Fasting is not an end in itself: it is a means to an end. The end is holiness.
Fasting helps us to come to holiness because it is a form of penance, and it develops strength of will and self-understanding. But holiness never comes automatically. We need a complete Christian discipline for life, and fasting is part of that. It can have no supernatural results unless it is undertaken in a spirit of prayer. God works small miracles for those who pray and fast. The diligent person can exercise an unprecedented control over carnal appetites and desires. Many grateful souls will testify to that.
“Fasting” is restricting our intake of food and drink. We distinguish fasting from abstinence. The law of abstinence restricts not the amount but the type of food one eats,: when abstaining one cannot eat meat and sweets. The Maronite law of fasting allows no food between midnight and noon. Food and water are always permitted when needed to take medicines or prevent collapse and illness. A person who can suffer illness when they fast should not take the risk, they should find another form of penance, e.g. donating money to the poor, attending an extra Mass, saying the divine office, etc. So if, for example, you can get migraines if you fast, don’t try it. Choose another penance with the aid of your pastor. Receiving the Eucharist never breaks the fast.
For the other half of the day, that is, between 12 noon and midnight, there is no strict legal restriction, but the fast is based on the implicit understanding that the portions one consumes for lunch and supper will be the usual size. The result should be that one eats one meal less, not that one distributes that meal between two others.
In fasting, we follow the example of Our Lord, who fasted for forty days (Mt. 4:2), and expected that we Christians would fast when He was no longer with us (Mt. 9:14-5; Lk. 5:33-5). In Mt. 6:16-8, Our Lord teaches us to fast for spiritual purposes only, and not to try to impress others with our discipline. Vanity is a poison. In Australia, for 2013, the Bishop has followed the Latin Church and requires fasting only on Ash Monday and Good Friday, and abstinence on those two days and on each Friday of Lent. One can, however, fast or abstain more often. Or, one can, for example, eat only a third as much for breakfast or lunch on days when there is no compulsory fast. We can even, if we wish, use the ancient tradition of also abstaining from animal products such as milk, cheese and eggs, as these were believed to make one more inclined to bodily temptations.
gluttony, lust and worldly desires which prayerful
First, there are physical reasons to fast prudently. Many studies have shown that if one fasts without then indulging in gluttony, substantial health benefits accrue. It is good to look after the body, which is, after all, the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). But even this is to serve our supernatural aim –
Second, fasting is a powerful means of mortification. One feels in one’s very body that one has struggled to make sincere atonement.
Third, fasting strengthens the will. Our Lord said that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak (Mt. 26:41). Fasting enables the spirit to exercise its will over the flesh.
Further, fasting facilitates self-examination, because under the influence of the fast we see ourselves quite differently. Our sense of ourselves is conditioned how we eat and drink. Changing our intake of food and drink immediately upsets our conditioned patterns of reaction. We acquire new perceptions and feelings through the unaccustomed sense of hunger, and the unaccustomed impression of depriving oneself of food and flavoured drink. Self-examination, of course, enables us to make better confessions – but we shall deal with this vital topic in a future broadsheet.
Many find that fasting brings a welcome sense of freedom, not only physically, but in the feeling and
the intellect, too. More than we know, we are slaves to our appetites. Fasting helps break this slavery. When we fast, we find that we don’t need as much food as we thought that we did. Further, what we crave is very often more the experience of eating than the food. Being hungry is not so bad as we imagine: it is the anticipation of eating something delightful which makes fasting seem intolerable. Fasting shows what a large part eating and drooling over the prospect plays in our lives. When food and consumption are put into their proper places, there is more room in our minds and hearts for the spiritual life.
This connection of fasting and the life of virtue is also made by St Thalassios the Libyan, who taught: “To fast well is to enjoy simple food in small amounts and to shun other people’s esteem.” (On Love, in The Philokalia, vol.4, p.327). In the same volume, we find St Maximos the Confessor’s Four Hundred Texts on Love, wherein he tells us, at III 86, p.97: “Food was created for nourishment and healing. Those who eat food for purposes other than these two are therefore to be condemned as self-indulgent, because they misuse the gifts God has given us for our use. In all things misuse is a sin.”
This does not mean that one can take no pleasure at all in food, for “appetites and pleasures which are in accordance with nature are not reprehensible,” since they are a natural consequence of our human nature. Thus, satisfying hunger or thirst will naturally produce a legitimate pleasure, but it will be a purer and less selfish pleasure than that of gluttony. Through fasting and discipline, our reason will control our pleasures and lusts, not the other way around (Various Texts on Theology II 90, The Philokalia IV p.206).
Finally, now we have discovered the true importance of food, let us aim to pay more attention to how we eat and drink. A true Christian would not eat on automatic pilot, but rather, giving thanks to God. By His grace, we have the nourishment we need. We could repay Him by living better lives, and feeding those without food. One last word of warning: if intending to fast for more than two days, see a doctor first.
St John Cassian, in On the Eight Vices, reprinted in The Philokalia, vol. 1, warned that one should not fast to the point of hurting the body, and that we should not do without food for days on end, because those who eat nothing for too long often end up by eating too much. May it be granted to us to fast in such a way that we acquire the virtue of temperance.
- A priest of the Maronite Catholic Church
© Fr Y.A. for the Maronite Eparchy of Australia, 20 February 2013