A few thoughts on fasting.
And so, the Feast of St. Mary finished last week, and for some reason people that I know commented on this fast more than any other this year (Including Lent, the Jonah fast, the Apostles, Advent etc...) even though this was a short fast. Also, I noticed this week that Ramadan started for Muslims, their holy fasting month, and that again, many people I know have made some quite ignorant comments about the meaning of the Fast. For this reason I thought it was only right that I explain the importance of fasting in the Christian experience.
I will first explain what is meant by âfasting.â Fasting is described on Dictionary.com as âan abstinence from food, or a limiting of one's foodâ which is correct in a direct and outward, and somewhat simplistic view. To fast is to abstain from food, or to go for a while without it, and from this comes the word âBreakfastâ which means to literally break a fast. Fasting is referred to a great many times in the bible, from Moses explaining to the Israelites that those that turned to Baal-Peor were destroyed, and those that fasted and followed the Lord survived, to Saint Paul telling the Corinthians to Fasting and prayer so that Satan will not find them lacking self control. It is a practice which has been passed down from the time of the Israelites in the desert to Christianity today.
In the modern world fasting has come under much questioning from the Secular world and even from reformist Christians who see this as an outdated practice, yet it perseveres, as do those that practice it. In this short piece of writing I wish to explain the joys of fasting, and the great meaning that it brings to the Christian experience using a mixture of quotes from Orthodox writers, members of the community and my own personal experiences in my first year as a Christian.
So, why do we fast? This question is deceivingly difficult, even as I write this; many partial answers enter my head, almost like a collection of buzzwords such as âObedienceâ âfocusâ and âChristâ but not one complete coherent answer. The best way to explain it is to look to those who brought this practice to us, the Church Fathers. A perfect example of Fasting as a physical form of prayer comes from the life of St. Abba Macarius the Great. He explains that when struggling with a a local community that he âprayed to God, fasting the whole week that he would show me their way of life.â To Abba Macarius, as to many Christians in the modern world, a time of fasting is a chance to focus on your prayers without having to worry about such things as wanting a sandwich or watching the TV, as you are practicing self control.
The fast is also a time of remembrance. In the Orthodox Christian Calendar there are many fasts in memory of events in which others fasted, such as the Fast of the Prophet Jonah, in which we remember the repentance of the people of Nineveh from the book of Jonah. These also give us a chance to look upon our personal priorities in life. To give an example of this, I again look to the Jonah fast and the Ninevites. The Ninevites are said to be a wicked people , yet when hearing of their impending destruction they give up everything, wearing sack cloths and fasting. During the time of the fast we read the book of Jonah, remembering how these people repented and gave up their plentiful lives for God.
Christ also informs the Scribes and Pharisees of his followers fasting when asked why they d not fast. Christ said âThe day will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, then they will fast in those days.â By which he means that when Christ is on earth mankind will not fast as it is a time of joyous blessing, but after he his passion has been fulfilled and he has ascended into heaven they will practice fasting. This does not just mean physical fasting, but also to take your feet off of the accelerator a bit and leave the âpassions of the worldâ for a bit in order to enjoy the passions of the soul.
So, I have covered why people fast, and when the Orthodox Church fasts. Now comes how we fast. Bishop Kallistos Ware describes fasting in the Orthodox tradition as âA Rigour which will astonish and appal many western Christians.â Though this observation is indeed correct, it fails to look into the true meaning of the fast. We do not just fast to test our resolve, or to self harm. The Orthodox Church is not some DaVinci Code style cult, whipping ourselves and requiring pain to remember God. God knows that we are human, not angels, so would not wish for us to suffer a task too big for us. The fast is described well in the Lenten Triodion, described as a form of preparation for Spiritual warfare against the passions of the world. It says âLet us purify our souls and cleanse our flesh; and as we fast let us abstain from every passion. Rejoicing in the virtues of the spirit may we persevere with love.â In the modern world this could well be seen as a spiritual and physical detox.
The average laypersonâs fast in the Orthodox Church includes abstaining from Meat, Alcohol, Dairy Products, and sexual activity over the period of the fast. In my experience this is certainly not as difficult as it seems. There is much in this world designed to provide for people who live a lifestyle without Meat or dairy, and the alcohol and sexual side of it is easily cast aside as they are really not a necessity for anyone. In the fast, God is the centre of your life, and prayer should be your key activity for the day, so why would you need that beer anyway? This is of course not a legalistic issue, as many sick or elderly Christians may require calcium or iron from foods, so it is understandable that they will not keep the full fast, but the fact that they are trying, and they feel that they are meeting the fast is fine.
As I previously stated, in my experience fasting s a great gift, a time of reflection, self-discipline and prayer to a level that it is hard to reach which stuffing your face with pork scratching and being dragged out every weekend with friends. It is a break from the world, allowing self reflection and a boost in personal confidence, as you will find you have no need for worldly desires if you can enjoy the pleasures that come from prayer and fasting. As Amma Syncletica of Alexandria said âDo not fill yourself with bread, and you will not desire wine.â
May God Bless You and Keep You.
"The true Christian is a warrior making his way through the regiments of the invisible enemy to his heavenly homeland." - St Herman of Alaska.