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 or well in the Christian world. Much of that world has long lost any living connection with the historical memory of Christian fasting. Without the guidance of Tradition, many modern Christians either do not fast, or constantly seek to re-invent the practice, sometimes with unintended consequences.
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 relatively trivial acts of self-denial.
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 ceaseless prayer and inner stillness 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 this 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 version of 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 that in dying we can be born to eternal life.
The last couple of paragraphs are great thoughts especially the “body” has the wisdom of knowing something deeper. I like what Meletios Webber writes, (Bread & Water, Wine & Oil)..pp75, “There are situations in which fasting is not a matter of changing eating habits at all, but of adapting some other form of behavior instead.” This is especially true in the States where there is an over-abundance of food…too much and way too much of variety that is not necessary.
If I may, Father.
The Fast of our Lord is always the Feast in preparatio.
This post marks a series of very well written (and thought through) articles.
Wonderful article! I am just learning about the fast. If God wills, I will be at the inquirer’s class after Vesper’s this Wednesday. Thank you for the helpful and heartful articles. Hospice care is dear to my heart as well.
I completely appreciate this post. Thank you for the words about Hesychasm.
I read your article to my Evangelical Protestant husband and he responded by saying, “What’s the point of me praying or doing any of the other spiritual things that non-Orthodox Christians do when it still comes down to not having any life in me because I don’t partake of the Eucharist?” He went to talk about all the other Christians out there who aren’t Orthodox, and that it would seem according to his understanding the Church’s teachings, that it matters not how devoted to Christ they are if they aren’t eating His flesh and blood in the sacrament of the Eucharist in the Orthodox Church.
In the course of the past several years this particular subject comes up frequently. Honestly, I don’t know what to say. It is a source of frustration between us. So, is almsgiving, prayer, repentance and love towards one’s neighbor pointless if one is not an Orthodox Christian? I know the simple answer is, “no,” But why…if in the end those same persons aren’t receiving His life in the Orthodox Church? Furthermore, I’ve considered those things which I did to please God before becoming Orthodox. I don’t think they were for naught or that they didn’t/don’t matter to God.
What can I say? This particular issue is troubling to me, partly because I know genuine Christians outside of the Orthodox faith AND I am able to have fellowship in Christ’s sufferings and in His resurrection with many of them on a deeper level than with many Orthodox Christians I know.
@Darlene. You are in a difficult spot, being Orthodox with an evangelical husband. I’m a Byzantine Catholic and frequently am asked if I believe those who do not believe as I do can make heaven. The short answer is we trust in Christ and that Jesus alone decides who is saved or not in the end. What I usually talk about is that evangelical christians believe many of the same things that I do and in truth practice those beliefs more devoutly than I do and would make great Catholics. I tell them to read the history of the early Church, read the early Church fathers and see how the faith of the early Church is Catholic/Orthodox in practice/belief, not evangelical. Finally, one of the best things you can do is live out your Orthodox faith to the best of your ability & let the Holy Spirit guide your husband to the full communion with the Church.
I would only add to your excellent comments, Father, that even though the purpose of fasting isn’t for its own sake — like anything else we are just learning, we do have to practice it until the practice itself leads us deeper into its true meaning. So a new Orthodox Christian who is just learning the ropes begins by fasting from certain foods, and only over time comes to the point of almsgiving, love of enemies, and repentance.
Dear Fr. Stephen,
Thank you for this post. It was the highlight of the week for me during the AAC to meet you in person and thank you for the blessing you have been in my life. Thank you for taking so much time to talk to me and the other ladies. I will always remember the Servant of God, James, in my daily prayers along with my father and our beloved Vladyka Dmitri. I found this post on fasting from a long time ago and have always loved it. I hope it is fruitful for others too.
Fast from discontent;
feast on gratitude.
Fast from anger;
feast on patience.
Fast from complaining;
feast on appreciation.
Fast from worry;
feast on God’s blessed assurance.
Fast from unrelenting pressures;
feast on unceasing prayer.
Fast from bitterness;
feast on campassion and forgiveness.
Fast from self-concern;
feast on compassion for others.
Fast from discouragement;
feast on hope.
Fast from lethargy;
feast on enthusiasm.
Fast from suspicion;
feast on trust.
Fast from idle gossip;
feast on purposeful silence.
Fast from words that pollute;
feast on phrases that purify.
Fast from the seeming darkness;
feast on the realities of the Light.
Fast from hate and resentment;
feast on love and good will.
Fast from thoughts that weaken;
feast on promises that inspire.
Fast from problems that overwhelm;
feast on prayer that undergirds all.
Father — I’ve been Orthodox for over 20 years, and am just now *occasionally* remembering, Oh yeah, I’m supposed to be doing this other stuff, too. Progress by millimeters, two steps forward, 1 1/2 back…
God is a good God and not a legalist about all this. True, the fullness of life, we believe, is found in living the fullness of the ORthodox faith. But others certainly know and participate in aspects of it, sometimes at a very deep level.
The mystery of communion in Christ’s Body and Blood, isn’t also as simple as some would make it. Orthodoxy prefers to remain silent on the strange situation that exists at present and the exact status of the non-Orthodox – precisely because it’s a situation that largely has no Scripture to support it or explain it. Denominationalism is not natural to Christianity and presents questions that are unnatural. And so we love, trust in God’s love, but continue to teach as has been given us in Christ.
My parish priest might refer to this as the “Cornelius question”. He feared God, gave alms to the poor, and prayed daily. He certainly did not have the fullness of the faith yet his pious acts were received by God as a fragrant offering. The story is told in Acts 10.
Early in our inquiry into Orthodoxy, I asked Fr.Joseph what the Church thought of me as a life long evangelical (46 yrs). He responded that this was the “Cornelius question”. Our efforts to know God are important, but need the structure and guidance of the Church.
Forgive me, Nikolai
This is a wonderful post. Thank you, Father!
Great post Father!
It is very unfortunate that the followers of Christ have lost the way of Jesus Christ including fasting, which has been part of all the faithful people and prophets since the dawn of man. The only people I know who truly fast with all its benefits and purity are the Muslims and the followers of Islam. For 30 consecutive days they abstain from all desires (water, food, sex, lower their gaze) from sun-rise to sun-set.
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