“Walking the Talk” — Fasting
— Fr. Bohdan Hladio
August, 2008 A.D.
Of all the spiritual disciplines associated with Christianity perhaps none is more misunderstood and less practiced than fasting.
The term “fasting” actually describes two distinct practices. Fasting technically means refraining from all food and drink as we do before Holy Communion or a medical procedure.
Fasting also includes what is commonly known as “the rule of abstinence”, controlling the type and amount of food we consume on a given day. As a rule Orthodox Christians refrain from consuming meat, eggs, fish, dairy products and alcohol every Wednesday and Friday (except during fast-free periods) as well as during the four (Great, Nativity, Dormition, Apostle’s) annual fasts, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and the Beheading of St. John the Baptist.
It’s not surprising that even our own Orthodox people misunderstand and ignore the discipline of fasting. We live in a culture consumed with the idea of immediate self-gratification. We are constantly bombarded by messages (“If it feels good, do it!”, “You deserve a break today!”, etc.) and images which tell us that happiness consists of satisfying our bodily, material, and sensual cravings and desires – and the sooner the better!
What does Jesus say?
“Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Mk. 8:34, cf. Lk. 9:23 & Mt. 16:24)
Christ taught His disciples about fasting both in word (Mt. 6:16-18) and by example (Luke 4: 1-2).
Christians fasted from the earliest times. The Wednesday and Friday fast is already recorded in the Didache (“The Teaching of the 12 Apostles”), a first century Syrian Christian document.
The saints teach us that the spiritual life begins with the stomach.
“One should not ponder divine matters on a full stomach, say the ascetics. For the well fed, even the most superficial secrets of the Trinity lie hidden” (The Way of the Ascetics, Tito Colliander).
Many people believe that the goal of Christianity is simply to make people “nice”. “I don’t bother anyone, I’m good, I say my prayers and go to Church, why do I need to fast?”
In response to such ideas, Fr. Alexander Elchaninov writes:
“If the body hindered St. Seraphim, the Buddha, and even Christ, why then does it not hinder you? It is because you do not know yourself nor your sins, you are not conscious of any spiritual goal, towards which you direct your efforts. In order to love God and your neighbour, you must have a feeling for them and be refined by asceticism. Asceticism is necessary first of all for creative action (of any kind), for prayer, for love: in other words, it is needed by every man throughout his entire life.”
What is the goal of Christian asceticism?
“Prayer, fasting, vigils, and all other Christian practices, however good they are in themselves, do not constitute the goal of our Christian life, although they serve as a necessary means to its attainment. The true goal of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. Fasting, vigils, prayers, almsgiving and all good deeds done for the sake of Christ are but means for the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God.” (St. Seraphim of Sarov)
Besides food we are also encouraged to fast from luxuries and amusements. During fasting periods Orthodox Christians traditionally forego dancing, loud parties, and eliminate or significantly limit time spent watching television, at the movies or listening to music so as to spend that time reading scripture or spiritual literature, praying, attending Church services, helping the less fortunate, etc.
A person who can’t control what they put into their mouth will never be able to control what comes out of it. The most destructive, hateful, and unchristian behaviour we can engage in consists of gossip, slander, and rumourmongering.
St. John Chrysostom, who himself suffered greatly because of slander, teaches us:
“The value of fasting consists not in abstinence only from food, but in a relinquishment of sinful practices, since he who limits his fasting only to an abstinence from meat is he who especially disparages it. Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works. If you see a poor man, take pity on him! If you see a friend enjoying honour, do not envy him. For let not the mouth only fast, but also the eye, and the ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies. Let the hands fast by being pure from avarice. Let the feet fast by ceasing from running to forbidden spectacles. Let the eyes fast by being taught never to fix themselves rudely upon handsome countenances. For looking is the food of the eyes, but if it be unlawful or forbidden it mars the fast and overturns the safety of the soul; but if it be lawful and safe, it adorns fasting. For it would be an instance of the highest absurdity to abstain from meats and from unlawful food because of the fast, but with the eyes to feed on what is forbidden. Do you not eat flesh? Do not feed on licentiousness by means of the eyes. Let the ear fast also. The fasting of the ear is not to receive evil speaking and calumnies. ‘You shall not receive an idle report’ it says. Let also the mouth fast from foul words. For what does it profit if we abstain from birds and fish, and yet bite and devour our brethren?”