(This is Neil.) Last Lent, I contributed a post entitled “Why Fast?” that excerpted from an article by the learned Jesuit Robert Taft. The current “Life in Christ” column, written by the Orthodox priest John Breck, is also about fasting.
Much has been written, on blogs and elsewhere, about various sexual sins. Very little is ever said, at least in my recollection, about gluttony. But, as Fr Taft reminded us, “It is by food that Satan seduced Adam and Eve.”
Fr Breck writes:
To St John of Sinai, however, the real spiritual danger lies in over-indulgence. “Gluttony,” he asserts, “is hypocrisy of the stomach…it is the stomach that is the cause of all human shipwreck!” This is a perception found throughout the Church’s ascetic writings, whether it is directed at monks or lay people. St John Cassian, for example, states the purpose of fasting very simply. It is, he says, “to avoid over-eating and the filling of our bellies.” “Food is to be taken insofar as it supports our life,” he adds, “but not to the extent of enslaving us to the impulses of desire. To eat moderately and reasonably is to keep the body in health, not to deprive it of holiness.”
Fr Breck also counsels “balance and moderation”:
The ancient Church’s ascetic tradition points to several reasons for fasting. Proper fasting purges toxins from the body, it facilitates prayer, it helps control various “passions” and temptations, and it encourages solidarity with the poor. That tradition, however, insists on an approach to fasting that is often forgotten today: balance and moderation. We can become absorbed by an obsessive “label-reading,” to make sure that what we buy in the grocery store contains not a micron of dairy; we can starve ourselves to the point that our health is endangered; and we can gloat over our “success” and pass judgment on the less zealous among us. All of which makes a mockery of fasting discipline.
Many people who become members of the Orthodox Church are faced with a dilemma when they return home or accept invitations from non-Orthodox who are unaware of or unconcerned about our fasting practices. Balance and moderation are especially called for in such cases. To avoid pride in our fasting, it is healthy and wise at appropriate times to relax the regimen. “By relaxing our usual practice,” advises St Diodocus of Photiki, “we shall keep hidden the mystery of our self-control. When we risk offending others with our fasting, a healthy rule of thumb is St Paul’s counsel to “eat what’s set before you” (1 Cor 10:27).
But, still, why fast? In a sermon, the late Fr Alexander Schmemann wrote that Lent is a gift of “the essential – that which is essential and yet which suffers most in our life because we are living lives of confusion and fragmentation, lives which constantly conceal from us the eternal, the glorious, the divine meaning of life and take away from us that which should ‘push’ and, thus, correct and fill our life with joy.”
Likewise, Fr Breck concludes that fasting is meant to “direct body, mind and soul toward what is essential: toward that heavenly city in which the soul is exalted, the mind is sanctified, the demons are vanquished, and we dwell eternally in the presence of God”:
Fasting only really makes sense insofar as it is held in the perspective of the Kingdom of God. However much it may serve to purge the body and to help us gain control over temptations toward gluttony and self-indulgence, these hardly justify its rigors. The discipline of fasting has one basic purpose: to prepare us for the feast that follows. We abstain totally from food before we receive Holy Communion, not simply to empty the belly, but to create hunger for the true Eucharist, the Heavenly Banquet prepared for us from before the world’s foundation. The same is true for prolonged periods of fasting during the Lenten seasons of our liturgical year. They help immensely in the vital task of “sanctifying the time,” of opening our hearts and minds to transcendent reality and the promise of fulfilled hope.
Fasting, then, finds its true rationale in the overall sacramental life of the Church, which nourishes and guides the faithful toward eternal life, joy and peace in the Kingdom of God. It lifts us above the everyday needs of our mundane existence, to set us firmly on a trajectory that will lead from this life to life beyond. Fasting is not a sacrament in the strict sense; but it is profoundly “sacramental.” Sacramental and eschatological, in that it sanctifies our present life and activity, deepens and intensifies our prayer, both personal and communal, and creates within our innermost being a vital thirst for the promised Banquet, the eternal Festival to come.