Why We Fast
Fr. Stephen Freeman · March 1, 2009
Fr. Stephen looks at the deeper meaning of fasting and its true place in our Christian life.
I want to share with you today some ideas and thoughts on fasting, especially as the beginning of Lent draws near in just the next couple of days. First, some thoughts that I’ll share of my own:
Fasting is not very alive and well in the Christian world. Much of that world has long lost any living connection with the historical memory of Christian fasting. It’s as though they were Jews who heard there was such a thing as kosher and decided to make up the rules for what to eat and what not to eat because no one knew what was actually kosher. There are other segments of Christendom who have tiny remnants of the traditional Christian fast, but in the face of a modern world have reduced the tradition to almost meaningless self-sacrifice.
Now I’ve read recently, although I cannot remember where—and I have searched for the last several days—but I read recently that the rejection of hesychasm— which I’ll explain in a moment—the rejection of hesychasm— is the source of all heresy. In less technical terms we can say that knowing God in truth, participating in his life, union with him through humility, prayer, love of enemy and repentance before all and for everything is the purpose of the Christian life.
Hesychasm—the word comes from the Greek word hesychia, which means “silence,” is the name applied to the Orthodox tradition of ceaseless prayer and inner stillness. But these are incorrectly understood if they are separated from knowledge of God and participation in his life, union with him through humility, prayer, love of enemy and repentance, for all and for everything.
And it is the same path of inner knowledge of God, with all its components, that is the proper context of fasting. If we fast but do not forgive our enemies, our fasting is of no use. If we fast and do not find it drawing us into humility, our fasting is of no use. If our fasting does not make us yet more keenly aware of the fact that we are sinful before all and responsible to all, then it is of no benefit. If our fasting does not unit us with the life of God, which is meek and lowly, then it is again of no benefit.
Fasting is not diet. Fasting is not the Christian version of kosher eating. Fasting is about hunger and humility, which is increased as we allow ourselves to become weak. Fasting is about allowing our hearts to break. I have seen greater good accomplished in souls through their failure in the fasting season than in the souls of those who fasted well. Publicans enter the Kingdom of God before Pharisees pretty much every time.
Why do we fast? Perhaps the more germane question is “why do we eat?” Christ quoted Scripture to the Evil One and said, “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” We eat as though our life depended on it, but it does not. We fast because our life depends on the Word of God, our true life.
I worked for a couple of years as a hospice chaplain. During that time, daily sitting at the side of the beds of dying patients, I learned a little about how we humans die. It’s a medical fact that many people become anorexic before death, that is, they cease to want food. Many times family, and even doctors who are not trained in hospice care, become concerned and want to force food on a patient who will not survive. Interestingly, it was found that patients who became anorexic had less pain than patients who, having become anorexic, were forced to take food. And none of this is about the psychological anorexia that afflicts many of our youth. That is another tragedy.
But it’s as though at death our bodies have wisdom we have lacked for most of our own lives. It knows that what it needs is not food but something deeper. The soul seeks and hungers for the Living God. The body and its pain becomes a distraction and thus in God’s mercy the distraction is reduced.
Christianity, as a religion—and hear this carefully—Christianity as a religion, as a theoretical system of explanations, rational explanations regarding heaven and hell, reward and punishment, is simply Christianity that has been distorted from its true form. Either we know the Living God or we have nothing. Either we know the Living God or we have nothing. Either we eat his Flesh and drink his Blood or we have no life in us, as he told us in Scripture. The rejection of hesychasm is the source of all heresy.
So why do we fast? We fast so that we may live like a dying man and in dying, we can be born to eternal life.
I want to offer to you a poem today. It’s a poem written by St. Nikolai Velimirovich, St Nikolai of Zica, the great Serbian Saint who ended his life in America at St. Tikhon’s Seminary and monastery. Great Serbian Saint, wrote a series of poems called Prayers by the Lake and this one is on fasting. And he says this:
With fasting, I gladden my hope in you, my Lord, who are to come again. Fasting hastens my preparations for your coming, the sole expectation of my days and nights. Fasting makes my body thinner so that what remains can more easily shine with the Spirit. While waiting for you, I wish neither to nourish myself with blood nor to take life, so that the animals may sense the joy of my expectation. But truly abstaining from food will not save me, even if I were only to eat the sand from the lake you would not come to me unless the fasting penetrated deeper into my soul. I have come to know through prayer that bodily fasting is more a symbol of true fasting, very beneficial for someone who has just begun to hope in you, nevertheless, very difficult for someone who merely practices it.
Therefore I have brought fasting into my soul to purge her of many impudent fiancees and to prepare her for you like a virgin. And I have brought fasting into my mind to expel from it all daydreams about worldly matters and to demolish all the air castles fabricated from those daydreams. I have brought fasting into my mind so that it might jettison the world and prepare to receive your wisdom. And I have brought fasting into my heart so that by means of it my heart may quell all passions and worldly selfishness. I have brought fasting into my heart so that heavenly peace might ineffably reign over my heart when your stormy spirit encounters it. I’ve prescribed fasting for my tongue to break itself of the habit of idle chatter and to speak reservedly only those words that clear the way for you to come. And I have imposed fasting on my worries, so that it may blow them all away before itself like the wind that blows away the mist, lest they stand like dense fog between me and you and lest they turn my gaze back to the world.
And fasting has brought into my soul tranquility in the face of created and uncreated realms and humility towards men and creatures. And it has instilled in me courage of the likes of which I never knew when I was armed with every sort of worldly weapon. What was my hope before I began to fast except merely another story told by others, which passed from mouth to mouth. The story told by others about salvation through prayer and fasting became my own. False fasting accompanies false hope just as no fasting accompanies hopelessness. But just as a wheel follows behind a wheel, so true fasting follows true hope. Help me to fast joyfully and to hope joyously, for you, my most joyful feast, are drawing near to me with your radiant smile.