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)

HE Must Increase, Not I

“He must increase, but I must decrease.” (St. John the Forerunner speaking about Jesus, John 3:30)

“You say that you have no success. Indeed, there will be no success so long as you are full of self-indulgence and self-pity. These two things show at once that what is uppermost in your heart is “I” and not the Lord. It is the sin of self-love, living within us, that gives birth to all our sinfulness, making the whole man a sinner from head to food, so long as we allow it to dwell in the soul. And when the whole man is a sinner, how can grace come to him? It will not come, just as a bee will not come where there is smoke.

There are two elements in the decision to work for the Lord: First a man must deny himself, and secondly he must follow Christ (Mark 8:34). The first demands a complete stamping out of egoism or self-love, and consequently a refusal to allow any self-indulgence or self-pity–whether in great matters or small.”  (St. Theophan the Recluse, Heavenly Wisdom from God-illuminated Teachers on Conquering Depression, pp. 55-56)

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.

Walking the Lenten Path

The hymns from the Lenten Triodion do give us some ideas about how the Church in tradition understands the reasons for fasting and its purpose in the spiritual life.  So we find the hymn below, from the Praises in Matins of Cheesefare Sunday things for us to consider as we make our way through the Great Fast.


It is commonly understood in Orthodoxy that Adam was given only one commandment in Paradise – abstain from eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.  It was a fasting rule, and the only commandment in the Garden of Eden.  Eve and Adam disobeyed that fast which led to human mortality, a life of separation from God.  Sometimes in Orthodox hymns it seems as if it was the particular act – eating the forbidden fruit – which is as significant as the fact that it was an act of disobedience.   Fasting from food reminds us that eating got Adam and humanity into trouble with God.  Fasting is our effort to show God that we really do want to undo that original act of disobedience and all of its consequences.  Our fasting cannot save us, but it is our way of showing God we recognize how such sin cuts us off from the Holy Trinity.

Orthodox hymns note how frequently humans are willing to choose the wrong for the sake of food.  The hymns also note how frequently fasting in the Scriptures are associated with individuals experiencing a revelation from God.   So Moses saw God face to face, in Orthodox thinking it was fasting and the resulting purity of heart which made this possible for him.


double-cheeseburgerThe hymn gets to the heart of fasting – it is to eliminate unnecessary food.  Fasting never forbids us to eat what is necessary for life.  Strict practitioners of fasting can push the limits to discover what is really needed, but fasting is not meant to make us sick.  Rather it acknowledges that eating is what made us humans sick to begin with!  In some ways for us modern Americans, fasting is a call back to sanity in terms of eating – eat the quantity necessary to sustain life.  Our huge portions of food are not necessary, and often are harmful to our health.  We can show God we really do want to return to Paradise – and we can do it by abstaining from over eating in this world.  We remind ourselves that it was such eating which got us expelled from Paradise.

The hymn takes the theme to the next step – Moses fasted for 40 days before receiving the Ten Commandments, so too we can fast like him (for forty days, not necessarily how he kept the fast).  Perhaps God will bless us with a clear vision of the Holy Trinity.


The important things to do during Lent – prayer for others, self control over our own passions and desires.  It is not foods themselves which are so important.  It is learning to control our desires and wants, so that we can serve God rather than ourselves.


The return to Paradise is the path forward to God’s Kingdom of Heaven.  It is a joyous journey and so we should find Lent, the beginning of our sojourn to be joyous.  The restored life of God’s redeemed people means we will reside with the angels and join them in worshiping the Holy Trinity.  We will be given the beatific vision – seeing Christ our Lord and Savior.


It is Jesus Christ who will give a place in heaven to His redeemed people.  We hope to be able to join His Mother, the angels and all the saints, whose prayers have guided us as well as interceded for us before the Lord.



Obedience to God’s Will

And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

As we begin Great Lent, we know the goal of any self denial, fasting, asceticism is to allow ourselves to set aside our own will so that we can come to recognize and do the will of God.   It is not so much that fasting is doing the will of God, but in practicing control over our own desires, we can come to realize there is in the universe another will essential to our existence – the will of God. We can actually know the will of God and do it.   But that happens only when we dial down the volume of our own verbose will so that we can become aware of God’s will, and then pursue it.

“But is the human ego (or self) something other than the human soul? In fact, the ego is nothing other than the soul. Here, two states are possible. First, the soul might be totally subject to God, and the human ego would then not be independent, that is it would not have an existence independent of God – the ego’s will would then be God’s will and its desire his desire. In this case, the human ego would be well prepared for perpetual existence with God and in God. It would be dead to itself and alive to God.

Or, the soul might not be subject to God, choosing freely to be independent of his will, following its own passions and desires. In this case the human ego would be alive to itself and dead to God. It becomes a being independent of him, but in fact it cannot exist except in evil, based on materialistic delusion. This independence from God, this existence in sin, is only transient. So the ego that is dependent of God becomes a perishable ego.

However, departure of the ego from God’s will is only induced by the deception of the devil, like the deception of the serpent to Eve in paradise: “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor 11:3).

Is there any means, then, by which we can mortify the human ego to itself that it may live to God? Yes. But the only means is total submission to the will of God…

Take heed then and open your ears: Either count yourself as nothing in word and deed and make up your mind to surrender yourself to God with all your might–and you will then gladly be released from your ego by the grace of God; or, you will be delivered to discipline until you are set free from our ego in spite of yourself. So if you wish to opt for the easier way, take that of voluntary submission. Count yourself from now on as nothing, and follow the path of grace wherever the Spirit may wish to lead you.

Know for certain that submission to God and total surrender to his will and divine plan are a free gift of grace. It thus demands, besides prayer and supplication, a trusting faith to receive this gift. This should be coupled with a longing springing from one’s heart that God may not deliver us to discipline for our folly, nor abandon us to our own wisdom. For this reason, we should have an extremely resolute will to renounce our own self at all times, and in all works. This should not be done ostentatiously before people but within our conscience. Blessed is the man who can discover his own weakness and ignorance and confess them before God to the last day of his life.

(Matthew the Poor, Orthodox Prayer Life: The Interior Way, pp. 122-123)

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”  (Matthew 16:24)

Jettison the Weight of Self-Indulgence

“So then, let us flee (self-indulgence) as quickly as possible, lest we voluntarily choke ourselves to death. And so, if anyone baited in the past has either amassed a dust heap of riches for himself through acts of injustice and imprisoned his mind by worrying over them, or defiled his nature with the indelible filth of lasciviousness, or surfeited himself with other offense, let him, while there is still time, before he comes the final destruction, cast off the greater part of his burdens. Before his ship sinks, let him jettison the cargo he ought not have accumulated. Let him imitate those who work on the sea. For these men, even if they are transporting necessities on the ship, when a raging tempest arises from the sea and threatens to engulf the ship that is loaded down with cargo, as quickly as they can, they jettison most of what weighs them down and are unsparing in casting their merchandise into the sea. They do this to raise the ship above the waves and possibly give only their souls and the bodies a chance to escape from the danger.

Now it is surely far more appropriate for us rather than for them to think and act in this way. For they lose in an instant whatever they jettison and eventually fall into poverty by force of circumstance. But as for us, the more we jettison our wicked burdens, the more we shall accumulate even better riches for the soul. For fornication and all such things are utterly destroyed when they are jettisoned and are brought to non-existence when washed away by our tears. And then holiness and justice take their place, and being light things, they are not likely to be engulfed by any waves. And yet, when money is jettisoned in a good way, it is in fact not lost to those who have jettisoned it and flung overboard. Rather, as if transported to other, safer ships – the stomachs of the poor – it is saved, and its arrival in the safe harbor is anticipated, and it is kept for those who jettisoned it as an ornament, not a source of danger.” (St. Basil the Great, On Christian Doctrine and Practice, pp 172-173)


We have not been saved from death and judgment in order to engage in self indulgence, but only that we might live to serve and love others.

The Drive Against Drunkeness

St. Basil the Great dealing with life in the 4th Century as a Christian pastor shows us that human behavior and problems have remained the same through the centuries.  Humans are humans, no matter what time period in history we are dealing with.  Speaking just a few days before a fasting period was to begin, he says:

“Drunkenness leads to licentiousness, sobriety to fasting. The athlete prepares by training, the one who fasts by practicing self-control. Do not acquire a hangover immediately before these five days, as if you were avenging these days or outsmarting the legislator. Indeed, you toil in vain if your wreck your body but do not comfort it with abstinence. Your storehouse is treacherous. You draw water in a leaky jar. After all, the wine will pass through you and exit along its own path, but the sin remains.

A household slave runs away from the master that beats him. But you remain with the wine that beats your head each day. The use of wine is best measured by the body’s need. But if you exceed this boundary, you will arrive tomorrow afflicted with a headache, yawning, dizzy, reeking of vomited wine. It will seem to you as if everything is whirling around, as if everything is wobbling. While drunkenness induces a slumber akin to death, it produces a wakefulness like dreams. Do you know, then, whom you will welcome as your guest? He who promised us: I and the Father will come and make our home with him. So then, why are you anticipating his arrival with drunkenness and closing the door to the Master? Why are you urging your enemy to occupy your fortifications before his attack? Drunkenness does not provide a welcome for the Lord.

Drunkenness drives away the Holy Spirit. After all, as smoke drives away bees, so a hangover drives away spiritual gifts. Fasting brings about the orderliness of a city, the tranquility of the forum, the peace of households, the security of possessions. Do you want to see its nobility? Compare this evening with tomorrow evening, and you will see that the city has exchanged tumult and storminess for a deep calm. Indeed, I pray that today be like tomorrow in terms of nobility but that today’s frivolity not carry over to tomorrow. The Lord has brought us to this period of time. May he grant that we, like competitors, display the steadiness and vigor of perseverance in these preliminary contests and so arrive at the appointed day of coronation. Let us now recollect the saving passion but in the age to come may we be rewarded for our actions throughout life by the righteous judgement of Christ himself, to whom be glory forever. Amen.” ( On Fasting and Feasts, pp 70-71)

Imitating St. Mary of Egypt

One of the hymns regarding St. Mary of Egypt says that she taught us “To despise the flesh, for it passes away, and to care instead for the soul, since it is eternal.”

St. John of Kronstadt writes that we can fulfill this ideal –

“Prove this by your deeds; fast, gladly bestow charity upon the poor, entertain your 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.” (St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, pp 175-176)



Fasting and Orthodoxy: Longevity in Life

Sometimes we Orthodox need a little extra push to get into the Lenten Spirit.

I saw a few items in an article in the 22 February 2016 edition of TIME, “Longevity: It’s the Little Things That Keep Us Young” written by Alexandra Sifferlin which might help jump start our leap into Lent.   Of course these aren’t the spiritual reasons we fast in the Orthodox Church, but maybe they can help convince us the benefits of Great Lent outweigh the risks.   As we can see below there are several reasons why Great Lent may have long term benefits to our bodies and souls.

1]  “In other new research, Valter Longo, director of the University of Southern California’s Longevity Institute, showed that when people occasionally fasted, they lowered their risk factors for age-related diseases.”

Even only occasionally fasting showed health benefits to people in the study.  Those who start off Great Lent zealously and then falter on the way should remind themselves of this.  One doesn’t have to keep Lent perfectly to reap benefits from it.  If one falters, one doesn’t have to give up.  All is not lost!  If you have broken the fast, repent (it is the season for it!), and get back to the Lenten discipline.

2]   “But some experts speculate that fasting also makes the body more resistant to stress, which can have beneficial effects at the cellular level. Longo’s suspicion, based on his research, is that fasting kills a variety of organ and blood cells while spurring the generation of stem cells. These new cells appear to regenerate the lost cells and rejuvenate the body.”

Fasting is not meant to kill the body, but rather aims to kill sinful desires.  Fasting is heart friendly and as science shows it actually is renewing the physical body.

And speaking of the physical body, attending services, doing prostrations, even standing and fidgeting during long services have health benefits!

3]   “In other words, you can’t exercise away all the bad effects of sitting too much. But the good news is that doing anything but sitting still–even fidgeting counts–can add up.”

4]   “Your mind-set can affect how you age.   By now it’s clear to scientists that our emotions affect our biology. Studies have shown for years that anger and stress can release stress hormones like adrenaline into our blood, which trigger the heart to beat faster and harder. The new research suggests the stakes are even higher than that: stress may even have an effect on how well our brains hold up against Alzheimer’s disease.”

Repenting, asking forgiveness and forgiving can all be stress reducers.  Prayer, quiet time, meditation, all can help reduce stress.  So attending Lenten services, even if your mind wanders can have positive benefits on calming your body, getting rid of anger, and letting go of those unhealthy bad passions and desires.

Joyous Lent!