How and Why Do We Fast?
by Fr. Steven Ritter
Meatfare Sunday marks the last time we as Orthodox Christians eat meat products, and the week following we dismiss dairy as well. Why is this? There are many and learned treatises on this topic far superior to what I will say here, but perhaps we can put some things into perspective.
Fasting is, according to St. John Chrysostom, the third most important element in our spiritual practices outside the worship of God in community. What are the other two? They are almsgiving, which indicates a mature spiritual Christian's willingness to help others, even at the expense of his or her own well-being, and prayer, which should be self-evident as the primary means by which we commune with God and He forms His will in us. However, what we normally hear about most at this time of the year is fasting, and in fact our Lenten season also bears the name of the Holy and Great Fast.
If St. John puts fasting in third place, why this emphasis? There are three reasons that come to mind, though there are of course many more. First of all, fasting is a primal marker of our return to God. As the services remind us, it was by food that our ancestors Adam and Eve were led to their ancient fall from the grace and glory of God to which they were called to participate, and the results of that choice have affected all of us ever since. Our stomachs are, as St. John Climacus calls them, "a clamorous mistress" that demand everything of us, leading us down wrong paths, and continually deceiving us into thinking that our bodily needs are far more than they really are. This translates into other desires as well—we pamper ourselves and continually seek to satisfy that most fickle of masters, the human will. Fasting helps to remind us that we are putting off the things that separate us from God in order to slowly climb back to the Paradise that we lost.
Secondly, fasting disrupts our normal routine and self-centered wills. As creatures of tremendous habit, and often bad habit at that, we need something to serve as a "circuit breaker" to interrupt this process of continuous self-regard. Fasting makes us think twice about the high favor we have for our persons by depriving us of those things that we take to ourselves too often and easily. This includes all facets of our lives as well as that of pure intake of food. We must be cognizant of our need to reach out of ourselves and help others, to dedicate an increased amount of time to spiritual reading and conversation, especially that involving the Holy Scriptures, and to make every effort to attend the extra services offered during this season as a sacrifice to God of prayer and praise. He doesn't need this, but we do, and those who neglect this are missing a great opportunity for a quick injection of spiritual growth.
Lastly, fasting is a way of practicing obedience. That's right! The one thing that we all talk about as being important in the spiritual life is probably the one thing that we hate most of all! Many complain about the lack of genuine spiritual leaders in the world today (a very old complaint by the way, going back centuries) saying that there is no one to whom they can place their trust and submit to in obedience. This argument is a canard, for obedience can be practiced anywhere and any place, if we would just to humble ourselves. Additionally, there is a wise a spiritual elder to whom we can all submit at any time. As Tito Colliander asks in his marvelous book The Way of the Ascetics, "since the time of the Apostles [the Church] has given us a teacher who surpasses all others and who can reach us everywhere, wherever we are and under whatever circumstances we live...Do you wish to know his name? It is holy fasting."
By being obedient to the rules of the Church rather than our own re-interpretation of them, we are practicing the purest form of spiritual and bodily obedience possible, and it's a fact of life that if we cannot do this then the instructions of the most saintly elder would prove impossible for us!
Yet the Fathers of the Church also encourage moderation in how we keep the fast. I have seen the strictest adherence prove to be most harmful to someone because of the poisonous disposition that resulted from it. I have also seen someone who hardly kept the fast at all because of illness or medical issues profit greatly because of sorrow at not being able to keep it more fervently, and even the little done was to them a mountain of great height.
Here are a few things to remember about fasting:
- Challenge yourself—you can probably do much more that you do. It's the old thing about pampering the flesh again. Find a way of fasting that is within your means, that makes you stretch a bit, but that doesn't frustrate so much that you give up. We are all on different spiritual levels and practical abilities.
- Once you find your level, stick to it—nothing disrupts obedience more than variance and making excuses.
- Make your fast a broad-based effort. Find time for reading and extra attendance at the services. The excuse of not having enough time will not suffice, since we all find time for those things we really want to do, no matter how crowded the schedule.
- Always remember to repent for your failings. God is not there to strike you down, but to lift you up, and nothing reaches his heart like sincere repentance.
- Remember that breaking the fast, or failing to keep it as well as you might is not a sin, but failing to keep the spirit of the fast in mind, or denying its importance as a precept of the church, certainly is. And no matter how we might ignore this time of the year, it is still a holy one whether we pay attention or not, and the evil one certainly knows what time of the year it is, and will increase his attacks whether you are prepared for them or not!
- Most of all, approach the fast with joy and anticipation, a time of year that the church gives us to draw closer to God, and to achieve true and genuinely heartfelt reconciliation and forgiveness with and for our family, friends, neighbors, congregation, nation, and the world at large.
May God grant us all a blessed Great Lent!
Father Steven Ritter is the priest at St. James Orthodox Mission in Lawrenceville, Georgia, and the author of That Your Joy May Be Full, Learning from the Authentic Orthodox Theology of the Spirit (Regina Press).