(This is Neil.) Here is an excerpt from Patriarch Bartholomew’s Catechetical Homily for the beginning of Lent. The Ecumenical Patriarch clarifies the meaning of fasting for us (“not the acquisition of virtues, or of other strange abilities”), and reminds us that asceticism must never be practiced with depression or ostentation, but rather with “as much joy and secrecy as possible”:
The true nature of our spiritual struggle consists in aiming for the love of God as the object of our quest and desire; but at the same time also in aiming for the respective deprivation and abandonment of other lawful goods and desires so that our entire existence, soul and mind, can focus on our primary target. Therefore, fasting, which is one of the most important ascetic practices of Great Lent, does not express rejection of the blessed food, but on the contrary, voluntary deprivation of the repose that these foods offer to our body. The goal is two-folded: on the one hand for the soul to disengage from the exclusive interest in the “I”, and on the other hand for the body to become obedient and well-trained to the governing mind, namely to become an organ and not the sovereign of the human person.
The goal of spiritual struggle is not the acquisition of virtues, or of any other strange abilities solemnly through human powers, as it is believed by those who belong to various humanistic circles. On the contrary, it is the expression of our desire to meet the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom everything is recapitulated, and through whom everything is derived. The Word of God, the Logos, preaches most clearly that without Him we cannot do anything, and the Hymnographer reminds us that unless the Lord constructs the house of virtues of the soul, we struggle in vain. Therefore, we Christians devote ourselves to the love of Christ, and we give up voluntarily many other kinds of love and devotion that are of secondary importance so that we will become worthy of His presence in the house of our souls. When this is achieved, with the grace and blessing of God, then peace, joy, and perfect love will have settled permanently in our very existence.
This is the very reason why spiritual struggle is practiced neither with depression, nor with ostentation, but with as much joy and secrecy, as possible. If there is the desire to show off, then the goal of the love of God is put aside and in its place enters self-contentedness; if there is depression and sorrow, the joy and the voluntary desire depart and the person who is fasting lives in a state of oppression and constraint, namely in a spiritual state that is not pleasing in the eyes of God.
The spiritual struggle should be practiced with joy and its main goal should be to introduce our heart into the love and joy of God, through which every sorrow and vindictiveness, and every complaint and protestation against our fellow men and women is expelled from us. In its place we will then have the unshakable and great peace of God that will radiate all around us..