This Sunday, November 15, marks the beginning of the Nativity Fast (40 days before Christmas). The following article offers some thoughts on the purpose of fasting.
Fasting is not very alive and well in the Christian world. Much of that world has long lost any living connection with the historical memory of Christian fasting. It is as though they were Jews who heard there was such a thing as kosher and decided to make up the rules for what to eat and what not to eat because no one knew what was actually kosher.
There are other segments of Christendom who have tiny remnants of the traditional Christian fast, but in the face of a modern world have reduced the tradition to almost meaningless self-sacrifice.
I read recently (though I cannot remember where) that the rejection of Hesychasm was the source of all heresy. In less technical terms we can say that knowing God in truth, participating in His life, union with Him through humility, prayer, love of enemy and repentance before all and for everything, is the purpose of the Christian life. Hesychasm (Greek Hesychia=Silence) is the name applied to the Orthodox tradition of ceaseless prayer and inner stillness.
But these are incorrectly understood if they are separated from knowledge of God and participation in His life, union with Him through humility, prayer, love of enemy and repentance before all and for everything.
And it is the same path of inner knowledge of God (with all its components) that is the proper context of fasting. If we fast but do not forgive our enemies – our fasting is of no use. If we fast and do not find it drawing us into humility – our fasting is of no use. If our fasting does not make us yet more keenly aware of the fact that we are sinful before all and responsible to all then it is of no benefit. If our fasting does not unite us with the life of God – which is meek and lowly – then it is again of no benefit.
Fasting is not dieting. Fasting is not about keeping a Christian kosher. Fasting is about hunger and humility (which is increased as we allow ourselves to become weak). Fasting is about allowing our heart to break.
I have seen greater good accomplished in souls through their failure in the fasting season than in the souls of those who “fasted well.” Publicans enter the kingdom of God before Pharisees pretty much every time.
Why do we fast? Perhaps the more germane question is “why do we eat?” Christ quoted Scripture to the evil one and said, “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” We eat as though our life depended on it and it does not. We fast because our life depends on the word of God.
I worked for a couple of years as a hospice chaplain. During that time, daily sitting at the side of the beds of dying patients – I learned a little about how we die. It is a medical fact that many people become “anorexic” before death – that is – they cease to want food. Many times family and even doctors become concerned and force food on a patient who will not survive. Interestingly, it was found that patients who became anorexic had less pain than those who, having become anorexic, were forced to take food. (None of this is about the psychological anorexia that afflicts many of our youth. That is a tragedy)
It is as though at death our bodies have a wisdom we have lacked for most of our lives. It knows that what it needs is not food – but something deeper. The soul seeks and hungers for the living God. The body and its pain become a distraction. And thus in God’s mercy the distraction is reduced.
Christianity as a religion – as a theoretical system of explanations regarding heaven and hell, reward and punishment, is simply Christianity that has been distorted from its true form. Either we know the living God or we have nothing. Either we eat His flesh and drink His blood or we have no life in us. The rejection of Hesychasm is the source of all heresy.
Why do we fast? We fast so that we may live like a dying man – and in dying we can be born to eternal life.
I cannot even begin to know, or understand, the true purpose of fasting (as I cannot begin to know, or understand, God). I can only hunt and peck my way forward and back, forward and back, weaving in and out with the faith that something will take hold in me and draw me into a deeper knowledge of Truth than I had the moment before this, and the moment before that. Your post draws me closer still, albeit I am still blinded by the stunning reality of True faith. Thank you, Father, for all you have done (and will do) to help me along this path – my eyes tear with gratitude.
Father, as someone who deals with dying patients all the time, this perspective about fasting (how could I have been so blind as to never to have seen it before?) will be borne in my mind fpr a long time. You’re right. We are born dying. High time we lived like we knew it. Have a blessed Nativity.
Just a few minutes ago I received news that the second friend in a month has died of cancer. Both stopped taking in food shortly before their deaths.
I never even imagined that there was any spiritual connection to fasting and dying. As Ryan says above, I can’t believe I have never seen it before.
Thank you, Father.
“If we fast but do not forgive our enemies – our fasting is of no use. If we fast and do not find it drawing us into humility – our fasting is of no use. If our fasting does not make us yet more keenly aware of the fact that we are sinful before all and responsible to all then it is of no benefit. If our fasting does not unite us with the life of God – which is meek and lowly – then it is again of no benefit”.
I understand the concept here but find this more than difficult to live out. When we begin to fast (and it feels like I am always beginning), who can really grasp these things right away? It seems that we are forced to begin with a feeling that fasting is utterly futile and in vain. But is there not something in the physical discipline that leads us toward a place where things move into the heart? The way that the statement is written makes it sound like if we fast and do not love our enemies or feel the love of God than it is of no use. Even if we are not more keenly aware of God can fasting still be of benefit by first teaching our bodies how to respond to God, while continuing until we have a deeper knowledge of prayer and communion with God? I would think it somewhat obvious that as we learn to fast, we will not immediately love our enemies, have humility and feel more united with God. I don’t think you are saying that we should all give up but how do we know when our fasting is of no use and when it is just “growing pains” in our attempt to learn how to fast properly? I have learned the hard way that repeated negative actions are difficult to break and require a discipline in the opposite direction so that through physical actions becoming automatic, we train ourselves to think more clearly so that our bodies work for us instead of against us. Many people get more anxious and crabby when they fast but does this mean that they should stop because it is of no use or should they press on and work through or beyond these emotions? Again I do see what you are saying in principle but fail to see the practical application for the average sinner who feels stuck.
Thank you very much for this explanation. I am a sinner, and this fast will open up repentance in us. Thank you.
“Christianity as a religion – as a theoretical system of explanations regarding heaven and hell, reward and punishment, is simply Christianity that has been distorted from its true form. Either we know the living God or we have nothing.”
This is extremely sobering. Very rarely in the West is someone called to follow Christ simply with “follow me as I follow Him” — because we do not know, truly, what it means to follow Him. Thus our lives are little more than intellectual religious exercises devoted to categorizing and understanding everything, rather than walking simply and humbly. God, to the Protestant especially, is no longer the God and Father of Jesus Christ, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of the apostles, etc., but He is considered the “the God of the Bible”; the God of the Book. Therefore God is an intellect, not a heart, not a communion of three persons one in essence, not a being who can be known and seen and felt and touched. Since it is the God of the Book, we cannot recognize or honor persons created in the image of God. Since it is the God of the Book, we fight against atheists rather than loving them and inviting them to come experience Christ in His Church. Since it is the God of the Book, the Book alone is the fountainhead, the chief cornerstone, the pillar and ground of the truth. The Book has superseded God. All this came because we forgot to know Him. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
You have said what I have wanted to hear for so long:
“knowing God in truth, participating in His life, union with Him through humility, prayer, love of enemy and repentance before all and for everything, is the purpose of the Christian life. Hesychasm (Greek Hesychia=Silence) is the name applied to the Orthodox tradition of ceaseless prayer and inner stillness.”
Far too many religious leaders seem to focus on the negatives, the “should-nots” which they apply only to certain groups of people. Rather than the positives which are directly traceable to Jesus. I am particularly grateful to hear the message that we must love our enemy. This, to my mind, is the single most forgotten life-giving message in the Gospel. Maybe I’m wrong here, but I suspect that if a person set out to follow just that one command, all of the rest of it would follow. For how could one seek to truly love one’s enemy without constant recourse to prayer, to repentance, to humility? If more people tried to put this into practice, it would change our entire culture and the world. It would mean you set out to “fast” from hatred, violence, aggression, manipulation, greed, treating people as “objects” and so on.
I bless you for this post!
Stephen, good points, I often feel as you. So I hope, I guess, if I just shut my eyes and “do it” , I will participate in some small measure in God’s grace and life. I don’t know. I am wary of having to “feel” something in order to “do” something since I’ve been down that road in the Protestant world.
Thank you, Father. This is very helpful, and I believe will give me a much better footing for the upcoming past.
“…Hesachism was the source of all heresy.” You may have been reading Alexander Kalomiros, Nostalgia for Paradise (Chap. 3)
May Christ bless your fast, even as you bless us.
To be honest, after about 20 years of trying understand fasting or see the benefit of it, I came to the conclusion that we fast because the Church demands it of us. I fast simply out of obedience because I love God and His Church. I am unable to judge whether or not I have advanced spiritually because of fasting or fallen back because of my difficulty fasting. When I fall away, I repent and start it up again.
I have found that the simple existence of the fast and any attempt to follow it is an affront to the world; the world that tells us we are all alone and must rely upon ourselves for our sustenance; that we must fill ourselves to surfeit each time we eat or feel deprived. We should therefore expect to be challenged and loose from time to time espeically if we have family who are not Orthodox.
Fasting almost forces one to prepare and eat meals at home since there are few commerical eateries that prepare fast legal meals (at least in my town). We must be conscious of what we are eating, how much and why. It encourages us to be grateful to God for our life, for our sustenance and the wonderful bounty of His Creation so freely given. I don’t think it is insignificant that no other creatures are sacrificed if we follow a Lenten diet.
Thank you, Fr. Stephen!
I believe that S. John Chrysostom said “the desire to rule is the mother of all heresies.”
Maybe the desire to rule and the rejection of Hesychasm are much the same thing.
It is truly difficult to let go of the world for the sake of Jesus and my own soul. I must die to myself to be open to my true self (the heart): the heavenly struggle. Here is an excerpt of a poem which I think complements Father’s post regarding the spirit of fasting:
In hunger of body and mind, I see
the vanity of food,
for I have loved food as food,
and have never been fed.
In weary, waking vigil I see
the vanity of sleep,
for I have embraced sleep as desire,
and have never found rest.
In sorrow, with eyes of tears I see
the vanity of pleasure,
for I have treasured happiness above all,
and have never known joy.
‘I fast, beloved child, to crush the wall
that is my self;
For I am not who I am, just as these passions
are not treasures of gold but of clay.
I fast to die, for it is not the living who are
raised, but the dead.
I fast to crucify my desires, for He who was
crucified was He who lived,
and He who conquered,
and He who lives forever.’
I fast because I love God, and I ask God for the forgiveness of my sins by taking His Bread and Wine. Each time that I fast I feel that my body has been cleansed of everything evil, and I enjoy a spiritual heaven.
Fr. Stephen, thank you for this post. I share the difficulty that everyone here voices regarding fasting. But I thank God that in His great mercy, I have the chance to start over when I fail. I think Psalm 63 reveals also the purpose of fasting as FR. Stephen says “the soul seeks and hungers for the living God”. I have been hungry (not from fasting) at some point in my life, but to experience thirst and hunger in the middle of a desert “where there is no water”, I have not experienced. One’s need for water is great and immediate in this kind of environment; for without it the body will soon die. In the midst of abundance, it is really hard to seek God with this kind of urgency. Lord have mercy that we may truly thirst for You and help us obey your commandments.
As a seeker into Orthodoxy (hopefully soon to be a catechumen!) this is especially helpful to me. I have only been following a fasting rule per my spiritual Father John for less than a year. I will read and re-read these words during the Christmas fast this year. Thank you so much for your blog and your podcast.
I really enjoyed reading this article.
Can fasting also be a way of uniting with the poor in their suffering out of love?
I am not very disciplined at fasting. I have felt a strong call to to fast this advent though. I find focusing on the poor helps motivate me.
Giving away the surplus money from fasting makes it feel purposeful in a physical as well as spiritual sense too.
Thank you for this Father.
Our Body not needing food but something deeper as you said and that it getting the Wisdom it has lacked for most.It knows that what it needs is not food – but something deeper. The soul seeks and hungers for the living God. The body and its pain become a distraction. And thus in God’s mercy the distraction is reduced.
Thank you also James, for your comment. It is all true what you say “the Book superseding God.”
Of all the Nativity Fast has been the hardest for me. All the distraction around the holidays makes it hard, Christmas Parties, commercialism, makes it hard to focus on the reason for why we are doing it.
One time in a conversation with a member of our church I told him, where I came from during fasting periods liturgy starts at noon and people will only break their fast after the services, or just at noon if they can’t go to church. He was upset of me telling him. He thought that breakfast is the most important part of our life and cannot be done. I think when you do not have a lot of distraction not a lot of food, or other reasons around your environment, it is easier.
Bethanytwins, I think you’re right that St. John and Fr. Stephen (Dr. Kalomiros?) are describing the same thing. It seems to me they are merely coming at it from two complementary perspectives. What is participation in Christ, if it is not a participation in His kenotic, self-emptying love? Isn’t this the opposite of power seeking and manipulation? Your comment also put me in mind of St. Ephrem’s Prayer that we pray during Lent before Pascha–“take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust for power, and idle talk. . . . but rather give your servant the spirit of self-control, humility, patience and love.” This prayer seems to incorporate also these complementary aspects of the what is essentially the same process. Thank you, Father, for the timely repost.
I don’t think we can keep all of those things in mind all the time – but mostly those observations are to say that love, mercy and kindness are the important matters of the fast (that are often eclipsed by our concern with how to eat and not eat). If we concentrate on love, mercy, kindness, etc., then however well or poorly we do with the food aspect of the fast, we will have kept a fast that is more pleasing to God.
It’s so easy to get trapped in a paradox of words and lose the essential meaning. Words seem so limited, thus another reason not to put too much effort into rational explanations, which fall short of experience. At the same time our words seem to set some guidlines or boundaries so that we don’t fall into dellusion through a purely emotional response to God.
Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos has this line in his study of St. Gregory Palamas:
“Rejection of the Holy Mountain and the hesychastic tradition is in reality a denial of the Orthodox Tradition and a departure from the ‘One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.'”
Perhaps we could simply say, “the source of our troubles is the refusal to be quiet.”
You absolutely win the prize for the best aphorism of the year!
What George (obviously Greek) says is most stunning of all. Thank God for such an inspiring possibility. Perhaps our children will have the same experience.
It is common for people to use food for comfort: to calm themselves or as a reward for enduring a difficult day or as a substitute for love and the like. When we fast we voluntarily deprive ourselves of the more luxurious foods, those foods which we have, many times, used to comfort ourselves. When the “bandage” provided by the comforting food is removed, the underlying condition is revealed. I have been following Orthodox fasting rules for 18 months and I find that I am more irritable when I fast. This irritatbility forces me to confront the truth of my relations with other people, and to acknowledge unforgiveness I may be harboring towards others. Pulling away the “comfort” of food forces me to deal with spiritual and psychological sores, scars and hidden sins. This is not a pleasant experience but it can be the impetus for spiritual growth.