My Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
I am not a fan of the “fasting police.” I do not care for the practice of judging our brothers and sisters for how he or she keeps the fast. Never mind that it runs contrary to the Epistle of Judgment Sunday
“Let not him who eats despise him who abstains, and let not him who abstains pass judgment on him who eats; for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for God is able to make him stand.” St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans
But it also invalidates one’s fast. St. Basil states “You do not eat meat, but you devour your brother.”
Fasting is not a mere matter of diet. It is moral as well as physical. In the words of St. John Chrysostom, it means “abstinence not only from food but from sins”. “The fast”, he insists, “should be kept not by the mouth alone but also by the eye, the ear, the feet, the hands and all the members of the body”: the eye must abstain from impure sights, the ear from malicious gossip, the hands from acts of injustice.
This is a holy fast. And it is of great value. Fasting accomplishes two great feats and both are critical during the Great and Holy Fast.
1). It sharpens the mind. One need only think of Thanksgiving afternoon to understand what gorging on food will do to one’s senses. We become dull, sluggish, when not outright sleepy as the body tries to digest the great feast we consumed. Could you imagine playing a game of basketball or running a marathon immediately after? Impossible. What about writing a substantive essay? Again, most difficult.
Boxers, traditionally, will fast before a match. The idea being that the little bit of hunger will make the brain synapsis fire faster, which allows for more rapid thought. When dodging punches, one would want to have the fastest reflexes possible. It is the same in our spiritual lives, especially during Great and Holy Lent. We seek to pray long hours and increase our prayer rules as we prepare for Pascha. We want to be able to focus on our prayers, and we also want to be able to be watchful of the “jabs” of the enemy, who desires to spoil our fast with hatred and irritability.
2). The Fast teaches Self Control. This is the heart of what St. John Chrysostom means and also why it is the first vice tackled by St. John Climacus in his Ladder of Divine Ascent. He names it the gateway to the passions. “”The great attraction of gluttony is not necessarily concerned with large quantities of food, but in the temptation to have just a ‘little taste.’ But if the wish for a taste succeeds in making you a slave to gluttony, the Evil One can then give you up utterly to destruction.”
Therefore, almost all sins enter through this door: Wrath, Sloth, Lust, Pride, Envy, Vanity. If we cannot master our bellies we are doomed to worse. We must learn to say no, to master our bodies. St. John Climacus says that “the prince of demons is the fallen Lucifer, and gluttony is the prince of the passions.” Therefore it can be said that “the stomach is the cause of all human disaster …. Let us then ask of this archfoe: Who is your mother? Who are Your Children?
“…And gluttony … furiously raving at us, answers: …. Why do you try to separate yourself from me? I am bound to you by nature. I gain entry through the very nature of food [i.e., food is by nature pleasant to the taste and desirable]. The cause of my insatiability is habit. The foundation of my passion is repeated habit, insensitivity of the soul and forgetfulness of death …. Now learn the names of my first-born and best loved children: 1. Fornication; 2. Hard-heartedness; 3. drowsiness” (The Ladder).
To acquire virtue, it is necessary to first rid ourselves of the passions. Fasting is the all-important first step and cannot be neglected.
That being said, fasting must be approached in a healthy manner with the aid of a spiritual father. If certain health concerns are present, such as diabetes, age, or other challenges, then fasting must be tempered. This is because fasting is a tool, not the goal. This is why “fasting police” irk me. We do not know the journey of any individual and what his or her spiritual father directed. Because of this, we must always assume that the individual is following the guidance of his or her priest unless that person asks advice.
This journey is not possible on willpower alone. We needs must pray for strength and our Savior’s aid in conquering the fast. Almsgiving, prayer, and fasting are the tent poles of Great Lent. As we prepare for Pascha, we try to dedicate as much time as possible to all three, The fast is not merely about giving “something” up, but about sharpening our spiritual selves into better Christians. Great Lent affords us many opportunities to do this, and I pray that we all avail ourselves of them to our spiritual benefit.
Ευλογημένη Σαρακοστή και καλή μετάνοια!
Blessed 40 Days and Good Repentance!
I remain your servant in Christ,
Fr. Dimitri Tobias,