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.

Lenten Images

GOD‑BEARING APOSTLES, CHRIST WHO IS THE VINE BROUGHT YOU FORTH AS CLUSTERS OF GRAPES 

GIVING THE WORLD THE NEW WINE OF SALVATION!

THEREFORE, I ENTREAT YOU, DELIVER ME FROM THE DRUNKENNESS OF SENSUAL PLEASURES; GRANT MY SOUL TEARS OF COMPUNCTION ON THIS HOLY DAY OF THE FAST, THAT I MAY GAIN LIFE AND SALVATION!

The hymns above and below are taken from the Triodion from Thursday, 2nd Week of Great Lent.  Above, the hymn stays with a theme – vine, grape clusters and wine versus drunkenness which are metaphors for Christ, the apostles and salvation/sacrament versus sensual pleasures.  There is a beautiful and natural gift from God to us for our salvation, or we can choose like Adam to use God’s gifts for selfish pleasure rather than for communion with the Creator.

Below the hymn puts forth a theme not overly stressed during Great Lent in the Orthodox Church: repentance isn’t attained only by enumerating our sins in confession.  Rather we can apply ourselves to doing good deeds as a sign that we have repented of our self-centeredness.

IF WE SET OUR HANDS TO DOING GOOD, THE EFFORT OF LENT WILL BE A TIME OF REPENTANCE FOR US, A MEANS TO ETERNAL LIFE, FOR NOTHING QUITE SAVES THE SOUL AS MUCH AS GIVING TO THOSE IN NEED.  ALMS, INSPIRED BY FASTING, DELIVER MAN FROM DEATH. LET US EMBRACE THIS, FOR IT HAS NO EQUAL; IT IS SUFFICIENT TO SAVE OUR SOULS!

The hymn has very strong words in it:   “nothing” does more for our soul than giving charity to the needy!  Rather than obsessing over food during Lent, we should be striving to give to those in need.  We should spend more time and energy on providing for the needy than merely denying ourselves food.  Alms-giving is to be inspired by fasting, but it is the charitable giving not the fasting which deliver us from death for this is true love and obedience to Christ’s commandments.  Giving to charity saves our souls by being the sign we really have turned away from spending money on selfish pleasure and wish rather to love the neighbor in need as the Lord teaches us in the Gospel.  This is the purpose of Great Lent!

Lenten fasting isn’t achieved by providing gourmet Lenten meals or buying more expensive organic foods.  It is rather achieved by spending less time and money on our selves and instead giving that money to the poor.  If you are spending more money on groceries during Lent or spending more time preparing meals, you might have missed the point of Lent:  Spend time and money on the needy.

Keeping Great Lent: Controlling the Tongue

“So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!

And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so.”   (James 3:5-10)

While we often think of Great Lent as mostly being about what foods we put into our mouths, or the quantity of food, St. Basil the Great says there is an even more important aspect of Lent which involves the mouth – what comes out of it!  Just in the book of Proverbs we find these adjectives associated with the tongue:  lying (4 times), smooth, perverse (twice), mischievous, backbiting, flattering.  The tongues sins aren’t involved in the foods it tastes, but in the words it speaks! We are to control our tongues and how much we talk and what we say.  If you think you can’t really keep the food fast strictly in Lent, then practice fasting from the words your tongue speaks!  It would be a better Lenten discipline!   St. Basil describes the variety and numbers of sins which we commit through our tongues and our speech.

‘Keep thy tongue from evil and thy lips from speaking guile.’ If you wish to live in the good days, if you love life, fulfill the precept of life. ‘He who loves me,’ He says, ‘will keep my commands.’ The first command is, ‘Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile.’ The most common and varied sin is that committed through the tongue. Were you provoked to anger? The tongue is already running on. Are you possessed by concupiscence? Before all things you have a tongue, a sort of pimp and promotore, as it were assistant to the sin, subduing your neighbors by histrionic arts. Your tongue is also a weapon for your injustice, not uttering the words from the heart, but bringing forth those inspired by deceit. But, what need is there to put in words all the sins committed through the tongue? Our life is filled with faults due to the tongue. Obscenity, scurrility, foolish talk, unbecoming words, slanders, idle conversation, perjuries, false testimony, all these evils and even more than these, are the work of the tongue.  adolf_hitlerBut, they who open their mouth against the glory of God and talk of injustice on high, do they perform their act of impiety by some other instrument and not through the instrumentality of the tongue? Since, then, ‘by thy words thou wilt be justified, and by thy words thou wilt be condemned,’ check your tongue from evil and do not fabricate empty treasures with a deceitful tongue. Stop also your lips from speaking guile; instead, let the whole organ, which was given to you for the service of speech, have nothing to do with wicked deeds. Guile is hidden wrongdoing brought to bear against the neighbor under a pretense of better things.

‘Turn away from evil and do good, seek after peace and pursue it.’ These counsels are elementary and are channels to piety; they describe accurately how to prevail over the tongue, how to refrain from deceitful schemes, how to turn away from evil. Mere abstinence from evil is not a characteristic of a perfect man; but, for one recently instructed in basic principals it is fitting to turn aside from the impulse to evil and, being delivered from the habits of a depraved life as from a bad road, to pursue the performance of good. In fact, it is impossible to cleave to the good unless one has withdrawn entirely and turned away from the evil, just as it is impossible to repair one’s health unless one rids himself of the disease, or for one who has not completely checked a chill to be in a state of warmth; for, these are inadmissible to each other. So also, it is proper for him who intends to live a good life to depart from all connection with evil.”   (St. Basil, The Fathers of the Church, Homily 16, pp. 265-266).

Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit. (Psalm 34:13)

A Fast Well Pleasing to the Lord

Every year the Orthodox Church proclaims a Great Fast before the Feast of PASCHA.  We also are well aware that there is a right way and a wrong way to fast, just as there is a right and wrong way to pray or give to charity (Matthew 6:1-18).  God tells us through the Prophet Isaiah that He rejects a fast that is just about ritually humbling oneself – bowing and scraping, putting on sackcloth, doing prostrations.  God wants a fast that changes our hearts and yields righteousness, justice and mercy.  God does not bless a fast that is about changing diet or leads to self flagellation.  If self-abasement does not lead to mercy and justice for the oppressed, it is not part of a godly fast.

“Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;
When you see the naked, that you cover him,
And not hide yourself from your own flesh?

mercytoChrist

 

Then your light shall break forth like the morning,
Your healing shall spring forth speedily,
And your righteousness shall go before you;
The glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
You shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’
“If you take away the yoke from your midst,
The pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
If you extend your soul to the hungry
And satisfy the afflicted soul,
Then your light shall dawn in the darkness,
And your darkness shall be as the noonday.
The LORD will guide you continually,
And satisfy your soul in drought,
And strengthen your bones;

You shall be like a watered garden,
And like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.

(Isaiah 58:6-11)

While the Orthodox do not read this Isaiah passage at the beginning of Great Lent, we will read it on the  sixth and final Wednesday of Great Lent.  On the first Monday of Great Lent we do sing this hymn which echoes the concerns which the Lord God spoke to us through His Prophet Isaiah:

LET US PRESENT A GOOD FAST, WELL PLEASING TO THE LORD!
A TRUE FAST IS ALIENATION FROM THE EVIL ONE;
THE HOLDING OF ONE’S TONGUE, THE LAYING ASIDE OF ALL ANGER,  THE REMOVAL OF ALL SENSUALITY,
OF ACCUSATION, FALSEHOOD AND SINS OF SWEARING.
THE WEAKENING OF THESE WILL MAKE THE FAST TRUE AND WELL PLEASING.

The good fast is not focused on what foods we eat or don’t eat but rather is focused on pleasing God.  When we fast we are to alienate Satan – his ways are not to be part of our lives.  We are to purify our hearts – stop swearing and cursing, curb your anger, control your lust and greed,  giving in neither to  your sexual desires nor to your desire to control others.  Eliminate lying to yourself and to others.   If we can even weaken these sins – even if we cannot completely stop them – we will have a true fast which is well pleasing to God.

One other hymn calls to mind the Gospel Parable of Lazarus and the rich man:

Spitting out the food of the rich, come, let us fast with Lazarus, that we also may be comforted in the bosom of Abraham.  (1st Tuesday of Great Lent, Matins Canon)

The hymn creates a rather vivid image of us not avoiding certain foods but particularly spitting out in projectile fashion the food of the rich.  This means not particularly gourmet foods, but any food which is excessive – beyond what is needed – and is thus prepared and eaten at the expense of the poor who have nothing.  We are to use the time of Great Lent to simplify our menus and then give to the poor the extra money we would normally spend on food for ourselves.  We will find ourselves comforted in the bosom of Abraham only when we take the poor into our own pantries.