The Fast that Keeps

greatfastCorrie Ten Boom, the Dutch Christian who suffered in Hitler’s Ravensbruck for her work rescuing Jews, shared stories of her life within those death camps. I recall one of her remarks, “We did not keep the Sabbath, the Sabbath kept us.” Some years back I was filming a television show with the local Rabbi and a member of his congregation (who was a Holocaust survivor). In the course of the conversation, I shared Corrie Ten Boom’s remark with him. The survivor roused herself out of her silence and whispered, “It was true!”

The story is profound – both for its triumphant witness within such frightful circumstances – and for its faithfulness to the mystery of God’s work.

Fr. Dimitru Staniloae (himself a survivor of torture for the Christian faith) observes:

The Lord offers Himself to us through commandments…. From Baptism the Lord is concealed in the innermost sanctuary of our being, stimulating us to carry out the commandments, by imprinting the traits of the Lord on our spiritual face. So they gradually become clearer under the impetus of His commanding force, which works from the inside out, which is nothing else than Jesus Christ, the one dwelling deeply within us, unnoticed at the beginning in a perceptible way.

We do not keep the commandments of Christ – Christ within us keeps His commandments and as we offer ourselves in union with Him, the fulfillment of those commandments becomes the virtues in our lives – conformity to the Image of Christ, who alone is true virtue. St. Paul describes this as a mystery: “Christ within you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27).

The Orthodox spiritual life treats asceticism (fasting, prayers, vigils and the like) as normative for the Christian life. Viewed from without, strangers to Orthodoxy think of our spiritual rules as “legalistic.” We fast on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout most of the year (abstaining from meat, fish, wine, dairy and olive oil). We eat nothing after midnight when we prepare to receive Holy Communion. There are four general fasting seasons (Great Lent, Advent, the Apostles’ Fast, and the Dormition Fast). During those periods we generally fast as we do on Wednesdays and Fridays. Additional prayers are assigned during parts of the year (such as the Prayer of St. Ephrem). The services of the Church become more frequent and longer during fasting seasons with prostrations (kneeling and bowing to the floor) made within the Church. The Great Fast of Lent begins with all in the congregation (and the priest) asking forgiveness of everyone within the Church. Confession becomes more frequent.

Not one of these actions earns us anything and none of them is a law whose breaking is a sin. They are simply the rules of fasting which the Church has kept since the earliest days (the Wednesday and Friday fast is described in the first-century document, The Didache).

None of these actions earns us anything because we are not saved by such works. But neither is the grace at work in us a legal concept. Grace is the very Life of God dwelling in us, changing us from one degree of glory to another. Grace is the “Lord concealed in the innermost sanctuary of our being, stimulating us to carry out the commandments…”

We do not keep the Fast. The Fast keeps us.

 

 

Comments

  1. Grant says

    I know this to be true, but struggle to see or feel it in any ‘perceptible way’. What is the borderline between us and the Christ within us? How can we discern it, work to change it, break it down? These are questions at work in my soul on a regular basis. Thanks again for an insightful post, Father.

  2. says

    We did not keep the Sabbath, the Sabbath kept us…We do not keep the commandments of Christ–Christ within us keeps His commandments…We do not keep the Fast. The Fast keeps us.

    Yes! I did not understand such statements as a Protestant nor my first years as an Orthodox Christian. But as I have grown in the Orthodox Faith through the liturgical services, feasts, fasts, ascetic practices & etc., I now see the wisdom of such statements as well as the gift that the Church has given us through such things. Thank you.

  3. says

    I love this, Fr Stephen, thank you for posting. It is the reverse perspective that I find throughout Orthodoxy to be so beautiful, especially in prayer. I am quite a novice at contemplative prayer, but am beginning to see things in a new light.

  4. PJ says

    Grant,

    You ask, “I know this to be true, but struggle to see or feel it in any ‘perceptible way’. What is the borderline between us and the Christ within us? How can we discern it, work to change it, break it down?”

    Matthew the Poor writes that, in order to hear the voice of God, you must prepare your heart for the consequences of hearing it:

    “If … you ask, ‘How can I acquire an ear that can hear the voice of God?’ I would answer, ‘Prepare yourself first to receive His demands and requests and directions, and be ready in your heart to carry them out, no matter what the cost.'”

    Think about it.

  5. Grant says

    Thank you PJ. I am thinking about it. It’s hard to think about anything else, really.

  6. mary benton says

    Fr. Stephen

    Another excellent post. Thank you for telling those of us not Orthodox more about the fasting practices. Can you share how/why these particular products (e.g. dairy or olive oil) were chosen for the fasts?

    In today’s world, I think it would wise to encourage ascetic practices in new areas – such as fasting from electronics for a day. I did this (except for work use) on RC Ash Wednesday and found it edifying. I need to do this much more. The Internet (even the good parts, like this blog) distracts me much more than the Greek yogurt I ate while reading this.

  7. Joseph says

    Father,
    Hope all is well. I had a question,when did grace start to be seen in a legal light? I know its a very western concept. If any of you know as well, that would be cool!
    I think the whole grace legal issue turns people away from Christianity towards secular thought or other faiths.

  8. Dino says

    Mary,
    also keep in mind that traditional fasting (even when you are completely undistracted in the desert) has the power, by virtue of mere hunger sometimes, to keep you remembrance of God (you are doing it for Him) unceasing. For a true faster, food becomes the scissors that cuts his union to God, in some sense. But these things sound weird in secular western thought. They are very very true though.

  9. dino says

    Mary,
    another point that is highlighted by your comment is the differentiation between fasting (from food that is) as a way to strengthen one’s watchfulness, as well as fasting (from “electronics” etc) as watchfulness.
    The more basic Orthodox fasting according to the rules of the Church and one’s Spiritual Father’s personal application (“economy” -as we call it- whether this means a relaxation -most usual- e.g: allowing oil or even dairy, or an actual increase of those “rules”, e.g.: eating only bread only once a day) has a proven track record of spiritual benefits. From zeal, to vigilance, to compunction, to faith, to illumination, to repentance, to silent evangelism, to guarding the outside man through watching the inside man as the Fathers say…

  10. says

    One thing I try to keep in mind regards fasting is that the first sin involved in essence the breaking of the first fast by Adam & Eve. Claims of legalism usually go silent at this Scriptural reminder.

  11. mary benton says

    Thanks, Dino and Rhonda, for your comments on fasting. I am not opposed to fasting from food and have sometimes found it beneficial.

    Sometimes “natural” fasts have been more beneficial – a patient has a crisis and I have no time to eat; hence, a fast occurs and I am more conscious of doing it out of love than when I am simply following a rule. But that is likely a weakness of mine.

    Can anyone suggest how one might go about finding a “spiritual father”? I think this could be a great benefit.

  12. says

    Mary Benton,

    If I remember correctly, you are RC? Your priest should be fulfilling this role. As an Orthodox Christian I have been very fortunate to have had wonderful priests that do this. Also as an Orthodox Christian I would advise finding a local Orthodox Church to visit, attend services & ask about an inquirer’s class…i.e. become Orthodox ;-)

  13. Ioann says

    Mary and all,
    My mother (a Protestant missionary) often asks me the same question regarding why those particular foods (meat, dairy, oil) make up the Orthodox fast. As far as I can make out, it would make more sense to her to fast from foods that are directly harmful to our lives – for example, fasting from sugar/sweets because they are unhealthy/unnecessary (she says, “How is it a good fast if you peanut butter and jelly everyday??”),, or fasting from expensive items so as to be able to use that money for the poor, and the like. I don’t know that I’ve ever given her a satisfactory answer. Are the particular foods to be abstained from “arbitrary”, being more about watchfulness and eliminating distraction? Or is there a historical reason why those particular foods were chosen that is more along the lines of my mother’s thinking? Or both? … I suppose I’m just repeating Mary’s question.

  14. Barbara says

    I am not aware of all of the reasons for the choices of foods, but I do know that shellfish (prawns, shrimp, lobster, crab – allowed during the fast) were considered to be the the food eaten by the poorest at the time the rules were set. Meat was the most expensive food to eat.

    I also have a friend who is Orthodox Sikh. He is a strict vegetarian for spiritual reasons. Humility is their highest virtue and he says there is no humility in killing any animal – even for food. I know that most monastics are also vegetarian and are also very gentle with all living creatures.

  15. Dino says

    Mary,
    I think that the most beneficial thing one could do is find a saintly discerning elder (it is the fastest route to holiness) – I really do- but, I m NOT saying to go out of your way to do this either!, it is the sort of thing that comes your way when you are truly committed, hungry, thirsty, aflame with wanting to dedicate all of your being to God for His sake and not for your own.
    Concerning the original choices of what is fasting and what is not fasting foods, my own opinion is that it is quite a complicated collection of reasons why. I can think of many.
    One reason is the complexity or ease of preparation of the foods (eg no oil means mostly no frying), another is the “humbling” of the body (eg providing less ‘alpha-male’ testosterone-type energy one would say these days…!), another is the “footprint” (we would say today) on the rest of creation, another is purely historical.
    What is very important here though is that, rather than questioning “why these choices?”, it is actually more beneficial to not make any sense of the choices whatsoever, and just humbly cut off our own will (the demanding selfish one that is), humbly obeying the Church. This makes you be aware that you are indeed a part of the Church, and it makes others witness (what is missing in these days) : quite a fiery and contagious faith. (when one’s fasting is zealous and joyous that is of course…)

  16. mary benton says

    Thanks again, Rhonda, Dino and others,

    The question about fasting was more one of curiosity. I agree that the process (humility and obedience) is more important than the content (what you eat/don’t eat). I also like that the Orthodox see that a spiritual father is a good guide for individualizing content when necessary. (I personally think that the RC made a mistake by putting meatless Friday under pain of sin and then cancelling it out when “modernizing”. A lot of people got lost in the shuffle and your approach seems more sane.)

    Rhonda – I appreciate the invitation to Orthodoxy. Obviously I am drawn to aspects of it or I wouldn’t be here. I perceive there to be faults in the RC church but I am not seeing that they are interfering with my relationship to God – which is more important to me that the things that divide our churches. I have blessed support in sincere and committed RC family, parish community and friends. If a change of churches ever seems necessary to me, the Orthodox are currently at the top of my list :-)

  17. says

    Ioann,

    Your mother’s thinking & question is very Western (not merely Protestant). It misses the point of the fast by resorting to a type of legalism as well as reductionism. There is more to the fast than merely foregoing certain types of food & actually, I would classify this as not true fasting. Fasting is a means to an end; never should it become the end in itself. Orthodox fasting is not done because we are obligated to follow the “rules”; again this is not true fasting. BTW, peanut butter & jelly are good sources of protein & energy & are not necessarily bad unless they are eaten to excess. Also, there is more to eat even when fasting in the form of fruits, veggies, bread, beans & pasta. FWIW one can still eat excessively even while adhering to the “rules”.

    Also, fasting, while beneficial & useful, is never done in isolation; prayer, worship services, spiritual reading, self-examination, penance & confession & charitable giving/deeds are also enjoined. The true fast is to fast from sin–this is easier said than done. The Church’s fasting practices are but one means to return the body-soul relationship to its proper order (the excessive desires of the body subordinated to the soul) whereby we are better able to “fast from sin”.

    One thing the West, & especially Protestantism, does not understand is that external physical actions, which do not save in & of themselves, have internal spiritual effects. Bows & prostrations, crossing oneself & fasting do not save us or make us worthy in any way before God, but that does not mean that such externals are without benefit. They do have an internal effect on our souls, first & foremost being humility.

  18. says

    One last note: there is a growing move among Protestants regarding fasting. Many of these “fasting practices” are truly dangerous concerning one’s health & yet are being highly promoted by several prominent Protestants. As with all things Protestant there are a multitude of versions ranging from little/no food/water for X number of days (just ask God & He’ll fill in the X). The most extreme version basically involves transitioning the body over to a liquid diet & off again after a length of time, usually 40 days. I find it very ironic that the Orthodox fasting practices are brushed off as legalism while their own fasting practices declare than it is okay to drink the broth/juice while fasting, but not eat the food. And what is the purpose of fasting in their purview? To get special guidance from God or to jump start a stalled spiritual life through self-induced suffering.

    I will adhere to the wisdom of the Church, thank you very much!

  19. RiverC says

    Fasting is interesting because as a human activity it predates interpretation of the practice. That is to say, like feasting, there may be reasons for it to be done both good and bad, and there may be both good and bad ways or times to do it, but elucidations on the subject are post-hoc. It is itself, if you will, a solid object, an existence about which men contemplate but which ultimately needs no justification to exist. To make its existence, like that of feasting, family, etc, to depend on human justifications is reductionistic.

    I think Fr. has focused more on ‘what fasting does when the Orthodox do it’ more than ‘why the Orthodox fast/justifications for fasting.’ The latter category is a fruitless endeavor which will get snarled up in ‘disputations.’ Meanwhile, people still find reasons to fast that don’t rest on our concepts of what it’s about… then, it may be that fasting is another one of the ‘Mysteries of the Faith’ which deacons are commanded to ‘keep in a pure conscience.’

    To get my meaning, trying to justify fasting is like trying to justify trees. There are some places you don’t want a tree to grow, but human thought did not make trees; they are at once mysterious and familiar and so, I think, should be the fast.

  20. fatherstephen says

    My pastoral duties have been a little heavier lately – thus I haven’t been able to interact as much in the comments. But…

    Why the Orthodox fasting rules. We tend to look at them as “don’t eat this…” when the point is much more what we “do eat.” The rules are simply a way of saying, “Vegetarian, and without the heavy oils (like Olive Oil). It includes the heavier foods like dairy.

    The fact that shellfish are considered edible is more or less an oversight, despite all the silly explanations I’ve ever heard, it really is just an oversight. Thus, be quiet and eat your squid.

    The asceticism of Orthodox fasting, actually extends far beyond the question of what foods. There are days on which nothing is eaten (at least in strict monastic practice). There are days on which only one meal is eaten (again in strict monastic practice), etc.

    It is an abstention from certain “heavier” foods. We do not fast for health reasons – though science has some positive things to say about the practice. We fast only for spiritual reasons.

    Such fasting predates Christianity and was inherited from certain groups within Judaism and adapted to Christian purposes (such as Great Lent, etc.). The experience behind fasting is that pulling away from heavier foods, and enduring voluntary hunger for the sake of prayer and vigil, is a spiritually strengthening experience. The experience is that such intentional effort makes it easier to resist sin, easier to consciously unite ourselves to Christ, easier to consciously be aware of the needs of the other. Awareness (nepsis) is particularly associated with fasting.

    A single day of such activity is not particular useful. Experience of many says that an extended time (such as Great Lent) has an accumulative effect.

    Remember, as well, that Orthodox practice the fast on most Wednesdays and Fridays, and the Eucharistic fast always before communion. There are more fasting days in the Orthodox year than otherwise – which is to say that for Orthodoxy – fasting is rather normative. Since the Bridegroom has been taken away – this is as it should be. For those who are commanded to be awake and watch for His coming – giving ourselves to “surfeiting” and the like are simply not in keeping with the Christian life.

    Simplicity of life, though not a stated part of the fast, would seem prudent as well.

  21. Michael Bauman says

    “For those who are commanded to be awake and watch for His coming – giving ourselves to “surfeiting” and the like are simply not in keeping with the Christian life.

    Simplicity of life, though not a stated part of the fast, would seem prudent as well.”

    Best explanation of the rules of fasting I’ve ever read. So much seems like esoteric justification. The only way I’ve ever been able to do the fast at all, even the Wednesday/Friday fast is to look at it as a obedience because Jesus said: “When you fast….” He expects us to fast.

    Some meandering thoughts: Gourmet fasting where a lot of expense, time and effort goes into creating lavish and beautiful “fasting” meals seems to go against the spirit of the fast. One reason I think the consumption of shellfish during the fast, while ‘legal’ is not the best idea(I’m allergic anyway). It would seem, in light of your words, Father Stephen that eating a regular diet, but a simple one that takes little prep time and eating less of it might be more in acord. More time to pray, more $$ to give, but that’s probably me looking for a way out. I am horrible at fasting.

    Even when I eat fast appropriate foods I can easily gorge myself on them because I really like them (pretty much any lentil/rice dish). Again a violation of the direction Fr. Stephen gives.

    Eating out is a just about impossible as most everything. even dishes labled “vegetarian”, have milk, cheese and/or eggs. No vegan restaurants where I live.

    My priest says rather Yoda like: ‘either do it or don’t do it’.

    Human beings seem near infinite in our capacity to rationalize our own behavior. Even trying to be obedient to the fast and failing exposes that, at least it does for me.

    Food as entertainment and as an emotional drug rivals sex in our culture for pandering to our passions. Fasting is almost as reviled and ignored as chastity.

  22. says

    Michael,

    Don’t feel bad or alone. Much of what you relate applies to myself as well ;-) Well said, my friend, well said.

  23. Susi says

    For those who have not read The Meaning of the Great Fast by Kallistos Ware in the Lenten Triodion (translation by Mother Mary and Kallistos Ware), I would highly recommend it. It will not only answer, in a factual and inspirational manner, the questions of those outside of Orthodoxy but is equally edifying for the Orthodox.

  24. Margaret says

    The little book, “The Way of the Ascetics” by Tito Colliander offers some good encouragement toward fasting also. I put off reading this little book for quite awhile because I felt the title itself “daunting” but it was a nice surprise in encouragement to Orthodox Christian living and daily life for “even me”: wife, mother and really not disciplined concerning food, etc. I’ve read it twice and will keep it close by as I begin the path of Great Lent.

    Thank you also for this excellent blog post and the great comments on fasting, Fr. Stephen!

  25. Susi says

    I just read the reviews for the book, Margaret. Looks like a wonderful suggestion! I think it’s difficult, even for we who are Orthodox, to understand the level of effort and commitment Orthodox priests undertake preparing for and guiding their flocks through Great and Holy Lent. That Father Stephen can respond to us at all during this time of year amazes me and shows his incredible dedication to God. For us, reading any of the suggested material would be so beneficial…and we might find answers to questions that we didn’t even know we had. I’ll be ordering that book, Margaret!

  26. Victor says

    One of the many wonderful things about the fast is that it is a common fast. It is the same fast for all of us, not me doing my thing and you doing yours. We have different strengths and degrees of keeping the physical part of the fast but the rule is one for all of us, exercised through economia at the diocesan and parish level.

  27. fatherstephen says

    Tomorrow evening I do the first of 62 services between then and Pascha. I don’t think I could do them without fasting. Strangely, heavy eating and all that goes with it makes it hard to pray, and very difficult to pray a lot. During Great Lent, the parish calendar becomes more monastic – and the life of a priest (and people) take on a more monastic shape (if only because of the asceticism). And the monastics – truly take on a great labor.

    It is said that God preserves the world on account of the prayers of the Holy Fathers. Perhaps so. But I know that the world stands poised on a razor’s edge and the abyss is as great as I’ve known in my lifetime – perhaps greater. I crave the prayers of brothers and sisters across the world this year. Pray for peace. Pray for the safety of the Church. Pray for those enduring persecution. Pray for those whose faith is in danger of being extinguished.

  28. mary benton says

    Also please for Pope Francis I. A new leader for those of us in the RC branch of the family is cause for hope of new beginnings…new beginnings within the RC church but also, hopefully, between churches.

    Blessings to all of you during Great Lent – though our calendars are different, we share the holy journey toward Pascha.

  29. Susi says

    Michael, your point regarding sugar (in my very layman-like mind) is valid if the individual approaches fasting with a “list” mentality. I’ve been taught that this isn’t about running around and trying to find the fanciest recipes or push upon the boundaries of acceptable foods. The food portion of the fast is about simplicity and the shifting of our dependency from food to God, receiving from Him our nourishment through prayer and service. Personally, I’m thankful that there are some “loopholes” as it allows us to recognize those things within ourselves which require spiritual discernment on our part. If my neighbor is eating Good ‘N Plenty by the pound, that is their business and not mine.

  30. Michael Bauman says

    Susi,

    There are fasting rules for a reason, they are not inconsequential nor should they be ignored. They are not mere guidelines. Any changes to the rules should be made only with the blessing of one’s confessor or spiritual father.

    Sugar is a super-reinforcer. It acts as a drug and exites all sorts of passions that make us more susceptible to the influence of advertisers and is detrimental to our physical health as well. It is in almost every processed food one buys at a supermarket. It is there to get us to buy, buy, buy.

    Had it been common at the time the fasting rules were written, it would likely be excluded while fasting.
    That being said, you are of course correct we should pay more attention to what is going into our own belly than what goes into the bellies of others. However, it is incorrect that what others do or don’t do is of no importance. We are called to bear one another’s burdens.

    I, for one, would be less likely to consume sugar during the fast if it where no technically OK.

  31. RiverC says

    Mike,

    I disagree here…

    There is a temptation to further complicate the fasting rules because we could make them ‘better’. This seems to be the same passion that has taken over our whole society, while some had to eat eggs all the time for health reasons and didn’t seem to suffer for it.

    I for one am glad the general guideline is simple… but you cannot make a precise and yet simple rule for simplicity!

    It would seem though, that I have noticed in my life that there are times when ‘eating is the most enjoyable part of the day’. This speaks of a life that is on the one hand directed towards pleasure, but on the other, empty of other purpose which would supplant such an overactive interest in belly-filling.

    My point is if we’re spending a lot of time on the rules we’re focusing on the eating, which is of course defeating the purpose even if well intentioned. Either complex, rich foods or complex, rich rules don’t help us get away from the belly.

  32. fatherstephen says

    Michael,
    For what it’s worth on sugar. Honey certainly goes back to primitive times. There is the so-called Fast of Daniel, described in Scripture, in which he refrained from “sweetmeats” (sometimes translated “pleasant food” but more or less means sweet cakes and the like), and wine for a time. But the Daniel Fast is not the same as the Lenten fast. For myself, as my meat intake lessens, I want less sweets – they’re too heavy. But we’re a culture that majors in sugar, fat and salt.

  33. Susi says

    Quoting Michael, “There are fasting rules for a reason, they are not inconsequential nor should they be ignored. They are not mere guidelines. Any changes to the rules should be made only with the blessing of one’s confessor or spiritual father.”

    I fully agree with and understand this. I make not a single step of preparing for and continuing in the fast of Lent, or any other, without such guidance. I do understand where you are coming from regarding the potential dangers of sugar, but I remember that at the time and place in history it was perhaps not understood how sugar can affect our body and mind or that it was not “abused” by overconsumption as we face today. Caffeine could also fall into this category. Where does the Church draw the line? I believe that they found the proper balance point in order that the true meaning of the fast is placed before us and trusting in the discernment and guidance of the confessor or spiritual father.

  34. PJ says

    I’m reminded of the words of Pope Francis, commenting on Joel 2:13:

    “Rend your heart, not the clothing of artificial penance.

    Rend your heart, not the clothing of technical fasting of compliance that only serves to keep us satisfied.

    Rend your heart, not the clothing of egotistical and superficial prayer that does not reach the inmost part of life to allow it to be touched by God.

    Rend your heart, that we may say with the Psalmist: ‘We have sinned.'”

  35. Lina says

    The fast keeps us. As I read this this time around, I remembered a situation I was in years and years ago in my youth. I was grumbling to Thelma, the lady who cleaned our house, that my mother was going to cause me to lose my religion. I was angry and frustrated.

    She replied, “No Lina, your faith in God is going to walk you through this.”

    Words that keep returning to me. Thank your Thelma!