HOW TO KEEP THE FAST
“For this kind is expelled only by prayer and fasting” (Matt. 17:21). With these words the Lord Himself indicated to us two kinds of weapons in our combat against our enemy – the dark and evil spirits. At the same time, He indicated to His disciples the need for them to fast at a time “when the Bridegroom shall be taken from them” (Matt. 9:15). The grace of the Holy Spirit is taken away from us through our sins. And its return to us is achieved primarily by means of repentance, assisted by prayer and fasting.
However, if the necessity of prayer for the salvation of the soul is recognized by all Christians, the necessity of fasting is often inadequately realized. And that is one of the cunning traps of the evil spirits into which fall many modern Christians.
In former not too distant times the confession of Christ was tied in with the fulfillment of all Church rules. For this reason, in the daily life of erstwhile Russian families we see a strict observance of Lenten days – Wednesdays and Fridays, and the four fasts established by the Church. The pious lay people of ancient Russia were not far behind the monastics in the sphere of fasting.
The time of fasting is an especially important time for spiritual life, it is “a favorable time, it is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2). If the soul of a Christian pines for purity and seeks spiritual health, then it must try to make the best possible use of this time that is so beneficial for the soul. For this reason it has become the custom among genuinely God-fearing people to congratulate each other upon the beginning of a fast.
But what in essence is fasting? And is there not a sense of self-deception among those who feel obligated to follow the fast to the letter, but who do not love it and are burdened by it in their hearts? And can a simple compliance with the rule for eating only Lenten foods on days of fasting be called a fast? Will the fast truly be a fast if, except for some alteration in our food intake, we will think neither of repentance, nor or abstinence, nor of cleansing our hearts through intensified prayers?
We must assume that this will not be a fast, even though all the rules and customs of fast are kept. St. Barsonuphius the Great says: “Physical fasting has no meaning without the spiritual fasting of the inner man, which consists of guarding oneself from passions. Such a fasting of the inner man is pleasing to God and will reward you for the shortcomings of physical fasting” (if you were unable to keep the fast properly).
St. John Chrystostome says the same: “Whoever restricts the fast to a simple abstinence from food, dishonors it terribly. It is not only the lips that should fast – no, let the eyes, and the ears, and the hands, and the feet, and our entire body be engaged in fasting.”
Father Alexander Elchaninov writes: “Fasting does not equate with hunger. The fakir, and the yogi, and the prisoner in his prison, and the simple beggar – all hunger. Nowhere in the services of the Great Lent does it speak about the fast as an isolated event in our usual meaning, i.e. as not eating meat and other foods. Everywhere there is the same appeal: ‘Let us fast, brethren, physically and let us fast spiritually.’ Consequently, fasting only then has religious meaning when it is joined with spiritual labors.”
The fast represents absolute abstinence, in order to restore the lost balance between body and spirit, in order to give back to our spirit its authority over the body and its passions. The Lord Himself showed us an example of Lent by fasting for 40 days in the wilderness, from whence He “returned in the power of the Spirit” (Luke 4:14).
St. Isaac the Syrian says: “Lent is a weapon prepared by God. If the Lawgiver Himself fasted, how can someone who is obligated to follow the law not fast? Before the fast mankind did not know victory, and the devil never experienced defeat. Our Lord was the commander and prime mover of this victory. And as soon as the devil sees this weapon in the hands of a person, this terrible tormentor immediately becomes afraid, remembering his defeat by the Saviour in the wilderness, and his power is destroyed. Whoever remains fasting is unshakeable in spirit” (Homily 30).
It is quite obvious that the labor of repentance and prayer during fasting should be accompanied by thoughts of one’s sinfulness and, naturally, by abstinence from all amusements – going to the theater and movies, visiting people, engaging in light reading, listening to gay music, watching television, etc. If all of this attracts a Christian’s heart, he should make an effort to tear his heart away from it, at least during the days of Lent. It should be remembered, for example, that on Fridays St. Seraphim not only fasted, but spent the day in absolute silence.
Father Alexander Elchaninov writes: “The fast is a period of spiritual effort. If we are unable to give up our entire life to God, let us at least dedicate to Him utterly the periods of fasting – let us strengthen our prayer, increase our charity, tame our passions, make peace with our enemies.”
Besides expressing repentance and abhorrence of sin, the fast has other aspects, too. The specific days of fasting are not chosen randomly. Wednesday symbolizes the betrayal of the Saviour – the lowest moment of the human soul’s fall and shame, as it goes in the person of Judas to betray the Son of God for 30 pieces of silver. Friday symbolizes the endurance of humiliation, of agonizing suffering, and death on the cross of the Redeemer of mankind. Remembering all of this, how can a Christian not restrict himself by means of abstinence?
The Great Lent is the Son of God’s path towards the sacrifice on Golgotha, etc. The human soul has no right, cannot – if it is Christian – pass indifferently by these majestic days – significant landmarks in time. Afterwards, at the Last Judgment, how will it dare to stand at the right side of the Lord, if it was indifferent to His sorrow, blood and suffering on those days when the Universal Church – both on earth and in heaven – remembers them?
In essence the fast is a spiritual endeavor and is connected with faith and daring. The fast is pleasing to the Lord as an impulse of a soul that is aspiring towards purity, striving to release itself from the fetters of sin, and free the spirit from servitude to the body. The Church considers it to be one of the efficacious resources by means of which one can transmute God’s wrath to mercy or bend God’s will towards the fulfillment of a prayerful entreaty. Thus, the Acts of the Apostles describe how the Christians of Antioch fasted and prayed before sending the holy apostles Paul and Barnabas out to preach (Acts 13:3). Therefore the fast is also practiced in the Church as a means for preparing oneself for some endeavor. When in need of something, individual Christians, monastics, monasteries or churches in general applied themselves to fasting and increased prayer.
Abstinence in food
For physically healthy people the basis of fasting is considered to be abstinence in food. Here one can distinguish 5 levels of physical fasting: (1) the giving up of meat, (2) the giving up of dairy products, (3) the giving up of fish, (4) abstinence from vegetable oil, (5) complete abstinence from food for a certain period of time. Naturally the last levels of fasting can be accomplished only by healthy people. For the sick and the old the first levels of fasting are more appropriate, of which we will speak in more detail below.
The power and efficacy of the fast can be evaluated by the strength of deprivation and sacrifice. And, naturally, it is not only the formal replacement of non-Lenten foods with Lenten foods that makes up the true fast: one can prepare exquisite meals from Lenten foods as well, and thus satisfy to some degree both one’s voluptuousness and one’s gluttony.
We should remember that it is improper for a penitent sorrowing over his sins to eat deliciously and abundantly during the Lent, even though the meals be formally Lenten. It may be said that that is not a fast at all, if a person gets up from a table laden with delicious Lenten foods and feels a satiation of the stomach. This does not equate with sacrifice or deprivation, and without the latter there is no genuine fasting. “Wherefore have we fasted, and Thou seest not?” – calls out the prophet Isaiah, denouncing the Jews who hypocritically observed all the rules, yet in their hearts stood far from God and His commandments (Isaiah 58:3).
In some cases ailing Christians on their own replace the usual fasting in food with a “spiritual” fast. The latter usually means paying stricter attention to oneself: keeping oneself away from sin – abstaining from irritation, the judging of others, quarreling, etc. All of this is good and well, but can a Christian in normal times allow himself to sin, to become irritated, judgmental of others, etc.? It is obvious that a Christian must always be sober and attentive, guarding himself from sin and all that which may offend the Holy Spirit. If, however, he is unable to restrain himself, then the same thing will probably occur both on regular days and during the Lent. In such a case the replacement of fasting in food with a similar “spiritual” fasting is usually a matter of self-deception.
Thus in cases where due to illness or a great shortage of foodstuffs the Christian is unable to keep to the usual norms of fasting, he should do the best he can. For example, he can give up sweets and delicacies, keep fast at least on Wednesdays and Fridays, choose foods in such a manner that delicious foods would only be offered on holidays, etc. If, due to illness, a Christian cannot totally abstain from non-Lenten food, he can at least limit it on days of fasting – for example, abstain from eating meat. In other words, in one way or another he should do his best to take part in fasting.
Some people refuse to fast out of fear of weakening their health, at the same time exhibiting hypochondria and lack of faith, and strive to always feed themselves abundantly with non-Lenten food, in order to attain good health and maintain their bodies in a well-fed state. Yet how often it is these same people who suffer from various illnesses and malfunctioning of internal organs!
The Lord commands us to conceal our fasting from those around us. However, it may not always be possible for a Christian to conceal his fasting from family members. In such a case it may happen that his relatives will be up in arms against the keeper of the fast, and their initially soft arguments may turn into irritation and rebuke. The evil spirit rebels against keepers of the fast through their family members, invokes all sorts of arguments against the fast, and presents all kinds of temptations, just as he once tried to do with the fasting Lord in the wilderness.
Let the Christian foresee all this in advance. Let him also not expect that as soon as he commences fasting, he will straightaway receive the comfort of grace, warmth in the heart, tears of tenderness, and ardor in prayer. This does not come immediately, but must be earned through struggles, labors, and sacrifices. Those who followed the path of rigorous fasting confirmed that sometimes at the beginning of the Lent there was even a weakening of desire for prayer or interest in spiritual reading, etc.
The fast is a treatment, and this latter is often not easy. And just as one can expect health only at the end of a course of treatment, so one cannot expect the fast to produce the fruits of the Holy Spirit – peace, joy, etc. – right away.
Discernment in fasting
Just as all virtues, fasting likewise requires discernment.
St. Cassian the Roman writes: “Extremes, as the holy fathers say, are equally harmful on both sides – both an excess of fasting and a satiation of the belly. We know some people who, not having been conquered by gluttony, were vanquished by excessive fasting and fell into the same vice of gluttony as a result of the weakness that occurred from excessive fasting. Moreover, immoderate abstention is more harmful than satiation, because from the latter one can go back to moderation by means of repentance, while from the former it is impossible.
The general rule of moderation in abstention is for each person, in accordance with his physical strength, state of health, and age, to eat only as much food as is necessary to support health, and not as much as one wishes. A monk should conduct the matter of fasting as wisely as though he would be remaining in his body for a hundred years, and restrain his inner passions – forget offenses and disdain sorrows – as one who could die any day.”
At the same time fasting is not a rite, but a mystery of the human soul, which the Lord commanded to conceal from others. The Lord says: “When ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you – they have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face, that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly” (Matt. 6:16-18). For this reason a Christian should conceal both his repentance – his prayers and inner tears – and his fasting and abstinence in food. Here we should fear to reveal our difference from those around us and should know how to conceal from them our labors and sacrifices.
In all cases where the keeper of the fast must eat together with his frailer brethren, he should not, according to the holy fathers, rebuke them by his abstinence. Thus the holy abba Isaiah writes: “If you absolutely wish to abstain more than others, go off into a separate cell and do not distress your frailer brother.”
It is not only for the sake of preserving ourselves from vanity that we should strive not to show off our fasting. If our fast will for some reason embarrass those around us, will bring forth rebukes from them or, perhaps, cause mockery, accusations of hypocrisy, etc. – in such cases we must likewise guard the secret of fasting, according to the words of the Lord: “Neither cast ye your pearls before swine” (Matt. 7:6).
In general, church rules must not be treated with formality. We should remember the Lord’s injunction that “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). At the same time, writes Saint Innocent of Moscow, “it is not wise to transgress the fast without need, so that the one who is able to keep the fast through a choice of food – let him keep it. But the one who does not have the possibility to choose his food, let him use all that God gives him, but without excess; at the same time, you must rigorously keep fast with your soul, your mind, and your thoughts, and then your fast will be as pleasing to God as the fast of the most abstemious observers of Lent.
The goal of the fast is to ease and tame the body, restrain desires and disarm passions. Therefore the Church, asking you about food, does not primarily wish to know what kind of food you are using, but rather the reason for which you are using it.”
Saints Barsonuphius the Great and John say: “What is Lent but punishment of the body, in order to tame the healthy body and make it frail for passions, according to the apostle: ‘When I am weak, then I am strong’ (2 Cor. 12:10). And illness, more than such punishment, is counted in lieu of the fast and is valued even more greatly. Whoever suffers it patiently, giving gratitude to God, through his patience receives the fruit of his salvation. Instead of the body’s strength being weakened through fasting, it is already weakened by the illness. Therefore, do not be saddened even if you eat several times a day: you will not be judged for it, since you are not doing it to pamper yourself.”
Concerning the correct norm for fasting, St. Barsonuphius the Great gives the following instruction: “In regard to fasting I will say the following: examine your heart to see whether it has not been robbed by vanity, and if it was not robbed, then examine it a second time to see whether this fast has not made you weak in performing your functions, for such weakness should not exist, and if even in this no harm has come to you, then you are fasting properly.”
The desert-dweller Nikiphoros says: “The Lord does not require hunger, but spiritual labor. Spiritual labor is the utmost a person can do on his own, and the rest is obtained through grace. We have little strength now, and so the Lord does not ask any great feats from us. I tried to fast strictly and saw that I could not. I become weak and lose strength to pray properly. I once became so weakened by fasting that I could not even get up to read my prayers.”
This is an example of improper fasting. Bishop Herman writes: “Exhaustion is a sign of improper fasting; it is just as harmful as satiation. Even great elders ate soup with oil during the first week of Great Lent. Ailing flesh should not be crucified, but supported.”
Thus all weakening of health and the ability to work during Lent speaks of its incorrectness and the overstepping of its norm. Best of all is for keepers of the fast to be guided by the instructions of experienced spiritual instructors. For elderly people, for example, it can be difficult to change their usual dietary regimen for the sake of Lent, since this often leads to a loss of working ability. However, those who transgress the fast because of illness or old age should still remember that this can also include a certain amount of lack of faith and incontinence. For this reason, when the spiritual children of Father Alexis Zosimovsky were forced to transgress the fast by a doctor’s prescription, the elder ordered them in such cases to repent and pray thus: “Lord, forgive me for transgressing the holy fast by order of the doctor and my own frailty,” and not to think that this is how it must be.
Lent and children
How early should children begin to keep the fast? According to the teaching of the Holy Fathers, a healthy infant does not fast only while he is being nursed by his mother, i.e. approximately until the age of three.
Together with the need to keep the fast to some degree, it is also necessary to ensure that children are prevented from acquiring the habit of satiation or of eating too frequently and at the wrong time. In this regard, the holy hierarch Theophanus the Recluse gives the following advice to parents: “Children must be fed in such a way that, while expanding the body’s growth and making it strong and healthy, the soul should not be incited by bodily indulgence. One should not think of the child as being too small, but from the earliest years one must teach it to restrain the flesh and control it, so that both in infancy, and in youth, and even afterwards the individual could easily and freely cope with this need.”
When children grow up and their natures and inclinations become established, parents should exhibit tactfulness in regard to the degree of their offspring’s fasting. For example, one cannot deprive them of dessert against their will, or reduce the content of food to such an extent on days of fasting that the normal bound of church rules would be overstepped. And for feeble and ailing children a reduction or departure from fasting is naturally allowed.
In the same manner grown children (young men and maidens) cannot be forcibly held to a strict observance of all the rules of fasting if they feel burdened by it. In such a case the fasting will not bring any benefit to the soul, but may even harden it. The Lord said: “I will have mercy and not sacrifice” (Matt. 9:13). Indeed, the entire meaning of the Lent lies in a voluntary restraint and limiting of oneself. Thus, in order for the usual rules of fasting not to be burdensome for grown children, they should be trained to keep fast from the earliest age.
Lent and television
Physical fasting presupposes the following: (1) abstinence in food; (2) the use of only certain kinds of food; (3) infrequent eating.
Spiritual fasting must also include: (1) abstinence in acceptance of external impressions – the food of the soul, i.e. information, which people have become used to receiving daily in huge amounts; (2) control over this information, i.e. over the quality of the food which the soul receives, and the exclusion of everything that incites the passions; (3) infrequent intake of this food, i.e. periods of solitude, quiet, silence, time spent on one’s own, in order to have the opportunity to realize one’s sins and accomplish the main goal of the Lent, which is repentance…
Our passions are closely tied in with sensual images. Passion arises in the consciousness in the form of a sinful image; and, in turn, a sinful image accepted from the outside incites passion in our heart.
In modern times, the stage on which human passions are continuously demonstrated in all their diversity, effectiveness, and sophistication is the television. It is similar to a source of constant radiation that bombards people’s psyches with lethal strontium.
Television keeps a person in passionate tension, as though the space of its screen comprises a concentration of all possible emotions, passions, lusts, cruelty, crimes. All that in previous ages a person could encounter – and accidentally at that – only a few times throughout his lifetime (for example, the scene of a murder), he now sees every single day.
Television caters to man’s basest passions; even seemingly moral plays include erotic scenes, perhaps out of fear that the viewer will fall asleep from excessive moralizing, and sometimes these scenes constitute the main subject of the entire transmission. In turning on the television, a person voluntarily places himself within the sphere of spiritual filth.
In ancient times the Church barred adulterers from communion for many years, because this particular sin soaks all the pores of the body and soul in poison, and a long time is needed for the person to cleanse himself and sober up, to get back on his feet as though from a grave and protracted illness. An adulterer is spiritually dead until he sincerely repents. After viewing erotic images on television, a person comes to church as one who is dead: his soul is deaf and blind, it cannot feel grace, cannot pray sincerely. Repentance presupposes a resolve not to sin any more, while in this case the person usually returns from church (sometimes even after taking communion) and spends hours watching television. He not only becomes spiritually desolate, but gradually grace itself withers away within him.
Another evil a person receives from television is becoming inured to killing and violence. In ancient Rome the battles of gladiators in the circus, the contests between people and wild animals, and similar “amusements” attracted tens of thousands of viewers. The motto of the Roman crowd was “bread and spectacles,” as though these words comprised their entire life. And the most awesome spectacle for the crowd was the sight of running blood and the throes of death.
Under the influence of television people calmly watch murder scenes. If they had had any human love or compassion left in them, they would have turned away in horror from such a nightmare. Television has made crime and cruelty a routine event. If someone were to say that he was horrified and disgusted at watching scenes of violence and murder, he would be considered a neurotic. If he were to say that he regarded it beneath a Christian’s dignity to watch erotic pictures, he would be called a hypocrite with outdated old-fashioned views.
The soul has three abilities: reason, emotion, and will. From constant communion with television a person’s will becomes weakened, emotion becomes blunted and seeks new stimuli, while reason becomes enslaved by continuously changing images, which cause the person to live in some kind of fantasy world.
The reason has two abilities: visual and verbal thinking. An overabundant and uncontrollable stream of information develops a mechanical memory, but suppresses the creative force and energy. A person who continuously takes in an excessive amount of food becomes a shapeless lump of fat which has a hard time moving and breathing, and which is barely able to move its legs under its own weight. An excessive and uncontrollable amount of information is similar to chronic overeating. The mind becomes feeble and passive and dependent on alien opinions and ideas. The images which the person has seen on television revolve in his subconscious, surface in his memory, flitter in his dreams. Thinking becomes superficial, while the tongue becomes garrulous. The psyche’s defense mechanisms become depleted, being unable to cope with the avalanche of impressions that are received.
Where is there room for silence, for inner prayer? A person does not see himself properly; he appears to be living not in a home, but in a theater with never-ending shows.
The Holy Fathers say that there are three types of mental activity: contemplation, which is born in the silence of prayer, reasoning, and imagination, with imagination being the lowest form of thinking, connected as it is with sensual passions and fantasy. The Holy Fathers enjoin us to remain in a state of prayer, to give place to reasoning whenever necessary in practical life (but at the same time knowing its measure and limitations), and to combat imagination as one’s adversary. Television, on the other hand, promotes the opposite: it develops imagination, suppresses the mind’s creative force, and brings about an abandonment of prayer. A person who spends the time of Lent watching television is similar to a glutton and a drunkard who swallows everything without discrimination, even without chewing the pieces, and at the same time believes he is keeping fast according to all the Church rules.
Observing the fast in conjugal life
Spouses should strictly follow the customs and regulations of the Church in regard to conjugal abstinence on feast days, Sunday, and Lenten days (Wednesdays and Fridays and the four fasts), remembering the words of St. Seraphim and Elder Ambrose that a disregard for these Church regulations may lead to illness of the spouse and children. At the same time, one should bear in mind that the church day begins from 6:00 of the evening before and, therefore, one should abstain from the eve of the feast or Lenten day until the eve of the following day.
But what if one of the spouses does not wish to observe the Lenten day or the feast? Here we come across one of the hazards of a marriage between people of differing opinions and points of view. Such a situation inevitably leads to family drama and deep sorrow. According to St. Paul, a spouse may not be refused, but this will lead to a violation of the sanctity of the feast or the fast.
At this point we come to the conclusion that a prudent choice of spouse is of great importance in ensuring happiness in marriage. The marriage, which in essence constitutes a voluntary obedience, will be easy and happy only when the soul submits to a pious and righteous spouse, and it is impossible to avoid misfortune if the spouse turns out to be in the grip of passion and sin. It is for this reason that the Apostle Paul grieves for those who have entered into marriage: “Such shall have trouble in the flesh; but I pity you” (1 Cor. 7:28).
A Christian’s attitude towards fasting is essentially a touchstone for his soul in gauging his attitude towards the Church of Christ and towards Christ Himself. A soul which lives with a lively faith in Christ cannot neglect fasting. Otherwise it will ally itself with those who are indifferent to Christ and religion. In addressing Christians, the New Martyr Priest Valentin Sventitsky writes: “Keep and cherish the fast as one of the greatest sacred church treasures. Each time you abstain from what is forbidden on the days of fasting, – you are one with the entire Church. You are doing with one mind that which the entire Church and all the saints have done from the very first days of the Church’s existence. This will give you power and strength in your spiritual life.”
A certain opponent of Lent once said to the holy Elder Ambrose of Optina: “What does it matter to God what kind of food we eat?” To this the Elder replied: “It is not the food that matters, but the commandment; Adam was expelled from paradise not for gluttony, but for tasting, just tasting what was forbidden. For this reason even now you may eat whatever you want on Tuesday and Thursday, and you are not punished for it, but for Wednesday and Friday you are punished, because meekness is developed through obedience.”
The Jews cried out to God: “Wherefore have we fasted, and Thou seest not?” And the Lord replies to them through the mouth of the prophet: “Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact heavy labors from others… Is it such a fast that I have chosen, a day for a man to afflict his soul? Wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord? Here is the fast that I have chosen: loose the bands of wickedness, let the oppressed go free, and undo the heavy burdens; share thy bread with the hungry and bring the poor that are cast out into thy house… Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily, and thy righteousness shall go before thee, and the glory of the Lord shall be thy reward. Then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall answer; thou shalt cry, and He shall say: ‘Here I am!’” (Isaiah 58:3-9). This marvelous place from the Book of Isaiah denounces those who think to be saved only by following the letter of the fast and forgetting the commandments of charity, loving one’s neighbors, and serving them.
The significance and purpose of genuine fasting in the life of a Christian may be summarized by the following words of St. Isaac the Syrian: “The fast is the guardian of all virtue, the beginning of the struggle, the crown of abstinence, the beauty of virginity, the source of chastity and prudence, the teacher of silence, the forerunner of all good deeds… Fasting and abstinence produce a wondrous fruit in the soul – a knowledge of God’s mysteries.”