The ascetics are Orthodoxy’s missionaries. Asceticism is her missionary school. Orthodoxy is ascetic effort and it is life, and it is thus by effort and by life that her mission is broadcast and brought about. The development of asceticism — this ought to be the inward mission of our Church amongst our people. Prayer and fasting, the Church-oriented life of the parish, a life of liturgy: Orthodoxy holds these as the primary ways of effecting rebirth in its people.
-Fr. Saint Justin Popovich
As with almost all of Orthodox Christian liturgical and spiritual practice, fasting was inherited from the Jewish traditions of the Old Covenant. The Old Testament provides an extensive record of fasts kept by the Jews — both individually or privately, and by the entire community. The Book of Jonah, chapter 3, gives an example of the severity with which official days of fasting were observed. The Book of Isaiah likewise describes a Jewish day of fasting in chapter 58, verse 5. The scripture then goes on to explain the spirit and purpose of the fast, and its ultimate reward: ‘Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily. And thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the Lord shall be thy reward.’
In the New Testament, too, we find references to the practice of fasting amongst the Jews. In his parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, for example, Jesus spoke of the Pharisee’s practice of “fasting twice in the week.” (The Pharisee’s fasting was a spiritual downfall for him, of course, as Jesus explained to the disciples: for he exalted rather than humbled himself through his fasting. But in this parable Jesus condemned spiritual pride, not fasting itself as a spiritual discipline. See The Practice of Fasting: The Spirit of the Rule, below.) This Jewish “fasting twice in the week” at the time of Christ was kept on Tuesdays and Thursdays. But eventually the early Christians, in an effort to distinguish themselves from the Jews, changed the days of the weekly fast to Wednesday and Friday: in remembrance of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus on Wednesdays, and in remembrance of His crucifixion on Fridays.
In the first and second centuries, the early Church prescribed only a short fast of a day or two before Pascha. During the third century, the pre-paschal fast was extended to all of Holy Week. The first mention of the full forty days’ fast appears in the fifth canon of the Council of Nicaea in 325. From that time Great Lent is discussed by many Church Fathers — St. Athanasius does not hesitate to say, “Anyone who neglects to observe the forty days’ fast is not worthy to celebrate the Paschal festival.” The Synod of Laodicaea, ca. 360, imposed the strict obligation of fasting for forty days before Pascha for the first time, and by the end of the fourth century the entire Church observed Great Lent. Other, less strict seasons of fasting would also be instituted before the Feasts of Sts. Peter and Paul, the Nativity, and the Dormition of the Theotokos.
The origin of Christianity’s own unique discipline of fasting was in the catechumenate. The early Church, having established Pascha as the day of baptism, submitted catechumens to intensive spiritual training as Pascha approached. To encourage them, the sponsors, relatives, and friends of the catechumens began to take part in their daily exercises, as witnessed by Justin Martyr: “Those who believe in the truth of our teaching, first of all, promise to live according to that teaching. Then we teach them how to pray and entreat God with fasting for the forgiveness of their sins; and we the faithful pray and fast with them.” Moses and Elijah prepared to meet the Lord with prayer and fasting for forty days. In imitation of them, the training of catechumens was also extended to forty days. Eusebius of Caesarea wrote, “We submit ourselves to the forty days’ exercise as a preparation for the Paschal festival, in imitation of Sts. Moses and Elijah.” Indeed, Christ Himself began His ministry with a fast of forty days in the wilderness.
In the Latin rite, Holy Week was included in the forty days’ fast, so that the whole of the Lenten season was six weeks and not seven. (In the Byzantine rite Holy Week is not, in fact, a part of Great Lent. It follows immediately afterwards.) Later, the Latins exempted the Sundays of Great Lent from fasting, reducing the fast to thirty-six days. To restore a full forty days’ fast, during the 7th century the Latins added four days of fasting to the start of the season; this explains why Great Lent begins in the West on Ash Wednesday, rather than the following Monday.
Orthodox Christian asceticism distinguishes between “the body” and “the flesh.” The body, together with its all its desires, is created by God and is a good thing. When the Scriptures and the Fathers speak of the flesh, on the other hand, they mean the body not in and of itself, but the body as we sinners relate to it: the body as it keeps the spirit in bondage, preventing its communion with God. The Christian ascetic’s attitude toward the body is one of great reverence, for it is God’s creation and is to be the dwelling place of his Holy Spirit; but his attitude toward the flesh is like the alcoholic’s attitude toward wine. The flesh represents spiritual self-destruction for the sinner just as wine — good in and of itself — represents psychological self-destruction for the alcoholic. This explains why Bishop Kallistos wrote, in his introduction to Christos Yannaras’ The Freedom of Morality, that, “While insisting upon asceticism, [Yannaras] sees it as a struggle not against but for the body. Always he envisages the transfiguration of eros and the passions and their redirection toward the divine, not their suppression or destruction.”
Paul Evdokimov further explains, in Woman and the Salvation of the World, that “for Western thinkers, human nature comprises the intellectual and animal life; it is the spiritual life (the ‘supernatural’) that is then added, and to a certain extent superimposed upon the purely human economy. For the East, on the other hand, man ‘in the image of God’ defines precisely what man is by nature. The ‘image’ includes the intellectual and spiritual life; it unites the nous(mind) and the pneuma (spirit), and it is the animal life that is added to this. Before the Fall, this animal life was external to man, turned towards him, and awaiting its own spiritualization. The Fall of the senses precipitated events, and added the animal life to the human being. […] The biological-animal nature symbolized by the ‘garments of skin’ is alien to man’s true nature, for it was premature, introduced before it could be spiritualized, before man (who had been called to cultivate cosmic nature) had mastered the supremacy of the spiritual over the material. Animal nature, good in itself, now represents man’s downfall, because of the perversion of the hierarchy of values.”
Fasting and asceticism, then, are the means by which we restore the natural hierarchy of body and spirit. The body is meant to serve the spirit; not the other way around, as is the case in the fallen world. Human nature in its fallen, sinful condition finds the spirit enslaved to the flesh, and to the need to gratify the appetites of the flesh. Insofar as the spirit remains in this state of bondage, it is rendered incapable of communing with God. The Christian fasts, therefore, in order to free himself from this slavery and redirect his desires back toward God. He fasts until he is hungry for food (and for the other desires of the flesh, as well), but then redirects his desire towards God and satisfies it through prayer, almsgiving, and a deeper participation in communion with God, rather than through eating. In this way the Christian ascetic comes to know and experience true joy of the heart, and sees that his addiction to sensual gratification through food and the other appetites of the flesh has been nothing more than a cheap substitute for it — indeed, that it has been preventing him from attaining it. Once this redirection of desire has been accomplished, a small lenten meal can then be consumed free of gluttony, and in accordance with the spiritual life: no longer as a substitute for God, but as a sacramental means by which our desire for God is satisfied.
The desire to eat is the desire we experience most often: several times per day, every day. The habits of responding to this desire that we nurture in ourselves determine, therefore, how we will tend to respond to our desires generally. One cannot hope to make any progress in learning to control the more subtle, unconscious desires — the urge to be proud, or to judge others, for example — if he has not first learned to control the simple, tangible desire for food. The simplest and most basic function of fasting is to use hunger to make the body into an alarm clock that reminds us to pray. But at a deeper level, fasting aims to satisfy as much of one’s physical hunger as possible with spiritual nourishment. It seeks to transfigure and to heal the nature of one’s desire, freeing it from the passions and restoring it to desire for God. For all desire is ultimately a desire for God; desires that may appear to have some other object are either spiritually corrupt and a perversion of the desire for God, or, if spiritually pure, an instance of desire for God experienced in the sacramental manner by which we commune with Him. Thus did blessed Augustine write, “A soul that turns away from You therefore lapses into fornication when it seeks apart from You what it can never find… except by returning to You.”
THE PRACTICE OF FASTING: THE SPIRIT OF THE RULE
A careful balance must be maintained in keeping the Church’s fasts, for as in all of the spiritual life it is a question of being obedient not only in deed but in spirit as well. Fasting is an essential discipline of the spiritual life, and there can be no salvation without the spiritual growth that we gain through it. In keeping the fasts, however, we must beware of falling into passive apathy on the one hand and pharisaical zealotry on the other. The Church sets the bar high per the ascetic discipline she requires of us, but this challenge is balanced by practical considerations of the ways each Orthodox Christian develops this discipline over many years, according to the unique circumstances of his life. Fasting is not a toll or a fine paid unto God, nor is it something that earns us God’s favor. It does nothing for God: fasting is a spiritual discipline each Christian keeps for his own benefit. But neither is the degree to which one succeeds at fasting some kind of litmus test that reveals who is, and who is not, a “real” Christian. The labors of the spiritual life are fruitful only when they are practiced for the right reasons, and with pure motives.
If an Orthodox Christian simply ignores the Church’s fasts, this constitutes an obvious sin of disobedience and apathy. So too does the feeble notion of “deciding what to give up for Lent” violate the spirit of the fast. The Church’s rule of fasting is designed to remove sensuous foods from our diet and to make us hungry — if you aren’t hungry, you aren’t fasting! But reducing the discipline to mere dietary regulation is also a failure of the spirit of fasting: we practice fasting not as an end in itself, but as a means of freeing the mind and heart from their preoccupation with sensual self-gratification so that their energies may be directed instead to prayer, almsgiving, and the inner pursuit of communion with God. To succeed in keeping the dietary rule without attending to this redirection of one’s intellectual and spiritual energies is just as much a sin of omission as neglecting the fast altogether.
Yet many amongst the Orthodox Christian laity do not keep the full rule of the fast, without being apathetic or disobedient. As with his rule of prayer, his commitment to almsgiving, and all the rest of the spiritual disciplines, each Christian’s degree of adherence to the Church’s rule of fasting is determined in consultation and dialogue with his spiritual father. When counseling young adults who are relative newcomers to the spiritual life, for example, or when it comes to older adult converts who tend to be overzealous and to chomp at the bit, a spiritual father is likely to start them with a limited, introductory adherence to the rule of fasting. (Even during Great Lent he might instruct them to abstain only from meat, and only on Wednesdays and Fridays, for example. Likewise, he might counsel married couples to practice a similarly limited abstinence from sex when they fast.) Eventually, when and if the spiritual father sees that the fasting is healthy and fruitful, he will over time prescribe an increasingly strict adherence to the rule, developing it as a coach prepares athletes for competition. It is essential to foster a balanced, spiritually healthy asceticism; to practice strict fasting before one has gained a measure of humility, and before his rule of prayer has become well developed, can be spiritually self-destructive! For when we deny ourselves worldly comforts, we force ourselves to search within our own hearts for comfort, instead. But we sinners (especially in the early stages of our spiritual development) will not find peace and comfort within ourselves. We will find only confusion and despair, the existential pain of sin and separation from God against which we have been using worldly pleasure to anesthetize ourselves. Fasting makes us spiritually vulnerable, and if we do not replace food with prayer, calling on Christ as our guide, we might well only open our hearts to the demons and find ourselves replacing the bodily passions with far more dangerous spiritual passions: gluttony and lust giving way to judgmentalism, anger, pride, despondency. It is better not to fast at all than to fast beyond one’s capacity for prayer.
Besides such sins of omission, sins of commission can afflict both those who fast and those who do not, as well. If the Christian neglects the fast knowingly and thoughtfully rather than absent-mindedly, devoting the energy of his mind to justifying his refusal to keep it, compiling a list of excuses and reasons why he is exempt from this essential discipline of the spiritual life, this constitutes an active sin in which he willfully engages. It is also quite common for those who refuse to keep the fasts to counsel others not to fast, for disobedience loves an accomplice.
But most treacherous of all for those who do keep the fasts is the sin of pride. Jesus himself taught us to keep our fasting private, never making a public display of it. We must never refuse the kindness and hospitality of others in the name of fasting, or force our fasting on those in our families (especially children) who do not fast as strictly. Pharisaical displays like these are all but certain to lead us into spiritual pride — again, better not to fast at all! Furthermore we must never judge others for fasting any more or less strictly than we do. Pay no attention to anyone’s fast besides your own, and keep constant watch over your own thoughts against the temptation to think of yourself as some budding spiritual master, or one of the few “real” Christians, when you fast. Fasting is part of our spiritual therapy: we fast because we are spiritually corrupted and diseased. He who fasts, then, is no more a shining example of spiritual health than a cancer patient receiving chemotherapy is a shining example of physical health. Remember too that the self-righteous are the worst of idolaters: the object towards which their spirituality is devoted is not God, but the glorified self.
With all the above said about the spirit of fasting, then, we may address the “letter of the law”: the specific regimen of fasting that the Church prescribes for the faithful.
The Orthodox Church practices two kinds of fasting: the Eucharistic fast, and the ascetic fast. The Eucharistic fast is kept for the last twelve hours or so before we receive the Eucharist, as part of our preparation for it. It requires total abstinence from food, drink, and the pursuit of sensual pleasure and entertainment, beginning at midnight (or even after evening prayers) if the Eucharist is to be received the next morning; it begins at noon (or is kept for the entire day, if you can manage it) if the Eucharist is to be received that evening. Together with the prayers of preparation to receive the Eucharist, the purpose of this fast is to center all one’s expectation and desire upon the Body and Blood of Christ as we ask Him to make us worthy to partake of them.
The ascetical fast, on the other hand, is what has been described above: a time to focus ourselves in mind, body, and spirit on the lifelong process of overcoming sin and growing the likeness of Christ. On days when the Church prescribes ascetical fasting, a vegan diet (no animal products whatsoever) is kept and only one full meal is taken per day, at the Ninth Hour (3pm) or after. On days of strict fasting, the Orthodox Christian also abstains from alcohol, oils, and foods cooked in oil. Days of relaxed fasting permit oils and alcohol in moderation, and in some cases fish is permitted as well. (For a complete explanation of the days on which the fast is kept each year, and how strictly, we refer you to this article on the Abba Moses website.) But in addition to abstaining from unnecessary eating, the Orthodox Christian abstains from other unnecessary worldly activities, as well — entertainment, frivolous socializing and talking, sex, excessive sleep, and so forth — and devotes the time and energy they normally occupy to prayer and almsgiving, instead. In sum, the Orthodox Church prescribes a total of roughly 180 days of fasting each year. These include the fasts kept each week on Wednesdays (in remembrance of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus) and Fridays (in remembrance of Christ’s crucifixion), as well as the four lenten seasons that precede the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, the Feast of the Nativity, and Pascha.