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How to Fight for the Body While Forgetting About Ourselves
by Adam A. J. DeVille
One cannot turn on the electronic pulpit that is the television today without being regularly hectored by the preachers and proselytizers of the latest fad diet. Whether you should bulk up on fiber to stave off colon cancer, or throw out “carbs” in favor of all the protein you want, or sign up for a course that will allow you to drink a chocolate shake three times a day and still be fifty pounds lighter in a month, is all up to the discretion of the woefully befuddled individual.
Our culture is fascinated with—indeed, agonized over—the place of food and the health of the body. Christians are not exempt from these influences. How strange, then, that we rarely, if ever, hear from the pulpit any reflection on fasting.
The consequences of the neglect of such ascetic practices as fasting are not to be underestimated. Many churchmen today seem to believe in a “Christianity Lite,” premised upon the fiction that the best way to reach the so-called modern world is not to propose a serious, disciplined, time--consuming religion. Instead, they make minimal demands and therefore get minimal, often spectacularly pathetic, results.
The paradox is this: Ask a little, get less; butask a lot, and get more. People want to be challenged; people are waiting, sometimes eagerly, to make what Pope John Paul II calls the “total gift of self.” They simply need to be asked—and if the Church does not ask them, they may follow someone who does. The astonishing growth of Mormonism with its disciplines and demands is proof enough of this.
Here my own tradition may provide some guidance. (I propose this not in a triumphalistic manner, because so many Orthodox, especially those in North America, have also abandoned the tradition of fasting or have only the shallowest understanding of it.)
Orthodox believers are expected to fast each Wednesday and Friday (a practice for which some evidence is to be found as early as the Shepherd of Hermas, written about A.D. 120), since Christ was betrayed on the former and died on the latter. The Orthodox tradition also offers four major fasting periods in the year:
• The pre-Christmas fast—popularly known as St. Philip’s Fast because it begins after his feast on November 15th—which lasts for 40 days prior to the celebration of the Nativity of Christ.
• The Great Fast of Lent, the longest, most solemn, and most important of the fasting seasons, beginning at Forgiveness Vespers prior to Pure -Monday, lasting for 40 days prior to Palm Sunday, and then being followed by a still more rigorous observance for Holy Week itself.
• The Apostles’ Fast, generally running for about two weeks before the celebration of Sts. Peter and Paul on June 29th.
• The Dormition Fast, beginning on August 1st and lasting until the celebration of the Dormition of the Theotokos (the feast that Catholics call the -Assumption of Mary) on August 15th.
The particular details of each fast vary both from church to church and from place to place, but in general terms, taking the example of Great Lent in the -Byzantine tradition, the following may be said.
In the first place, the most important lessons about fasting are found in the Scriptures, which contain numerous examples of people fasting (e.g., Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, John the Forerunner and Baptist, Paul, and, most preeminently of course, Christ himself). They fast for a variety of reasons, including as a sign of sorrow (e.g., 1 Sam. 31:13; Joel 1:14; Jer. 14:1–12; Ps. 42:3; 102:4; 107:17–18), as a sign of repentance (e.g., 1 Kings 21:9–12; Jer. 36:6–9), and as an aid to prayerful discernment and preparation (e.g., Neh. 1:4–11; Dan. 6:18; 9:3; Ps. 35:13; Luke 2:37; 4:1–14; Acts 13:2–3).
Joy & Brightness
For Christians, the most important lesson about fasting is presented in blunt terms: Christ warns us in the Gospels that fasting is not to make us gloomy! It is not a bitter, excruciating ordeal: “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites. . . . But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father” (Matt. 6:16–17).
Already the note is sounded: Fasting, while a form of self-denial, is nonetheless a cause of our joy, and it is this joy, rather than the fast, that we should manifest to the world. As the late Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann wrote in his For the Life of the World:
The Church is in time and its life in this world is fasting, that is, a life of effort, sacrifice, self-denial and dying. The Church’s very mission is to become all things to all men. But how could the Church fulfill this mission, how could it be the salvation of the world, if it were not, first of all and above everything else, the divine gift of Joy, the fragrance of the Holy Spirit, the presence here in time of the feast of the Kingdom?
Schmemann expanded on the joy of fasting in his later book, the short but very rich Great Lent: Journey to Pascha. In what Eastern theologians regard as an -antinomy—one of many that mark out the Christian life as one of paradox—fasting, Schmemann argues, “rather than -weakening us makes us light, concentrated, sober, joyful, pure.” This note of joy resounds throughout the Byzantine liturgical texts of Great Lent, leading some to dub Lent the “season of alleluias.”
Unlike the West, where the Gloria and the alleluias are suppressed during Lent, the Byzantine tradition redoubles its singing of alleluias (albeit, typically, in a minor key) because it finds joy in the fast, but more to the point, because it finds joy in the goal of the fast: risen life in and with Christ. Liturgically, however, the Byzantine tradition manifests a Lenten spirit by “fasting” from full celebrations of the Divine Liturgy, whose paschal character makes it inappropriate for the weekdays of Great Lent; it is celebrated only on major feasts and Sundays. In its place, the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts is offered instead—which is basically vespers with Holy Communion attached.
In the Triodion, the major liturgical book of Great Lent, we are exhorted thus: “Let us receive the announcement of Lent with joy! The time of Lent is a time of gladness! With radiant purity and pure love, filled with resplendent prayer and all good deeds, let us sing with joy!” Lent is incompatible with a morose sadness; the only sadness we can have—that over our sins—is tempered by the joy that knows no end, the joy that Christ wants to give us abundantly (cf. John 15:11).
Such a joy has led Schmemann to dub Great Lent a time of “bright sadness.” It is bright because it leads to the light of the Risen Christ, but it is sad because we are called upon to weep over our sins and do penance for them. Fasting, then, is not only a cause of joy but is also undeniably an act of penance—but a penance undertaken only in joy, never out of guilt or loathing.
Penance, as Schmemann said in Great Lent by way of a reflection on the Prodigal Son, is less an act of reparation for infractions committed than it is a “deep desire to return, to go back, to recover that lost home.” If sin, as Schmemann has put it, is “the deviation of my love from God, preferring the ‘far country’ to the beautiful home of the Father,” then penance is that therapia which helps me come to my senses and realize what I have lost and what I need to do to find healing.
Penance, in the final analysis, heals us in order that we might forget about ourselves. In the words of the Byzantine Catholic Robert Taft, S. J., penance is “not a turning in on self, not a concentration on self-discipline as some sort of spiritual athletics, but an openness to new life, and through it openness to others, the end to which it is all supposed to lead.”
Precisely to open us to new life, the Church has always recommended fasting in a variety of forms. Some clarification of terms is needed here.
Fasting & Wisdom
The Eastern churches mean two things by “fasting.” First, it means abstinence, i.e., refraining from eating certain types of foods, usually meat. Abstinence from meat is the traditional rule on almost all Wednesdays and Fridays of the year. (There are four exceptions: meat on Wednesdays and Fridays is permitted during Bright [Easter] Week, Pentecost Week, Meatfare Week, and Christmas Week.) During the four fasting periods, however, this abstinence can also include all animal products whatsoever, and thus include dairy, as well as oil and alcohol. The latter two, however, are permitted on weekends—when fasting is forbidden but abstinence still pertains—and certain feast days, such as the feast of the Annunciation on March 25th.
Second, “fasting” also means limiting the intake of food to one meal a day.
Thus, the strict, traditional rule, for Great Lent in particular, mandates both an abstinence from all animal products (only fish, without a backbone, may be eaten) and a fast whereby one eats usually only one meal per day, which is simple in its preparation (i.e., should involve a minimum of cooking so that the time saved can be devoted to prayer and the poor) and not eaten until after 3:00 P.M. (the hour of Jesus’ death on the Cross).
However, insofar as one is able, one should not eat until after the Lenten Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts, typically held in the early evening. As fasting makes such demands on us, the church offers us the celestial food of the Divine Eucharist more often during Great Lent to sustain us on our journey toward Pascha.
This is the strict, traditional rule—fasting and -abstinence—but the Eastern genius has always been to allow much diversity and freedom in the practice of the rule, tempering the rule with a spirit that takes account of human weakness ( oikonomia, or economy, is the theological term). This fast, then, is not juridically imposed in all its rigor. As the hieromonk Seraphim Rose observed, the fast is not to be a “straitjacket” for us but, rather, the “gold standard” against which each individual can measure his own progress in all humility.
The traditional fast looks overwhelming, but the church, as both caring mother and wise psychologist, has never expected that everyone will undertake it. Indeed, many should not undertake the fast, if, for example, they are sick or pregnant. The point to consider is not how much is demanded, but how much we can give. One must be careful here of the spiritual dangers of pride, and strive after what one author has called “wise discretion—the highest of all the virtues according to St. Anthony the Great.”
Hence, what is most important in determining how to fast is to seek the direction of one’s spiritual father or mother and to follow that rigorously. For pride can often lurk behind our desire to fast. Better to observe a small fast with much humility and under obedience than a large one with great pride. As the Triodion memorably puts it, “In vain do you rejoice in not eating, O soul! For you abstain from food, but from passions you are not purified. If you have no desire for improvement, you will be despised as a lie in the eyes of God.”
Finding Jesus Everywhere
In addition to a fast from food, the Eastern tradition has also counseled the purification of our passions through a “fast” for the other senses. Schmemann counseled a fast to “control our speech” so that we can recover a measure of silence in our spiritual life without which we cannot hear the voice of the Lord. Lev Gillet, a French convert to Orthodoxy who published numerous books under the pseudonym “A Monk of the Eastern Church,” mentions other fasts and their rationale in his The Year of Grace:
Is it possible to keep one’s attention concentrated on Jesus, to look towards him, if one turns to dancing, the radio, television, films, the theatre or novels for one’s pleasure? And I am not speaking only of erotic novels or entertainments; even things which, in themselves, are not bad . . . distract our attention from the Saviour, and make us insensitive to His presence. A saint can find Jesus everywhere, but this is difficult for the ordinary Christian.
In addition, there has been a pious tradition—at one time canonically required, at least of clerics—for husband and wife to abstain from conjugal relations during some or all of Great Lent. This is premised upon the belief not that sex is bad (as the French Orthodox layman Paul Evdokimov once put it, “Under the grace of the sacrament, the sexual life is lived without causing the slightest decline of the inner life”), but precisely that it is good to freely, joyfully give up such a good thing for a greater good and larger share in the joy God wants to bestow.
In sum, as various scholars remind us, fasting, like all forms of discipline, “is not a pitting of the spirit against the flesh, but rather body and soul united together against sin, body and soul converted together to the Lord. The whole man must cooperate with God’s grace. The whole man must love the Lord,” in the words of Susan Mathews.
Christian asceticism is far from being against the body, as many dime-store commentators on Christianity would suggest, but is, Schmemann wrote in Great Lent, “a fight, not against but for the body.” The body is valuable and a precious gift of the Creator—who himself of course took on human flesh—but its value is only recognizable, paradoxically, when it is not pampered, but denied, as in fasting: “Fasting in Christianity is only truly itself when it realizes the sacredness of the body,” as sociologist Kathleen Dugan has insisted.
Loose Every Knot
In addition to the rigors of the various fasts, especially those in Great Lent, the Eastern churches also encourage those other crucial concomitants of fasting, viz., prayer and works of charity. As Schmemann put it, “Fasting as a physical effort is totally meaningless without its spiritual counterpart: ‘by fasting and prayer.’” Moreover, the Triodion reminds Eastern Christians of their obligations not only to fast and pray but also to “loose every knot of iniquity, let us tear up every unrighteous bond, let us distribute bread to the hungry and welcome to our homes those who have no roof over their heads.”
Of the additional prayer encouraged of the faithful during Great Lent in particular, none is so beloved or well known as the Prayer of St. Ephrem, recited several times a day with full prostrations (a gesture in which one kneels and then goes down all the way to the floor, touching the forehead on the floor before rising):
O Lord and Master of my life!
Take from me the spirit of sloth,
faint-heartedness, lust of power and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity,
humility, patience and love to Thy servant.
Yes, O Lord and King!
Grant me to see my own errors
and not to judge my brother;
For Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.
“ But give rather the spirit of chastity.” If, as we noted at the outset, we hear about food and dieting constantly in the culture at large but seldom in our churches, the same is also true of sex. Moreover, few if any have drawn the connections between food and sex, fasting and -chastity. Permit me to conclude with a personal example that I trust will make clear the link.
Several years ago, I attempted the full, traditional fast in all its rigor, fully expecting that I would last, at most, for a day or two. The prospect of no meat (let alone no dairy or anything else) made me almost want to weep. With Chesterton, I believe that “Catholicism is a thick steak, a frosted stout, and a good cigar,” and the idea of giving up any of those was almost unbearable even to think about.
I figured I was in for a fiendishly difficult time and would scarcely make it through the first few days before throwing up my hands in disgust at my weakness. But I actually found in that fast, and have found in subsequent years, a great gift. God gave me the grace to undertake that fast and to stick to it. Far from crawling along, fighting every urge and hunger pang every hour of every day, the fast progressed with a serenity that I could not expect, and it did indeed make me much more—to borrow Fr. Schmemann’s words once more—“light, concentrated, joyful” and, yes, “pure.” Indeed, on that latter point I discovered something I could learn no other way except by fasting: The struggle to be pure and chaste—especially as a then-single male in a world full of temptations at every turn—has much to learn from the struggle to fast.
Alive in Christ
For if one can give up food, which the body absolutely requires to stay alive, then one can certainly give up the attachment to the sensual passions—which, contrary to our world, one does not need to indulge to stay alive. (As Evelyn Waugh once wrote, “People today say you cannot be happy unless your sex life is happy. That makes about as much sense as saying you cannot be happy unless your golf life is happy. It’s not only nonsense, it’s mischievous nonsense.”)
What one needs to stay alive is Christ. May we receive the gift of fasting as a powerful practice that unites, purifies, and strengthens us as the Body of Christ, enabling us to live more and more in and for him. In our day more than ever, we need to undertake a recovery of fasting, purifying ourselves and the Church, and in the process receiving the gift of unending joy at Pascha, where we may sing—in the words of the paschal tropar so beloved by Eastern Christians: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life!”
The author recommends Kathleen M. Dugan’s “The Place of Fasting in the Christian Tradition” in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion 63 (1995); Curtis C. Mitchell’s “The Practice of Fasting in the New Testament” in Bibliotheca Sacra 147 (1990); Susan Mathews’s “The Biblical Evidence on Fasting” in Diakonia 24 (1991); Joan L. Roccasivo’s “Fasting in the Primitive Church” in Diakonia 30 (1997); and Ioan Dura’s “The Canons of the Sixth Ecumenical Synod Concerning Fasting” in the Greek Orthodox Theological Review 40 (1995).
Adam A. J. Deville is a Ph.D. student at the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute for Eastern Christian Studies at St. Paul University, Ottawa, Canada, where he is writing a thesis on Orthodoxy and the Roman papacy in response to the papal encyclical Ut Unum Sint.