Achieving the Goal of Fasting

When one reads the spiritual lessons from the Fathers and Mothers of our Church, one realizes that they did not hold to a “one-size-fits-all” mentality when it came to spiritual discipline.  Often they set forth the ideal, but acknowledge that some cannot attain the ideal, but instead of despairing, these folk need to embrace what they can do.  All-or-nothing thinking is not necessarily the most spiritual way, but sometimes is the result of immature or distorted thinking.  St. John of Karpathos writes exactly this referring to fasting and some monks who could not keep the fast strictly due to health problems.  Even without fasting St. John tells them they can rid themselves of both demons and passions.

Once certain brethren, who were always ill and could not practice fasting, said to me: How is it possible for us without fasting to rid ourselves of the devil and the passions? To such people we should say: you can destroy and banish what is evil, and the demons that suggest this evil to you, not only by abstaining from food, but by calling with all your heart on God. For it is written: They cried to the Lord in their trouble and He delivered them (Ps. 107:6); and again: Out of the belly of hell I cried and Thou heardest my voice… Thou hast brought up my life from corruption (Jonah 2:2,6). Therefore until iniquity shall pass away that is, as long as sin still troubles me I will cry to God most high (Ps. 57:1-2 LXX), asking Him to bestow on me this great blessing: by His power to destroy within me the provocation to sin, blotting out the fantasies of my impassioned mind and rendering it image-free.

So, if you have not yet received the gift of self-control, know that the Lord is ready to hear you if you entreat Him with prayer and hope. Understanding the Lord’s will, then, do not be discouraged because of your inability to practice asceticism, but strive all the more to be delivered from the enemy through prayer and patient thanksgiving. If thoughts of weakness and distress force you to leave the city of fasting, take refuge in another city (cf. Matt. 10:23) that is, in prayer and thanksgiving. (The Philokalia, p. 314)

The Theotokos as an Image of the Church

It might not be surprising that the use of a virgin-mother as an image of the Church began to be paralleled at this time by the use of Mary, virgin and mother, for the same purpose. Preceded by Ephrem in the East, Ambrose was the first to develop this metaphor in the West, and in an important passage he does so in terms that recall his virgin-mother-Church metaphor. After recounting the relationship between Mary and Joseph as recorded in the Gospel of Luke, he comments on its deeper meaning:

Let us address the mystery: She was truly espoused, but a virgin, because she is a type of the Church, which is immaculate but married. As a virgin she begot us form the Spirit, as a virgin she bears us without groaning. And this is perhaps why the holy Mary, although married to one person, was impregnated by another, because the individual churches as well are in fact filled with the Spirit and with grace, while simultaneously being joined under the aegis of a temporal priest.

(Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, pp. 112-113)

The Dormition Fast (2016)

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)

Keeping the Dormition Fast

St. John Chrysostom reminds us that keeping a fast is not mostly about diet – it is about how we live.  It is about turning away from sin with all our soul, heart, mind and strength.  It is doing good works with our entire bodies – eyes, mouth, ears, hands and feet.    We can keep the fast he describes even if we feel we can’t keep the prescribed dietary regulations.  In fact St. John’s attitude in this quote seems to challenge any thought that fasting is mostly about dietary regulations.  Chrysostom wants to see some change in behavior before he is willing to recognize a person is fasting.   He wants to know that the person is living according to Gospel commandments, otherwise the fasting is not really accomplishing the purpose of a fast. The true fast is fasting from sin not just from food.  That is what we should be concentrating on during every fasting season.  Instead of producing more Lenten recipes, we should be practicing overcoming sin in our lives and living virtuous lives.

“Do You Fast?

Give me proof of it by your works.

If you see a friend being honored, do not envy him.

Do not let only your mouth fast, but also the eye,

and the ear, and the feet, and the hands, and

all the members of our bodies.

Let the hands fast, by being free of avarice.

Let the feet fast, by ceasing to run after sin.

Let the eyes fast, by disciplining them not to glare

at that which is sinful…..

Let the ear fast…by not listening to evil talk

and gossip…

Let the mouth fast from foul words and unjust criticism.

For what good is it if we abstain from birds and

fishes, but bite and devour our brothers?”

(Daily Readings From the Writings of St. John Chrysostom, Edited by Anthony M. Coniaris, p 37)

Fasting: Freeing Our Selves from Slavery

The time period from August 1-14 is in the Orthodox Church the Dormition Fast.  This two week summer lenten period is a preparation for the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos.  This is the last of the Twelve Major Feasts of the Orthodox Church calendar year which begins with New Year Day on September 1.    Orthodox are often reminded that fasts are not supposed to be burdens put on us during the course of the year but rather are supposed to be joyous periods which lighten our burden in the world by helping us gain mastery over things which dominate our lives, including our own appetites.  Hieromonk Calinic (Berger) writes:

“Because they have our healing and our glory as their goal, the Church’s fasting periods are also periods of joy. How can we but rejoice, when we free ourselves from so many things that dominate us? For this reason the Church calls Lent the period of ‘bright sadness’ or ‘joy-making mourning.’ It is a joy of renewal. Our hymns repeat this theme: ‘With great gladness let us accept the proclamation of the Fast.’ The idea is wholly Biblical: ‘The fast of the fourth month…shall be joy and gladness and cheerful feasts for the house of Judah. Therefore, love truth and peace’ (Zach 8:19). Our Lord Himself commanded us not to be of ‘sad countenance’ while fasting but to wash our faces and anoint our heads (Mt 6:16). The period of fasting is not a period of gloom and of being morose but of hope that things can be better through a healing change. Therefore it is a period of light, energy and inner renewal. All Christians who keep the fast experience this power.” (Challenges of Orthodox Thought & Life, p 103)

Obviously we can turn a fast into a legalistic keeping of rules imposed on us, or we can look to change our daily habits in order to free ourselves to seek God in our daily lives.

Benefiting from the Dormition Fast

“Do not limit the benefit of fasting merely to abstinence from food, for a true fast means refraining from evil. Loose every unjust bond, put away your resentment against your neighbor, forgive him his offences. Do not let your fasting lead only to wrangling and strife. You do not eat meat, but you devour your brother; you abstain from wine, but not from insults. So all the labour of your fast is useless.”

(St. Basil the Great in The Time of the Spirit: Readings Throughout the Christian Year, pg. 118)

Fasting in August: The Dormition

While many Americans see summer as the culinary season for grilling meat, the Orthodox Church has an annual Fast from August 1-15 in preparation for the Feast of the Dormition.  Fasting has been part of Christian discipline from the earliest days of Christianity.  The fasting discipline of the early church has been used to determine that by the early 2nd Century people of some means and not just the downtrodden were  becoming Christian.   As the writings show, the fasting discipline was being used to encourage those with sufficient means to deny themselves a few days a week and give what they denied themselves to the poor.  Charity wasn’t just giving away excess food one didn’t need; rather, it was consciously choosing to deny one’s self food one wanted and instead giving away that food to the needy.  Jesus had told the rich man to sell all he had and give it to the poor and then to follow Him (Matthew 19:20-22).  Early Christian documents make this a command that everyone with means can fulfill one or two days per week, or even in the course of one or two meals in a day!  This type of voluntary, ascetical self-denial was not being imposed on the poor, but upon those who had sufficient resources.  Fasting wasn’t intended to be a discipline for the hungry poor, but rather for those who always had access to food.  Those who had enough were being asked to deny themselves in order to share with those who lacked basic needs (2 Corinthians 8:13-15; 9:6-15).

“Certainly by the beginning of the second century there were already many converts who enjoyed at least a moderate competence; for this can be deduced from documents which enjoin fasting on several days in the week in order that the food so saved may be given to the destitute and to widows and orphans: ‘And if there is among them a man that is poor and needy, and they have not an abundance of necessaries, they fast two or three days that they may supply the needy with the necessary food. ’” (M.L. Laistner, Christianity and Pagan Culture, pgs. 26-27)

Fasting from the earliest days of Christianity was not simply about self denial, though it was that kind of discipline.  It also was a sharing in the suffering of those who had no food, but then transforming one’s voluntary suffering into an act of love by giving one’s food to the needy instead of feeding oneself.  Simply denying oneself food was not the goal.  The goal was to learn co-suffering love.   Fasting thus becomes part of the way in which we Christians transform ourselves from those who consume God’s creation to those who transfigure the things of creation into gifts of love for others.  It gives new meaning to sacrificial love wherein we transform our offerings to others by our sacrifices.

Parable of Lazarus and the rich man

To reduce fasting to merely following a rule is to lose the spiritual importance of self-denial.   As the 12th Century writer, Ilias the Presbyter in THE PHILOKALIA notes:

“Some are most careful about the food they take in but negligent about the words they give out. To adapt Ecclesiastes (11:10. LXX), such men do not know how to remove anger from the heart or desire from the flesh. Only through the removal of these things is a pure heart established within us by the renewing Spirit (cf. Ps. 51:10).”  (Kindle Loc. 24694-98)

For the Presbyter Ilias food fasting is aimed at the heart – to rid the heart of anger and make it pure.  Fasting isn’t supposed to make us more attentive to food, but rather to pay more attention to our passions and sins in order to overcome them.  Perhaps this is part of fasting we need to relearn from the Second Century Christians – fasting not as giving up food, but as giving it to others who are in need.   Fasting in this way is not an act of self-love to earn our own salvation but rather is transformed into a gift of love which we give others and so imitate Christ.  It might transform the Dormition Fast from inconvenient religious rules to a covenant act of love.

“Blessed are they that fast for the sake of feeding the poor.”  (Origen – martyred ca. 254AD, Homilies on Leviticus 10:2)