s life in the state of conflict with oneself, with the world, and with God. Lust of the eyes implies the blurred vision of the world as created and as intended by God. Pride constitutes the ultimate hubris of humanity that usurps the role of God and seeks to dominate the world.” ( Beyond the Shattered Image: Insights into an Orthodox Christian Ecological Worldview, pp. 64-65).

Keeping Lent Strictly

Some of the most well known Orthodox saints were courageously outspoken against abuses within the Church as well as abuses by Orthodox civil rulers or hierarchs.  St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD) for example is sent into exile where he dies because of his criticisms of clergy as well as of the Empress.  St. Maria of Paris (d. 1945)  is a more contemporary saint who was troubled by what she saw in the Church of her day as the strict adherence to external ritualism while not having one’s heart changed by the Gospel.  Her stinging criticisms of Russian Orthodox Church life were intended to awaken Church members to live their Christian lives and not reduce Orthodoxy to mindless ritualism.  She refers to the example of Jesus Christ Himself who challenged the Pharisees of His day by declaring Himself to be Lord of the Sabbath, not a slave to Sabbath rules. St. Maria says:

“‘We can, of course, state that the Son of Man was Lord of the Sabbath, and that he violated the Sabbath precisely in the name of love. But where they do not violate it, where they cannot violate it, this is because there is no “in the name” nor is there love. Strict ritualism reveals itself here to be the slave of the Sabbath and not the way of the Son of Man…Instead of the Living God, instead of Christ crucified and risen, do we not have here a new idol, a new form of paganism, which is manifest in arguments over calendars, rubrics, rules, and prohibitions–a Sabbath which triumphs over the Son of Man?’

Likewise, [St. Maria Skobtsova] considers the ascetic mentality dominant in traditional monasticism, namely the conviction that everything one does is done out of obedience–to God, to the superior, to the monastic rule. The purpose for all of this is the salvation of one’s own soul, becoming “perfect even as your Father in heaven.” Once more, something is not right in such a vision, for

‘The whole world, its woes, its suffering, its labors on all levels–this is a kind of huge laboratory, a kind of experimental arena, where I can practice my obedience and humble my will. If obedience demands that I clean out stables, dig for potatoes, look after leprous persons, collect alms for the Church, or preach the teaching of Christ–I must do all these things with the same conscientious and attentive effort, with the same humility and the same dispassion, because all these things are tasks and exercises of my readiness to curb my will, a difficult and rocky road for the soul seeking salvation. I must constantly put virtues into practice and therefore I must perform acts of Christian love. But that love is itself a special form of obedience, for we are called and commanded to love–and we must love.’

But where is there any recognition of the other, the neighbor who is being fed, clothed, or visited? Rather than self-renouncing, self-giving love that embraces the other, this “strange and fearsome holiness” pursues all kinds of works of love because it is the rule, because God or the superior orders it, because it is necessary for the salvation of my soul.”

(Michael Plekon, The Teachings of Modern Christianity, p. 666).

We can live the Gospel by living a life of love – through acts of generous giving to others, to those in need, to our neighbors or to strangers, we can curb our own desires and serve others.  We turn our self denial into the service of others.  This is an ascetic act which everyone is capable of doing.  We don’t need to leave the world in order to follow Christ.  We can use Great Lent as a time to increase our service to others and thus deny ourselves.

Moses and the Ladder of Divine Ascent

Yesterday on the 4th Sunday of Great Lent, we commemorated the monastic father, St. John Climacus, author of the LADDER OF DIVINE ASCENT.

The imagery of the spiritual life being a ladder that we climb to heaven is based in the Bible.  In the Old Testament, the Patriarch Jacob dreams about such a ladder which connects earth to heaven (Genesis 28:12). In John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks about angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man (John 1:51).   In church hymnography, Mary has also been described as a ladder uniting earth to heaven.

St. Gregory of Nyssa also made use of the ladder imagery in his THE LIFE OF MOSES.  There the ladder stretches on eternally into heaven since there is no plateau to the spiritual life: one continues the ascent to God forever.    For St. Gregory no matter how much we ascend to God we will always realize God is even more beautiful than what we perceive.  This  thought causes us to ever move spiritually upward seeking that greater, more beautiful vision of God.  He writes:

“For this reason we also say that the great Moses, as he was becoming ever greater, at no time stopped in his ascent, nor did he set a limit for himself in his upward course. Once having set foot on the ladder which God set up (as Jacob says), he continually climbed to the step above and never ceased to rise higher, because he always found a step higher than the one he had attained. . . .

He shone with glory. And although lifted up through such lofty experiences, he is still unsatisfied in his desire for more. He still thirsts for that with which he constantly filled himself to capacity, and he asks to attain as if he had never partaken, beseeching God to appear to him, not according to his capacity to partake, but according to God’s true being.

Such an experience seems to me to belong to the soul which loves what is beautiful. Hope always draws the soul from the beauty which is seen to what is beyond, always kindles the desire for the hidden through what is constantly perceived. Therefore, the ardent lover of beauty, although receiving what is always visible as an image of what he desires, yet longs to be filled with the very stamp of the archetype.”   The Life of Moses, pp. 113-114)

The writings of St. Gregory on Moses also help clarify for us the goals of ascetic practice.  We are not trying to perfect fasting, rather we are trying to develop in our souls the love and desire for what is perfectly beautiful.  Fasting has an end point – we can only fast so much, we can only deny our self food to a finite degree.  Whereas the love for God, the development of the spiritual life goes on forever.  Fasting belongs to this fallen world, while the ascent to God and spiritual growth continues for all eternity.

Fasting AND …. ? Not By Fasting Alone

…see, at any rate how many blessings spring from both fasting and prayer. For he that is praying as he should, and is fasting as he should has not many wants, and he that has not many wants cannot be covetous; he that is not covetous will be also more disposed for almsgiving. He that fasts is light and prays with wakefulness and quenches his wicked lusts and propitiates God and humbles his soul when lifted up. Therefore even the apostles were not always fasting for the honor of fasting consists not in abstinence from food but in withdrawing from sinful practices.

Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works!

By itself abstinence from food does not contribute to perfect purity of soul unless the other virtues are active as well. Humility, for example, practiced through obedience in our work and through bodily hardship, is a great help. Freedom from anger, from dejection, self-esteem and pride also contributes to purity of soul in general, while self-control and fasting are especially important for bringing about that specific purity of soul which comes through restraint and moderation.

Our initial struggle therefore must be to gain control of our stomach and to bring our body into subjection not only through fasting, but also through vigils, labors and spiritual reading,and through concentrating our heart on, and longing for the kingdom of heaven.”

(St. John Cassian, Philokalia Book One and St. John Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew from Emily Harakas, Through the Year with the Church Fathers, pp. 96 & 97)

 

2017 Pre-Lenten Themes as a PDF

32505357554_0572c34ca5_nAll of the 2017 posts from my blog for the Pre-Lenten season are now gathered together into one PDF, for those who prefer to read one document rather than navigate through the blog.  You can find the document at 2017 Pre-Lent Posts.

You can find PDF links for all of the blogs I posted for each of the past 10 years for Great Lent, Holy Week and Pascha at  Fr. Ted’s PDFs.