We are officially halfway through the Holy Fast. Great Lent is already past its midpoint. During the middle of the Fast, it is good for us to examine ourselves.
How am I doing this Lent? Am I repenting? Have I really attempted to repent through the means of prayer, almsgiving, and fasting? Have I returned to the Lord? Have I gone to confession? Or am I still stuck on the miserable island of self-will?
We began our reflections this holy season with the foundation of repentance. Each article built upon the previous one, discussing the means of repentance: prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. This week, halfway through the Fast, we should remind ourselves of the importance of what Christian fasting is and make sure we don’t forget why we are doing it and what our goal is. For there cannot be repentance without acquiring the heart of fasting; therefore it is of utmost importance that we remind ourselves of the necessity of this holy practice, as we are already midstream through Lent.
We should begin our reflection on fasting with the beginning: The Fall. Man’s first sin, first act of disobedience against God, was the breaking of the Fast. It was eating that which the Lord forbade to be eaten (Gen. 3). Eating was intended to be a means of communion with God, and man made it the occasion of separation from God.
Fr. Alexander Schmemann puts it beautifully:
“[Fasting] is first of all revealed to us in the interdependence between two events which we find in the Bible: one at the beginning of the Old Testament and the other at the beginning of the New Testament. The first event is the ‘breaking of the fast’ by Adam in Paradise. He ate the forbidden fruit. This is how man’s original sin is revealed to us. Christ, the New Adam—and this is the second event—begins by fasting. Adam was tempted and he succumbed to temptation; Christ was tempted and He overcame that temptation. The results of Adam’s failure are expulsion from Paradise and death. The fruits of Christ’s victory are the destruction of death and our return to Paradise.” (Great Lent: Journey to Pascha p. 93)
If we think about our Lord’s temptation in the wilderness while he was fasting (Matt. 4), we learn from Him the true nature of fasting: that ‘man does not live by bread alone, but by the word of God.’
Fr. Schmemann continues:
“The world and food were thus created as means of communion with God, and only if accepted for God’s sake were to give life…The unfathomable tragedy of Adam is that he ate for its own sake. More than that, he ate ‘apart’ from God in order to be independent of Him.” (Great Lent: Journey to Pascha p. 94)
Fr. Schmemann then plainly asks:
“What then is fasting for us Christians? It is our entrance and participation in that experience of Christ Himself by which He liberates us from the total dependence on food, matter, and the world…fasting is the only means by which man recovers his true spiritual nature.” (Great Lent: Journey to Pascha p. 96).
So our fasting is our realization that we don’t rely upon this world for our life and sustenance, but on God, Who is the Giver of Life. Yet there is much more that fasting does. Fasting, when done with contrition, repentance, and prayer, becomes the way by which we return to God from sin – from creation to Creator; from passions to virtues; from death to life.
St. Anthony of the Holy Optina Elders says this about fasting:
“The Holy Church cries out: fasting is not avoiding food, but putting away all evil, controlling the tongue from idle-talking and gossip, forbearing from anger, and abstaining from lust, falsehood, and flattery. Who fasts in this way, his fast is pleasing to God. (Living Without Hypocrisy p. 130).
St. Leo of Optina builds off of what St. Anthony said:
“The essence and power of abstinence is not in refraining from food, but in expelling from the heart every remembrance of evil and other such things. That is true fasting, and what above all else the Lord demands from us.”
We cannot fast alone and think that it is enough for fulfilling our Lenten effort; it must be coupled with repentance and firm purpose of amending our lives. St. John Climacus (7th century AD), who we commemorate this Fourth Sunday of Lent, says this about repentance and fasting:
“Repentance is the renewal of baptism. Repentance is a contract with God for a second life…Repentance is reconciliation with the Lord by the practice of good deeds contrary to the sins. Repentance is purification of conscience…Repentance is a mighty persecution of the stomach, and a striking of the soul into vigorous awareness.” (The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 5.1)
St. John of Climacus gives us wise counsel on how our eating can be done in the spirit of the Fast:
“When sitting at a table laden with food, remember death and judgment, for even so you will only check the passion [of gluttony] slightly. In taking drink, do not cease to bring to mind the vinegar and gall of your Lord. And you will certainly either be abstinent, or you will sigh and humble your mind.” (Ladder of the Divine Ascent, Step 14.31)
He then expands upon how fasting must be coupled with the process of repentance:
“Fasting is the coercion of nature and the cutting out of everything that delights the palate, the excision of lust, the uprooting of bad thoughts, deliverance from incontinence in dreams, purity of prayer, the light of the soul, the guarding of the mind, deliverance from blindness, the door of compunction, humble sighing, glad contrition, a cessation of chatter, a cause of stillness, a guard of obedience, lightening of sleep, health of body, agent of dispassion, remission of sins, the gate of Paradise and its delight.” (The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 14.33)
Amma Synclentica of the 4th century AD, speaks of how fasting can help overcome sins of the mind:
“She also said, ‘Just as medicine drives out poisonous creatures, so prayer joined to fasting drives evil thoughts away.’” (Sayings of the Desert Fathers p. 231)
Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, from the famous book “The Arena: Guidelines for Spiritual and Monastic Life” says this about fasting:
“Wise temperance of the stomach is a door to all the virtues. Restrain the stomach, and you will enter Paradise. But if you please and pamper your stomach, you will hurl yourself over the precipice of bodily impurity, into the fire of wrath and fury, you will coarsen and darken your mind, and in this way you will ruin your powers of attention and self-control, your sobriety and vigilance.” (The Arena p. 118)
Fasting teaches us practicality for overcoming the passions and habitual sins. Think about this: Is my soul lord over my body or my body lord over my soul? Do I teach my body to be subject to the commandments of God, or allow its desires to run rampant whenever they flare up? By the practice of fasting, we are preparing our bodies to say ‘no’ to its passions and desires when temptation comes, enabling us to build up our spiritual muscles and to overcome sins and temptations when they arise. If I put spiritual things ahead of temporal pleasures, then when I am tempted to commit sin, it will be easier for me to say ‘no’ to the sin and ‘yes’ to God’s will. Christian fasting can be summed up in a very simple, but profound prayer: “Thy will, not mine, be done.”
If we capture the spirit of fasting – the purpose of fasting, if we have the proper understanding of the value and necessity of fasting for our spiritual life, then we can benefit greatly from it and bear much fruit this Lenten season, in our process of repentance. If we have failed to keep the Lenten Fast, let us not despair, but get back up, and continue to fight the good fight, and complete the course of the Fast with joy. If we had a good beginning, but have fallen short since, let us not quit. If we have lost our commitment to the Fast, let us start anew. As Fr. Schmemann says,
‘Too many people start fasting with enthusiasm and give up after the first failure. I would say that it is at this first failure that the real test comes. If after having failed and surrendered to our appetites and passions we start all over again and do not give up no matter how many times we fail, sooner or later, our fasting will bear its spiritual fruits. Between holiness and disenchanted cynicism lies the great and divine virtue of patience—patience, first of all with ourselves. There is no short-cut to holiness; for every step we have to pay the full price.” (Great Lent: Journey to Pascha p. 98-99)
The Fast teaches us just this: holiness is not acquired easily, but we must aspire towards it in order to be saved. The Fast reminds us that we cannot do it alone; we cannot become holy by our own will and strength. We need Christ and cannot do it without Him. But through Him, we can do all things (Matt. 19:26; Phil. 4:13). We get out of Lent what we put into it. If we want to experience the joy of Pascha, we must go through the struggle of Lent. May our Lord renew our strength to continue the course of the Fast with joy and arrive triumphantly through Christ at His Holy Pascha!
For Further Reading:
The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John Climacus
The Arena: Guidelines for Spiritual and Monastic Life by Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov
The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection
Great Lent: Journey to Pascha by Fr. Alexander Schmemann
Living Without Hypocrisy: Spiritual Counsels of the Holy Elders of Optina
The Orthodox Study Bible