The following small selection of sayings of the Holy Fathers and Saints put the discipline of fasting in the proper perspective. As the true masters of fasting, they, more than any other Christians, are the ones who can best teach us its true nature. First the Desert Fathers.
† Abba Joseph asked Abba Poemen: “How should we fast?” And Abba Poemen said: “I myself think it’s good to eat every day a little at a time so as not to get full.” Abba Joseph said: “Well, when you were young, didn’t you used to fast for two days at a time?” And the old man said: “Believe me, indeed I did, for three days, and even a week. But the great elders tried all of this, and found that it is good to eat every day a little less each time. In this way, they showed us the royal highway, for it is light and easy.”
Abba Poemen teaches us that we should be careful not to undertake efforts too great for us. This gives the proper perspective in relation to the efforts praised in selections 3 and 4 above. It is better to make slow and steady progress with moderate efforts than to become discouraged or to miss the goal altogether with efforts too great for us.
† Once two brothers went to visit an old man. It was not the old man’s habit, however, to eat every day. When he saw the brothers, he welcomed them with joy, and said: “Fasting has its own reward, but if you eat for the sake of love, you satisfy two commandments, for you give up your own will and also fulfill the commandment to refresh others.”
†A brother said to an old man: “There are two brothers. One of them stays in his cell quietly, fasting for six days at a time, and imposing on himself a good deal of discipline, and the other serves the sick. Which one of them is more acceptable to God?” The old man replied: “Even if the brother who fasts six days were to hang himself up by the nose, he could not equal the one who serves the sick.”
Here we learn that love is above fasting, that we must not presume to put our fasting above “the more excellent way,” the “new commandment” to love one another.
† There was a man who was leading an ascetic life and not eating bread. He went to visit an old man. It happened that pilgrims also dropped by, and the old man fixed a modest meal for them. When they sat together to eat, the brother who was fasting picked up a single soaked pea and chewed it. When they arose from the table, the old man took the brother aside and said: “Brother, when you go to visit somewhere, do not display your way of life, but if you want to keep to it, stay in your cell and never come out.” He accepted what the old man said, and after that behaved like the others whenever he met with them.
We are reminded here that fasting must be done in secret, not before others, as the Lord has said: “But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.”—St. Matthew 6:17-18
† It was said about an old man that he endured seventy weeks of fasting, eating only once a week. He asked God about certain words in the Holy Scripture, but God did not answer him. Then he said to himself: “Look, I have put in this much effort, but I haven’t made any progress. So now I will go to see my brother and ask him.” And when he had gone out, closed the door and started off, an angel of the Lord was sent to him, and said: “Seventy weeks of fasting have not brought you near to God. But now that you are humbled enough to go to your brother, I have been sent to you to reveal the meaning of the words.” Then the angel explained the meaning which the old man was seeking, and went away.
Along with fasting there must be humility! Fasting opens the way; it is a means to an end; it is not the end itself.
† I myself once harshly judged a monk whom I saw drinking milk during the Great Fast. He did it so routinely that I thought, “Why, he must think nothing of the ascetic life.” It was I who had forgotten the rule of the inner life—that one judges himself and excuses others. I later learned that the monk was ill and had to have milk to ingest his medication. I learned something about hasty judgments.
Here we learn that we must never judge another person.
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said: “Abba, as much as I am able I practice a small rule, a little fasting, some prayer and meditation, and remain quiet, and as much as possible I keep my thought clean. What else should I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched out his hands toward heaven, and his fingers became like ten torches of flame. And he said: “If you wish, you can become all flame.”
We must never be shortsighted about the goal of our Christian life with all its efforts. It is nothing less than theosis, union with the Living God, becoming “all flame.”
St. Seraphim of Sarov on Fasting
† On Fasting.
“Prayer, fasting, vigils, and all other Christian practices, however good they are in themselves, do not constitute the goal of our Christian life, although they serve as a necessary means to its attainment. The true goal of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. Fasting, vigils, prayers, alms-giving and all good deeds done for the sake of Christ are but means for the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. But note, my son, that only a good deed done for the sake of Christ brings us the fruits of the Holy Spirit. All that is done, if it is not for Christ’s sake, although it may be good, brings us no reward in the life to come, nor does it give us God’s grace in the present life.”
Venerable Ephraim the Syrian
† A excellent faster is he who restrains himself from every impurity, who imposes abstinence on his tongue and restrains it from idle talk, foul language, slander, condemnation, flattery and all manner of evil speaking, who abstains from anger, rage, malice and vengeance and withdraws from every evil.
† Let thy mind fast from vain thoughts; let thy memory fast from remembering evil; let thy will fast from evil desire; let thine eyes fast from bad sights: turn away thine eyes that thou mayest not see vanity; let thine ears fast from vile songs and slanderous whispers; let thy tongue fast from slander, condemnation, blasphemy, falsehood, deception, foul language and every idle and rotten word; let thy hands fast from killing and from stealing another’s goods; let thy legs fast from going to evil deeds: Turn away from evil, and do good.