Monk Some thoughts about fasting


Дopoгие дpyзья,


There is no question there is a place for fasting in the Christian life. Jesus did it. Our fallen human nature needs wholesome discipline (ascesis, self-denial) to reach the theosis (union with God) God has in mind for us. Early Protestants practised it and some conservative evangelical ones advocate a return to it.

Fasting in its various forms is penance, that is, righting wrongs for justice's sake, regarding sins already forgiven, ascesis, and, as with Friday abstinence from meat by traditional Roman Catholics, a powerful 'identity badge', a marker of Christian community.

The Orthodox tradition regarding fasting is paradoxical and perhaps to some Western eyes hypocritical: impossibly high standards combined with a totally unlegalistic approach to same.

A short version of the rules: no meat, fish, eggs, dairy products or sex four periods a year (Advent, Great Lent, SS. Peter & Paul Fast and Dormition Fast) and most Wednesdays and Fridays. (There is also the midnight fast from all food and drink before Communion, almost universally done, and no sex is allowed starting the night before.)

Some of us are called to a strict ascesis. Some of us aren’t. I’ve done the full fast once, during Great Lent. I decided I can’t hack it. To which the Church says, ‘Fine!’ None of this binds ‘under pain of sin’. As prominent as externals are in the Orthodox faith, it never has lost sight of the fact that (to quote Scott Peck in The Road Less Traveled) all these are learning aids, not the learning. I have met people who have lost sight of this and are legalistic. On the other hand I have the inspiration of a priest and friend, who lives and breathes Russian Orthodoxy but is also infirm and therefore of course does not do the fasting rules, and also of Archimandrite Joseph (Francavilla) at Holy Transfiguration Melkite Church in McLean, Virginia, who in one sermon gave away the ‘secret’ or ‘trick’ of the Orthodox approach to fasting, basically what I am describing now.

Think of the sermon written by St John Chrysostom, read every Pascha in our churches. There again is the true spirit: to those who keep the full fast and those who do little of it, come to the Table and rejoice. God loves you.

Another great example is from the Desert Fathers: the hegumen (abbot) would send his monks to their cells far apart from each other in the desert during the fast, so no one knew what the others were or were not doing in this regard.

Basically: if you love God, you will do SOMETHING, anything to get closer to Him. It may be the full Orthodox monastic regimen of doing without food. For some, perhaps laying off the Internet for the four fasting periods. (The ’Net is a social lifeline for me. God is cool with it. Steve Jobs of Apple once said the home computer is a bicycle for the mind; he must have been thinking of people like me.) Giving up TV or movies is another doable подвиг (struggle, penance) for most people. Cans for a food pantry, perhaps bought with the money saved from fasting from expensive food, is totally in the original spirit of the fasts.

Archbishop Vsevolod in Chicago has written regarding the traditional rules that there is no way to convince him in today’s reality that a lobster is more постный (fasting-appropriate) than a cheap tin of tuna fish. (The traditional rule says shellfish are penitential but fish with backbones are verboten luxuries.)

What do I actually do? Most of the time, a mild rule based on Byzantine Rite dates that a pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic would find familiar: abstinence from meat most Wednesdays and Fridays of the year, and adding Monday (the day the Orthodox Church honours St Michael and all angels) during the four fasting periods. Clean Monday and Great Friday: something approaching a stricter fast.

If I can fast, Satan can fast longer.
If I stay awake, Satan can stay awake longer than me.
If I stay solitary, Satan can spend more time in the desert than me.

But if I am good towards my neighbour, if I share my poor wealth and my time with the weak and the despised — and, better, if I take on me a part of this despisement — oh! THEN Satan cannot follow me there, but only Jesus Christ will be there too, dispensing the heavenly joy in our hearts, sharing it with us, so that the name of God the Father
be glorified!

Vasili Gronov