Why We Fast

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.

Russian_PeasantFasting 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.

26 comments:

  1. Amen Father. This is hard to keep in mind and harder yet to explain to non Orthodox friends and family. But, it is as you say: ” We fast so that we may live like a dying man – and in dying we can be born to eternal life.”

  2. Beautiful. This is the first “full fast” that I am attempting to take part in. I’ve been fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays but I have felt a need to link my fasting to prayer and humility. This post does so much to help with that end! Many thanks, Father. Blessings to you!

  3. Father,

    Thank you! The part about sitting with the dying especially spoke to me since that is what I do as a chaplain full-time. A part of me dies every time. I had not thought of that in relation to fasting. Pray for me, a sinner…..

  4. Thank you Father for so eloquently describing what some of us as Orthodox Christians fail to truly understand each fasting season, particularly during the Lent season.

    As an Orthodox Christian with a Middle Eastern background I find myself preoccupied with what food I can eat most of the time, forgoing the true meaning of my fast.

  5. For any who have not read it, I highly recommend the chapter, “The Deep Meaning of Fasting” in the book, “The Communion of Love” by Matthew the Poor.

    Not only has it has given me an understanding of the meaning of fasting like no other, it has given me a true desire to fast.

    Fr. Stephen, if I might clarify…though I hope your meaning should be obvious: “We eat as though our life depended on it and it does not.” Our physical life does indeed depend on eating – to think otherwise is to fall into the delusion of psychological anorexia (unless God has given a special grace for total fasting, a grace that no one should assume on their own that they have).

    I write this, psychologist that I am, because I have occasionally encountered people who, in the pursuit of spiritual perfection, have fallen into thinking that it is better to not eat than to eat and have developed an atypical psychological anorexia.

    What is important is that our fasting be prayerful. It is better to engage in a very modest fast with a humble and sincere desire to follow Christ, than to try to create our own “perfection” with an extreme abstention from food. It is more important to strip away our pride than to strip away the food itself.

    I think what I write here is consistent with the spirit of your message but please correct me if I am wrong.

  6. Thank you father!
    This reading helps me to prepare to the fasting period that is upon us. Please pray for me, that I will work in humility and repentance.
    I recently joined the Orthodox church in the mission in Durango CO. It is a blessing to be part of the Church and true faith. I love to read all of your writings. Before I became orthodox I was Byzantine catholic. I was teaching ECF(Easter Christian Formation) in my former church, and we had your book “Everywhere present”. It was and eye opener and it helped me to understand a little better the presence of God among us. Thank you for sharing your faith, your writings.
    Through your prayers.

  7. Chris,
    It’s somewhat off-topic for my usual writing. I’ll look for some good sites and see what I can point us to. There are many sites that give good directions on what is sort of “standard.” But fasting, like prayer, is ultimately everything but standard. Its purpose is not itself but something else. It’s a tool.

    I can give lots of commentary on what constitutes “bad” fasting.

    I always find it easy to fast when visiting a monastery. That’s the only kind of food available, and a large portion of it I don’t like, because my palette resembles that of the average teen. So, I am generally slightly hungry all the time when I visit a monastery. Thank God for tea and toast.

    The spirituality of fasting is largely about confronting our own limits and brokenness. It’s not something that is done well by doing it “well.” Fasting intentionally brings us face-to-face with weakness – and it is there that our greatest spiritual work is done. We are saved in our weakness, not by our strength. Fasting is one of the means by which we come face-to-face with our weakness. So is confession and repentance. So is prayer, when done right.

    The fullness of God is found in the emptiness of the self. It’s very hard to get to that emptiness, or to bear it very long when we do find it.

    Mostly, fasting means eating according to a certain set of rules. It generally does not mean “not eating.” We’re humans. We have to eat. Eating is good.

    But we fast by changing the kind of food we eat and the amount we eat. We abstain from certain foods (found in Orthodox guidelines – generally, meat, fish, wine, dairy, oil) and we eat a little less. Essentially, it’s vegetarian eating. But many “fast” days also have a mitigated fast where fish wine and oil are permitted.

    And then there are many personal adjustments to the fast for reasons of health or just plain spiritual weakness. It’s hard and not everybody can do a strict fast. It’s ok. Fasting with the guidance of a priest is best, if possible, and the priest is wise and not a fasting nazi.

    I tell my catechumens to start very easy. Such as, just don’t eat meat. Then slowly, over a year or two, you learn to take more of the fast on.

    I also suggest that the fast you keep be enough out of your reach that you will fail from time to time. The failure is at least as important as the success.

    Lastly, struggling with a fast is not sin. Many people bring fasting problems to confession. The “sin” (when there is one) is not the eating. If you give thanks, all things can be eaten. The “sin” would be in thoughtlessness, or lack of care for the soul, or other such stuff. In that sense, the failure in the fast simply serves as a diagnostic tool, revealing to us how far short we fall.

    Fasting should always be joined with additional prayer, repentance, and giving stuff away (showing mercy and sharing our money). The fathers give more weight to the the alms (mercy) than to fasting by far.

  8. Mary,
    I like Matthew the Poor’s writings. They’re really excellent.

    Anorexia is it’s own problem. I’ve usually forbidden parishioners suffering from anorexia from fasting. I’m quite strict about it. I tell them it’s dangerous and it’s not their discipline.

    But “Man does not live by bread alone” would be the more accurate way for me to have phrased what I meant. Blessings!

  9. Just read link from Saron Joy. Answers a lot a questions about what Christ accomplished. Wow, thankyou Sharon and thankyou Father Stephen and thankyou Lord

  10. Fr. Stephen,

    This article is so Germain and timely. It makes so much sense when you connect fasting to failure and to experiencing weakness rather than doing well. I think most of us in the West have some kind of hero in mind when we think of the successful fast: tough, taking the beatings without wincing, feeling the emptiness in our stomachs but then just grinning about it and thriving on the pain like a masochist. Others melt into the donut shops but we stolidly pass by unflinching.

    Oh did I mention that in this skewed vision of how it would work, we’re in actually in competition with everyone around us? We know it’s not supposed to be that way but we simply can’t help it. Our rational mind has to have some present reason for putting up with the hardship. Jewels in our heavenly crown are nice and all, but we need something to motivate us here and now. If I can at least exceed my neighbor, that ego boost will be worth it….or so we tell ourselves. And of course more delusions of this view could be propounded.

    But the connections you show really make sense. We do it – and to a level that allows for failure – in order to see how much we lack the credentials to play God and to recognize our great need for Him.

    You talk about fasting drawing us closer to God. This is so true but our human nature tends to imagine it in the same way that a cold winter traveler is drawn to a nice warm fire. But in fact it’s often more like a thirsty desert wanderer is drawn to water or a wounded soldier is drawn to a hospital. Not quite as romantic and rosy.

    Thanks once again for your ministry and your ability to break big thoughts into small words that our hearts can understand.

  11. Mary Benton,

    Perhaps this verse may comfort another like myself: The angel of the Lord touched Elijah and said, “Arise and eat, lest the journey be too great for you.” Eating under obedience, and with gratitude, may be as difficult and beneficial for our humility as fasting is for others.

  12. Thank you, Father. I needed some encouragement as we go into the Nativity Fast. “We fast so that we may live like a dying man – and in dying we can be born to eternal life.”

  13. I find it odd that, historically, the church has viewed Advent as a “lesser Lent” which should emphasize fasting, but most of Western Christianity views it as a time for worshiping at the altar of the idols of commercialism. Thank you for the reminder about what really matters as we prepare for the celebration of our Savior’s birth.

  14. Thank you Father Stephen. I will heed your advice on fasting. I find interesting your comments on coming face to face with our weaknesses and being saved in our weakness. Seems like this could also apply to trying to overcome sin in our lives, especially specific ones we try and struggle with daily to overcome. I definitely come face to face with my weakness in this regards and it can be frustrating. Something to meditate on.

    Again, than you.

  15. Michael,
    Historically, Advent was a fasting season in the West as well. It has, however, been lost. The commercialization of Christmas is pretty much a 20th century phenomenon. The consumer economy actually doesn’t get going until after the Second World War.

  16. I am not Orthodox, but I enjoy and appreciate reading your blog. I’ve always struggled with fasting, and struggled to keep from focusing on the fast itself, which would just be a form of legalism. But there is much grace in your words. Thank you.

  17. Jaelle,
    I’ve always found help in the corporate aspect of the fast. Everyone in the Church community is doing it, some better, some worse, but we’re in it together. It helps. The shared fast always helps bind the community together. God give you grace.

  18. we fast to learn to discern between things. To obtain the virtue of discernment
    we fast that we learn from the Holy Trinity how to prefer things over others. Prefer some higher good thing over than other thing which is also good. Then we learn to prefer unseen over the seen, eternal over carnal and indefinite over the definite.

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