by Sophocles Frangakis
This was posted on Blooming in the Desert originally.
Gluttony makes a man gloomy and fearful, but fasting makes him joyful and courageous.
And, as gluttony calls forth greater and greater gluttony, so fasting stimulates greater and greater endurance.
When a man realizes the grace that comes through fasting, he desires to fast more and more.
And the graces that come through fasting are countless….
~Saint Nikolai of Zicha~
Much of the information on this program has been obtained online and has been provided Blooming in the Desert for the listener to read while listening to this week’s podcast. We will attempt to pinpoint quotes to their proper sources.
I. What is Fasting?
A) We begin with Christ: In Him all the powers of the human being were(and are) in perfect balance. He was and is truly the most human Person in the fullest sense of the word . There was not one aspect of His Person that was out of proportion to any other. He was and is completely “natural”, putting on no airs whatsoever. He simply was and is “I AM”.
We are to acquire by grace what He is by nature. All that the Church gives us in Her Life, which Life is the Life of Christ, is meant for our union to Him and in and through this union we are healed and by the healing “saved”. Now here we must mention that salvation as understood in the Orthodox Catholic Church has a meaning that does not, for the most part, have a counterpart in the Western understanding of the “concept” of salvation. Again, another quick aside to mention that even to speak of salvation as a “concept” is false in that salvation for each and every human being that exists, has existed and will exist is Christ Himself, not a concept or idea. And going further, He is the Center, the Source and the Reason for all the spiritual disciplines we are to undertake. Fasting, when divorced from the sake of more fully putting on Christ, becomes not what it is intended for. When fasting is undertaken for the sake of fasting itself, we begin to enter into dangerous territory.
B) St. Paul speaks of always being after himself and subduing his body to his spirit for the sake of this union with Christ in perfection. In his First Letter to the Corinthians, beginning in verse 24 he writes:
- 24 Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain [it].
- 25 And everyone who competes [for the prize] is temperate in all things. Now they [do it] to obtain a perishable crown, but we [for] an imperishable [crown].
- 26 Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as [one who] beats the air.
- 27 But I discipline my body and bring [it] into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.
C) Thus for St. Paul the bringing of his body into subjection was his struggle to not allow his body, with its weaknesses, to overrule his spirit and to take him away from Christ.
D) From: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fasting#Eastern_Orthodoxy_.26_Eastern_Catholicism)
For Eastern Orthodox Christians, fasting is an important spiritual discipline, found in both the Old Testament and the New, and is tied to the principle in Orthodox theology of the synergy between the body (Greek: soma) and the soul (pnevma). That is to say, Orthodox Christians do not see a dichotomy between the body and the soul but rather consider them as a united whole, and they believe that what happens to one affects the other (this is known as the psychosomatic union between the body and the soul). Saint Gregory Palamas argued that man’s body is not an enemy but a partner and collaborator with the soul. Christ, by taking a human body at the Incarnation, has made the flesh an inexhaustible source of sanctification. This same concept is also found in the much earlier homilies of Saint Macarius the Great.
Fasting can take up a significant portion of the calendar year. The purpose of fasting is not to suffer, but according to Sacred Tradition to guard against gluttony and impure thoughts, deeds and words. Fasting must always be accompanied by increased prayer and almsgiving (donating to a local charity, or directly to the poor, depending on circumstances). To engage in fasting without them is considered useless or even spiritually harmful. To repent of one’s sins and to reach out in love to others is part and parcel of true fasting.
II. What do we fast from?
This can be somewhat difficult to understand at first, because specific days on the Liturgical Calendar call for different degrees of severity in fasting.
1) The first “level”, if we may call it that, of fasting is when we abstain from all meats, excluding fish.
2) The second level of difficulty is when not only meats are absent but dairy and eggs are cut out of the diet as well but fish and olive oil are still permitted.
3) The third level is when fish as well as the other foods in the above numbers 1 and 2 is cut out.
3) The last level is when all three of the previous levels are in force but as well now, olive oil is taken out of the diet.
With the question of oil there are some differences of understanding as to whether this implies solely the fasting from olive oil or whether this includes all oil in food, thereby greatly increasing the difficulty of the fast. This may seem to be very trivial but it is not when one begins to understand the importance of olive oil in the culture of Jesus and the cultures of the Mediterranean World to whom the taking out of olive oil from the diet was not a small matter. I would go further and add the extremely beneficial properties of olive oil in the diet and elsewhere as has been shown forth in our own day and time and in fact scientific studies have been conducted which further verify this. Fats, nutrients and other benefits are provided by olive oil that are not in other oils.
Shellfish which includes shrimp, oysters, clams, etc. are allowed as they are not considered “meat” or “fish”.
III. Fasting Days and Periods
There are four major periods of fasting in the Church year. Bear in mind that the Church year begins September 1. But not to be too confusing, we will speak of the four fasts throughout the year beginning with the new year everyone will be familiar with.
1) The first fast, which is the greatest, most severe and most solemn fast is that one which begins with the beginning of Great and Holy Lent.
In the week before Great Lent the Church prescribes a meat fast in which all meats, excluding fish, are cut out of the diet. Beginning with Clean Monday, the Fast enters full swing at its most severe. A pious practice kept by many is to fast entirely from all food for the first three days of Great Lent until after the Pre Sanctified Liturgy on Wednesday evening after taking Communion. The Fast continues for forty days leading into Holy Week. During Holy week, the Church continues fasting until the following Sunday when Pascha, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is celebrated. All in all, this Fast, when including the week prior to Great Lent where meats are cut out of the diet, and including Holy Week before Pascha, is fifty-five days during which two days marking Feasts, fish is eaten.
2) The second fast is the Apostles Fast which varies in duration according to when Pascha is celebrated.(we won’t go into the rules tonight which govern when Pascha is celebrated nor will we go into the differences between the New and the Old Calendar-these are topics for other evenings and would only confuse those listening to tonight’s program further!) Just to mention, we, your hosts are on the New Calendar. We are not of the opinion that the Calendar Question is of no importance, however. But again, for the sake of the subject matter of this evening’s program, we will not speak of this important issue. It is a less severe fast in that many more days allow the eating of fish and olive oil.
3) The third fast is the Dormition Fast which is a two week fast begun August 1 each year. It is as severe as Great Lent in its rules but of much shorter duration.
4) The last fast of the year is the Nativity Fast which is begun in the third week of November on the New Calendar. This Fast is forty days long and ends on Christmas Day, or the Nativity. It is of approximately the same difficulty as the Apostles Fast in that many more days are given for the eating of fish and olive oil when compared to Great Lent and the Dormition Fast.
Now apart from these four fasting periods, the Church fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays each week. There are weeks with exceptions to this as well which are known as “Fast Free” weeks, weeks which either follow or precede some of the four major fasting periods.
Wednesdays the Church fasts in remembrance of the betrayal of the Lord by Judas and Fridays in remembrance of the Crucifixion of the Lord.
IV. Fasting Authority (Scriptural references)
These references are either to the Lord Himself fasting, and by our desire to put on Christ we imitate Him or they are His teachings on fasting. He never speaks of fasting as an option but states in His teaching, “When you fast…”, never “If you fast…”
There are some scriptural references provided that are from the Apostle Paul as well.
Matt. 4:2-And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry.
6:16-”Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.
6:18-so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who [is] in the secret [place]; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.
9:14 & 15-Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, [fn] but Your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.,
17:21-However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.”
Luke 2:37-and this woman [was] a widow of about eighty-four years, [fn] who did not depart from the temple, but served [God] with fastings and prayers night and day.
Acts 10:30-So Cornelius said, “Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour [fn] I prayed in my house, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing,
13:2 & 3-As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, “Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away.
1 Cor. 7:5- Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
2 Cor. 6:5-in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fastings;
V. Why Fast?
A) Begin with question: “Why am I in the Church? The Church is the Hospital and we quote the Lord in Matt. 9:12-13 “Those who are well have no need of a physician but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: I desire mercy abd sacrifice. For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”
If we think we are well already, what are we doing in the Church? The Church has been set up by God for a broken world to enter into and be healed.
As such the Church is perfect and Her medicine is potent onto this Day and Age to heal those who come to Her and in faith receive the medicine which She dispenses through Her Mysteries or Sacraments.
We also fast to strip ourselves of our dependence upon ourselves for when the body hungers and we wish to abstain this calls us to act with the will against this desire. To our aid comes increased prayer and calls of help to God to aid us in our struggle to maintain the fast.
The flesh is voracious and can never be satisfied for long. This is tied into our sojourning as pilgrims in the Fallen world under whose sway is the Evil One. Our bodies are also corrupting and dying until the separation occurs at death for us between the material and immaterial aspects of our persons.
B) Following is from: http://www.orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/onfasting.aspx )
Our Saviour, the Apostles and Fathers all fasted the physical fast as well as the spiritual fast. When man partakes of the glory of God, he does not partake of it in the spirit only, but physically also in a complete sense. When one praises God, he does not praise Him only in the Spirit, but with physical voice also in chant and prayer. When one worships God, he does not worship him noetically only but physically also the body participating by standing in prayer, by making prostrations and using the fingers and hand to seal itself with the sign of the Cross. When one communicates God, he does not communicate in spirit only but eats the very Body and drinks the very Blood of the Lord unto healing of soul and body. Thus one praises God and is united with God not in part, but completely as one whole soul and body. When one labors in virtue, one labors not only noetically but physically also, even unto blood, in order not to deny our Saviour. Our Holy Martyrs did not witness just by words and thought, resisting evil in their hearts and minds, but gave their bodies up to torments and their heals to be cut off, that they might remain with our Saviour. Thus, since we are not just spirits, but “wear flesh and live in the world,” we cannot possibly fast spiritually only and not fast physically also. There is a unity and interaction between the body and the soul. They cannot be separated while we are still in the body. In the Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. John writes “Satiety of food is the father of fornication; an empty stomach is the mother of purity.” He who always keeps his stomach full and he who fasts know the strength of this saying. (from http://www.orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/onfasting.aspx )
As Father Patrick Henry Reardon says in one of his homilies, the period of Great Lent with its fasting and greatly multiplied Divine Services can be thought of as “spring training” for athletic teams which although one trains on one of these teams all year round, there are concentrated times of training which are greater in intensity and focus.
C) We also fast as to more ably equip ourselves for the warfare against the fallen powers of this present age which seek the destruction of our souls. The practice of fasting also makes us ever more vigilant for the awaiting of the Lord’s Second Coming. Prior to His Second Coming there will be a great rise in satanic power and we are warned that this period prior to His return will be preceded with the advent of a figure the Holy Scriptures call the Anti-Christ. This figure will be one who is the most energized by Satan himself and who will wield great power and influence on many innumerable subtle levels. Fasting and all the spiritual disciplines of the Church are given to us to use as tools in our battle against satanic powers and principalities with whom we contend.
VI. Where do I begin?
A) From: http://www.orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/fasting_principles.aspx)
One quickly finds in Orthodoxy today that, when it comes to the more minor or secondary rules for practicing any given fast, there are a lot of different opinions as to what is proper practice. This can be quite confusing for the zealous convert. As in all things Orthodox, one must endeavor to walk the Royal Way of moderation, neither rigidly adhering to the law—and judging those who do not—nor modifying it to suit one’s taste (all in the name of “oikonomia”).
B) It is wise and we would have to say mandatory to take on spiritual disciplines such as fasting with the guidance of a spiritual father as with anything, lack of guidance can quickly lead one to very dangerous places in the spiritual realm as well as physical, emotional and psychic dangers.
We are never as wise as we think ourselves to be and an outside perspective on oneself is as a mirror, helping us to see.
Other factors that must be considered to determine how severe one will fast include but are not limited to: our health, our occupations, i.e. how much physical labor is called on by our jobs, whether we are traveling and many other factors which again it is wise to discuss with ones spiritual father.
We would advise to be as hard as possible on one’s self but to realize that just as not everyone can run the marathon, those that do run the marathon train to accomplish this specific goal. In like manner one should understand the goal of fasting and strive to the best of ones ability to strive to attain that mark to the best of one’s ability. Ones proficiency and understanding of ones own physical and spiritual nature will grow with successive practice and struggle in this area as well as all areas of the spiritual life. We should endeavor to study ourselves and learn from what we study in ourselves.
We must also once again stress that fasting is not solely a physical discipline but a spiritual one in which we fast from evil simultaneously with the physical fast. Fasting is the negative aspect and the positive aspect is the increased practice of virtue through prayer, almsgiving, good works, the stopping of evil thoughts in our minds before they enter our hearts and if they do enter our hearts the rooting out of these evils.
VII. Warnings and Encouragements from personal experience
As spoken above in Section A. 1. , we mentioned that fasting can enter dangerous territory when divorced from our intent to love our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Fasting is an exercise and as such can be developed, honed , practiced and “perfected”. Much like for me, when I pick up a barbell and do curls, my arms become fatigued as I continue the exercise. Now, if I pay attention, not only will my arms be getting tired, but I also will notice what my mind is telling me during the fatigue. A foolish workout will be when I exceed the capabilities of my body and actually hurt it, thereby rendering it useless for nought. I will have held the barbell past the wise point of doing so and will continue lifting for the sake of lifting, thereby losing sight of my original intent in exercising to promote the overall health of my body.
In like manner I must fast. I should attempt to not remain long in that area of thinking that I fast simply to make it an end in itself. During long fasts and even for those with less experience, the state of our person will change and often. Many conflicting messages will be brought to our attention if we look to study ourselves. This is to the good as this is one of the things fasting is supposed to do. It will bring to the surface many things that are hidden otherwise when we are always well fed. When always well fed our spiritual and bodily senses are dumbed down and “drugged”. When we fast properly, and this entails that during a fast we pay attention to ourselves and study ourselves, we quickly learn that ideas about ourselves as being overall nice people are shot down and a more realistic picture of what it is in us that needs healing by the Lord comes up to the surface which otherwise would remain submerged without the fasting.
So, this means that yes, temptations to get irritable, angry, short will be much more pronounced.
Our bodies will be begging us to give in to the cravings it brings to our attention in very tantalizing forms. Through this we will begin to understand how sin operates and how given over to it we truly are and how profoundly we must ask for the Lord to have mercy on us in spite of us. And having come to the awareness of the need for His mercy we will also recognize more clearly the plight of our fellow man and the distress of the entire fallen creation awaiting the Lord’s return. We will gain in compassion and love for our neighbor and in our neighbor we will see ourselves.
It is a spiritual challenge to force oneself to forgo worldly possession in order to become closer to God.