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)

Keeping the Apostle’s Fast

“This fast,” he said, “is very good, if you keep the commandments of the Lord. So observe this fast which you are going to keep in this way: First of all, guard against every evil word and every evil desire, and cleanse your heart of all the vanities of this world. If you observe these things, this fast will be complete. And here is what you will do: when you have finished the above-mentioned, on that day when you are fasting, you will taste nothing except bread and water, and you will be aware of the amount of the cost of your food you would have eaten on that day which you are going to keep. Having set it aside, you will give it to a widow or an orphan or someone else in need, and in this way you will be humble minded, so that from your humility the one who receives may fill his soul and pray to the Lord for you.

Offering Mercy to Christ

If, then, you complete the fast in this way, as I command you, our sacrifice will be acceptable before God [cf. Phil. 4:18; Isa. 56:7; 1 Pet. 2:5], and this fast will be recorded, and the service done in this way is good and joyous and acceptable to the Lord. This is the way you shall observe these things, with your children and all your house; if you observe them, you will be blessed and as many as hear them and keep them will be blessed, and whatever they ask from the Lord they will receive.”

(Shepherd of Hermas, The Apostolic Fathers, p. 213)

The Struggle to Keep the Fast

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom offers us some thoughts about how we can be a Christian even if we are imperfect.  His thinking applies to anything we do as Christians such as prayer and fasting.  We fail if we hold to a black and white, all or nothing thinking.  We can see Christ and still fall short of what we are to be – yet we can persist in following Him.  We are to thirst for righteousness even if our desire is not slaked.  

And so, there is a tension between the absoluteness of the vision–the perfect and only true Man, Christ–and the imperfect creatures that we are. In what way then can we say that we relate to Christ? I think we relate to Christ if we are open to his action; we relate to Christ if we long for him; we relate to Christ if we are in motion towards him.

And this is a very important thing. There is a passage in the writings of Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk, who says, we do not reach the Kingdom of God from victory to victory; more often from defeat to defeat. But, he says, it is those people–who after each defeat, instead of sitting down to bewail their misery, stand up and walk–that arrive.

And this a tension in which we all find ourselves. Unless we have a vision of the absolute, we cannot tend towards it. At the same time we must not despair of what we are, because we cannot judge our own condition; we can judge only one thing: the degree to which we long for fulfillment, the degree to which we long to be worthy of God, worthy of love, worthy of compassion–and worthy not because of any achievement of ours, but because of the longing, the hunger, and the trust that we can give to the Lord.”   (Churchianity vs. Christianity, p. 41, 43)

Great Lent: To Soften the Heart, Not Empty the Belly

Lenten Rose

However, if we pay close attention to the Lenten prayers, hymns, and Scripture readings, we quickly realize that Lent is a time when we should put greater emphasis on others rather than on ourselves as we literally lay down our life for our neighbor.

The late Orthodox liturgical theologian Alexander Schmemman referred to Lent as the Lenten Spring, a new birth, where we turn away from the darkness of sin and once again turn back to God:

For many, if not for the majority of Orthodox Christians, Lent consists of a limited number of forma, predominantly negative rules and prescriptions: abstention from certain food, dancing, perhaps movies. Such is the degree of our alienation from the real spirit of the Church that is almost impossible for us to understand that there is “something else” in Lent-something without which all these prescriptions lose much of their meaning.

This “something else” can best be described as an “atmosphere,” a “climate” into which one enters, as first of all a state of mind, soul, and spirit which for seven weeks permeates our entire life. Let us stress once more that the purpose of Lent is not to force on us a few formal obligations, but to “soften” our heart so that it may be open itself to the realities of the spirit, to experience the hidden “thirst and hunger” for communion with God.

The grace has shown forth, O Lord!

The grace which illumines our soul.

This is the acceptable time!

This is the time of repentance!

Let us lay aside all the works of darkness

And put on the armor of light

That passing through the fast as through a great sea

We may reach the resurrection on the third day

Of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior, of our souls.

(Apostikha for Forgiveness Sunday)

(William C. Mills, Let Us Attend: Reflections of the Gospel of Mark for the Lenten Season, p. V, IX-X, 1)

Fasting: To Cleanse the Heart

“I beg and entreat that each one of you reckon up in his conscience the results of his fasting. If he discovers that he has gained much, let him reckon it to his hard work; but if he has gained nothing, let him use the remaining time to gain goods through diligent fasting. As long as the festival lasts, let us not leave before we have exerted ourselves and acquired great gain, so we will not leave with empty hands. In this way we shall not forsake the reward of fasting, since we have endured the toil of fasting. For it is possible to endure even the toil of fasting and not receive the reward of fasting. How? When we abstain from food but do not abstain from sins; when we do not eat meat but devour the homes of the poor; when we do not get drunk from wine but become intoxicated by wicked desire; when we continue without food for the entire day but pass all of it a wonton spectacles. Recognize that we can endure the toil of fasting but not receive the recompense of fasting, when we attend the theaters of lawlessness.

What does the divine law say? “You have heard that God said to the ancients, ‘You shall not commit adultery!’ But I say to you that everyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Have you seen an adulterer perform? Have you seen a sin fulfilled? And worse yet, the adulterer who is not convicted and condemned by a human court for his adultery is held accountable by the divine tribunal, whose retributions are eternal. Everyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart.Fasting eradicates not only the disease but also the root of the disease, and the root of adultery is wonton desire. For this reason, Scripture punishes not only the adultery but also the desire, the mother of adultery.”

(St. John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church: St. John Chrysostom on Repentance and Almsgiving, p. 70 & 73)

Meatfare: Fasting is Communal

“Today is both Meatfare Sunday and the day on which we remember the Last Judgment. The readings we have just heard speak to both of these directly and in complementary ways.

With Meatfare Sunday our preparation for Great Lent begins to take on a concretely dietary aspect, as its name indicates. This is the last day before Great Lent for eating meat. Thus begins, as it were, a warm up for the hard exercises, the asceticism, ahead of us.

It is very easy to miss the point of such practices. The purpose of such efforts is not simply to do what is expected of us, but instead to allow ourselves to be weaned from our dependency on everything that might separate us from God—not because it is bad in itself, but because of how we relate to it or depend on it. I’m reminded of this every time I persuade myself that I can’t do anything in the morning until I’ve had a cup of coffee: there is nothing at all wrong with coffee; and it is not my body that craves it; it is rather my mental attitude towards coffee or caffeine that has made that cup into my ‘god.’

We hear Paul remind us that the food itself is not the issue: it makes no difference to God whether we eat meat or don’t. God is not concerned with our diet! We are free in all of this, and it is this freedom which makes what we do of any worth anyway. If we freely, willingly, eagerly even, undertake the disciplines which the Church sets before us, we might just come to be less dependent upon our creature comforts. Only then will we come to realize that we are in fact truly dependent only upon God, for in truth most of us, most of the time, do not realize this. Only then will we come to know God truly, and to know God acting in us.”

(Fr. John Behr, The Cross Stands While the World Turns, pp. 21-22)

Fasting Before Christmas

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”  (Matthew 5:8)

St John Cassian reminds us to set the right priorities in our spiritual life.  Purity of heart is for him, the real goal of the Christian life and discipline.  Purity of heart is equal  in his teaching to love.  Fasting is a tool to help us reach the goal, but as St. John notes, if we vent anger at others, fasting can’t compensate for the damage we do.  It will not help our spiritual growth if we keep a strict fast but then rage at others or rail and rave against others.  This last week of the Nativity Fast we would do well to work on peace in our hearts and purity – love for others.  As St. Paul says in the Epistle read on the 2nd Sunday before Christmas:  “But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth” (Colossians 3:8).  That should be what we really fast from this week.

“Everything we do, our every objective, must be undertaken for the sake of this purity of heart. This is why we take on loneliness, fasting, vigils, work, nakedness. For this we must practice the reading of the Scripture, together with all the other virtuous activities and we do so to trap and to hold our hearts free of the harm of every dangerous passion and in order to rise step by step to the high point of love.

It may be that some good and necessary task prevents us from achieving fully all that we set out to do. Let us not on this account give way to sadness or anger or indignation, since it was precisely to repel these that we would have done what in fact we were compelled to omit. What we gain from fasting does not compensate for what we lose through anger. Our profit from scriptural reading in no way equals the damage we cause ourselves by showing contempt for a brother. We must practice fasting, vigils, withdrawal, and the meditation of Scripture as activities which are subordinate to our main objective, purity of heart, that is to say, love, and we must never disturb this principal virtue for the sake of those others.”  (John Cassian: Conferences, p. 41-42)

Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart.  (Psalms 73:1)

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.).