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Saturday, February 24, 2007

Fast Disappearing?

As the Church moves into the heart of Great Lent the unusual quality of her witness becomes increasingly apparent. The Roman Catholic Church has largely abandoned fasting in ordinary parish life although it still features in stricter monastic observance and in some "specialised" lay societies. Independent evangelicals still fast with prayer but can hardly be said to consider Lent as a special time for this practice.

None of this should cause Orthodox to indulge in pharisaic pride. Fasting is a secret thing, a tryst between God and Man whereby we prioritise His jealous love for us in the totality of a surrendered life. If we step back and admire our zeal in keeping the commandments then we have already broken all of them by a single act of pride.

So is the Fast disappearing in Orthodoxy? Well, that must depend partly on the individual state of each soul upon which only God may judge. However, we must rightly ask whether or not fasting is not succumbing to a narrow minded legalism on the one hand and an extreme laxity on the other. The legalists would have us debate endlessly the difference between vegetable oil and olive oil; whether it is proper to eat caviar on Lazarus Saturday and so on. Those sliding into non-observance are also legalists in that they still think of a "duty" to be somehow "argued around."

In order that the spirit of our actual fasting might match the ideals of the season we perhaps need to take stock again of the primary reason for fasting. Raising money for the poor, knowing what it feels like to be hungry and such are only secondary and derivative effects. The primary focus must be the redemption of whole personality, body and soul.

A measure of self discipline in my life enables my will to be strengthened and my passions to be rendered subject to the work of the Holy Spirit for salvation. Fasting is the key which opens up my God-given potentiality to be His servant without any other competing claim. Fasting purifies my soul and my body so that my entire personality becomes radiant with the presence of the Living Christ. This is my entrance into the joyous victory of Pascha which is my liberation from the tyranny of death, evil and sin. This is why we fast.


Adam said...

There's God's description of acceptable fasting in Isaiah 58 which describes what God wants us to be about when fasting. It seems that fasting isn't just about ourselves and God (though I agree with the clarity a fast brings) but also "to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke." So a fast is about our fellow human beings, bearers of God's image.

Father Gregory said...

That is certainly true Adam but I am rather concerned with the divorce of the personal and the social and the elevation of one (either) at the expense of the other (either).

HanseaticEd said...

Over at, Fr. Dwight Longenecker has provided a comment on fasting that I found most helpful. Entitled 'Holy Hunger', his words include:

'I fast not because food is bad, and not because I want to lose weight, but because I want to be hungry for God. By fasting physically we are reminded that our bodies are not disconnected from our souls and minds. We are little tri-unities of body, mind and spirit. What we do with our body affects our minds and souls. What we do with our mind and spirit affects the health of our body.

'When my body is hungry it can be a holy hunger. When my stomach aches with hunger my soul yearns for the living God. When I cry in the wilderness for food, my soul leaps up to eat the bread of heaven and drink from the cup of eternal salvation.'

I found this most helpful, because you are quite right, Father: there is too much temptation to become either legalistic abut fasting or lax. My personal hope would be to fast as the Church intends, and to find the union with God and His image-bearers that it proffers.

Old English Church said...

The reason why we are so far from the experience of such ascetics as Father Cleopas, who lived in the forests of Romania in the 1950's.

"You should know that there are seven kinds of food for men, that is to say, seven degrees of fasting"

"A: Carnivores, who always eat meat. These are in the lowest degree of fasting, even if they sometimes restrain themselves from food. They are never able to advance in prayer.

"B: Lacto-vegetarians, who never eat meat, but only milk, cheese, eggs and all kinds of boiled vegetables. These are in the second degree of fasting, which is kept by Monks in coenobitic Monasteries and, very rarely, by laymen.

"C: Vegetarians, who eat only vegetables and boiled or raw legumes. This arrangement forms the third degree of fasting, and the most zealous monks of the common life keep it.

"D: Fruit-Eaters, who eat bread and uncooked fruits once a day, without otherwise ever tasting food. He who attains this degree of fasting is able to master his body and thoughts without difficulty and can advance rapidly on the path of prayer.

"E: Cereal-Eaters, comprise the fifth degree of fasting. To this degree belong monks especially hesycasts and desert-dwellers who eat once a day only black bread, cereals, and soaked grains of wheat, corn, millet, lentils, beans, peas, etc.

"F: Dry Food, is the sixth degree of monastic fasting, which is usually attainted only by the most zealous desert dwellers. Those who live in this harsh asceticism eat only dried bread soaked in water, with salt or a little vinegar, once a day and by measure. This is how the hesycasts of the Nile valley lived.

"G: Divine Food or manna, is the last and highest degree of monastic fasting, which is attained by very few ascetics after prolonged asceticism, being strengthened by the grace of the Holy Spirit. These are satisfied with the Most Pure Mysteries alone, that is, with the Body and Blood of Christ, which they receive only once or twice a week, without tasting anything else but water only. After difficult temptations and asceticism, and by the Grace of God, I have come to be satisfied with the Most Pure Mysteries alone, and no longer feel hunger, or have need of bread or vegetables'

Our Orthodox Church sets a common guide for us all to help us grow in Christ.

In Christ, His unworthy servant,

Constantine Georgiades

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