February newsletter article
in particular the service of the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts. If you would like a reminder of what that service is and why we have it, let me know and I will give you
a copy. This year, however, I will focus on fasting.
Why fasting? Because it is a practice of the Church which is not well understood. In the introduction to “The Lenten Triodion,” Bishop (now Metropolitan) Kallistos (Ware) and Mother Mary describe the two most common misunderstandings. The first overemphasizes the fasting rules,
while the other considers the rules outdated and unnecessary. However, these “are both alike to be deplored as a betrayal of true Orthodoxy. In both cases the proper balance between the outward and the inward has been impaired.” The misunderstandings and distortions of fasting, however, by
no means diminish its importance and usefulness in the spiritual life. After all, our Lord Himself gave instructions regarding fasting.
In Matthew 6, He tells His disciples, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Luke 5:34-35 is equally unequivocal about the fasting of Jesus’ disciples. When asked why His disciples did not fast, he answered, “Can you make the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? But the time will
come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast.”
The question then remains: how shall we fast? The life of the Church has produced four major fasting periods, in addition to most Wednesdays and Fridays of the year. We are about to enter the longest and strictest fast of these four, in which, according to the strictest standards, no
meat, dairy, eggs, or fish are to be eaten on any day (with exceptions being made for fish on the day of the Annunciation and Palm Sunday) from Cheese-fare Sunday until the Resurrection, a period of seven weeks.
For most people who have not fasted before, the list of foods not to be eaten and the length of time for which we are to abstain can seem daunting. To these, St. John Cassian gives encouragement: “[The Holy Fathers] have not given us only a single rule for fasting or a single standard and measure for eating, because not everyone has the same strength; age, illness or delicacy of body create differences” (Philokalia v.1, pp. 74-75). Thus, someone who has not fasted before is not asked to follow the strictest of fasts from the beginning. Rather, under the guidance of a spiritual father, such a person should begin the discipline of fasting in a manner fit for that person. After all, St. John also reminds us that “food is to be taken in so
far as it supports our life, but not to the extent of enslaving us to the impulses of desire. To eat moderately and reasonably is to keep the body in health, not to deprive it of holiness” (ibid.). St. Peter of Damaskos concurs with St. John Cassian and adds that, through moderate fasting, “we can overcome gluttony, greed and [disordered] desire,and live without distraction” (St. Peter of Damaskos - Philokalia v.3, p. 90). Similarly, a desert father, Abba John the Short, said that “blessed fasting subdues the passions and the demons and ultimately removes them far from the combatant” (Ancient Fathers of the Desert - Section 1, on GOA website, www.goarch.org).
These saints speak from their own experiences about the practice of fasting and its spiritual benefits. Their agreement with regard to the importance of fasting, to the way fasting is to be approached, and to the spiritual fruits of this physical labor bear witness to the common mind of the Church on these matters.
With that being said, Metr. Kallistos and Mother Mary have the last word: “On the outward level fasting involves physical abstinence from food and drink, and without such exterior
abstinence a full and true fast cannot be kept; yet the rules about eating and drinking must never be treated as an end in themselves, for ascetic fasting has always an inward and unseen purpose. [...] The primary aim of fasting is to make us conscious of our dependence upon God.”
Wishing everyone a blessed Lenten season,