It would be hard to consider developing an Orthodox spirituality rooted in the practice of the Church throughout the ages without introducing the practice of fasting. It was Jesus Christ Himself who said, ‘When you fast...’, not ‘If you fast...’.
In the West the concept of self-denial sits ill at ease with the dominant philosophy of ‘do what you want’. But the results are all around us in growing levels of obesity among young and old, and an increasing preoccupation with our personal appearance, and the satisfaction of self.
For the first fifteen-hundred years of Christianity almost everyone, everywhere, would have been able to describe how and when fasting should be conducted. But in the twenty-first century it is only within Orthodoxy that fasting is consistently encouraged and promoted, and its proper place in the development of spirituality understood.
Why do we fast?
Before we begin to fast we should understand why we are fasting. It is not to earn favour with God. Nothing we can do can make God love us more than He does, or make us worthy in our own strength of any blessing. However much we fast there are always those in the world around us who eat less, either through choice with the aim of looking slimmer and being healthier, or through need and lack of food.
In the sense in which it is used in the Orthodox Churches, fasting means to abstain from certain types of foods, and to go without all food for a certain amount of time.
The aim of fasting is to help us expose those things to which we are addicted, whether food, or drink, or the TV, or other people’s attention, or any other addiction. Fasting helps us to develop a proper balance so that we become spiritual people who rule over our bodies, rather than mere animals whose bodily appetites rule over our spirits.
When we fast we learn self-control, and when we abstain from food for a while we make time for prayer and other spiritual activities, such as Sacred Reading. We might also find that we save money which can be used for some charitable end.
Fasting is not looked upon as a punishment, indeed many Orthodox Christians look forward to the seasons of fasting as being a time of joy since they are times when we especially concentrate on spiritual things and on developing a right relationship within ourselves, with others and with God.
It is only by learning to say ‘No’ to ourselves that we are able to say ‘Yes’ to God.
How do we fast?
It is not necessary to introduce all at once the complete calendar of Fasting which is practiced in the Orthodox Church. Not only would this be rather daunting, but it would also present the wrong impression. Fasting is not a matter of success of failure, it is a matter of learning and growth. Therefore it is better to practice a little fasting and develop some small measure of self-control and extra devotion in prayer, than to try to fast in the same way as the most experienced monk, either failing, and giving way to despair, or even worse, succeeding and giving way to pride.
When we fast we eat less than normal, and usually later in the day than normal, and from a vegan diet. The aim should be to introduce a little tension, a little sense of conflict between the desire to eat and the desire to control ourselves. This is how we are able to commit ourselves to God and seek His grace to grow in the knowledge of ourselves and of His will.
If we are not engaging in fasting with prayer and dependence on God then we are wasting our time. We will only grow proud of our success, when we should be giving the glory to God.
It is always best to try and seek the advice of a priest when we are fasting, because the priest will be able to help us be sure that we are not trying to fast as an exercise of self-righteousness, and that we are not trying to fast beyond our ability and experience. But even without such personal advice there are some clear guidelines that are applicable to all Christians who are seeking to deepen their spiritual life through the practice of fasting. The most important lesson is that we must always offer our fasting, and all of our spiritual exercises to God, and pray earnestly to Him asking for grace to enter into them.
i. We should fast with moderation.
There is no value in deciding at the very beginning that we will fast until sunset and then eat only a bowl of uncooked vegetables, since if we have not fasted before we will likely find that by 10 am we will be feeling very hungry and the thought of waiting till sunset will discourage us rather than give us the strength to persevere.
St. Benedict says of fasting during Lent simply that it is an occasion for his followers to increase somewhat their prayers and abstinence in food and drink. He does not choose to make any particular prescription. And it was the normal practice for his followers to eat a single meal at noon during the Winter or in the mid-afternoon during the Summer. He never advocates an excess of austerity because it tends not to build up the spiritual life any more than an excess of indulgence. He chooses the middle way of moderation.
Likewise when St Maelruain, one of the most famous of Irish saints and teachers proposes that his followers develop their practice of fasting by increasing their strictness over a matter of many years. In fact the Irish practice of fasting was stricter than that of St Benedict, but it even allowed for the eating of meat during Lent if that was all the food that was available.
Other examples of moderation could be easily found. In fasting the saying, ‘slow and steady wins the race’ is especially applicable.
Therefore be moderate. Begin with fasting until noon perhaps, or even 11 am if that is appropriate to your experience. Begin by eating only a vegan diet on fasting days if you can, or at least abstaining from meat. At the beginning it is the exercise of self-control which is most important, though there are very good reasons why animal products are avoided on fasting days. If you cannot talk easily with anyone then make sure that you pray before you fast, asking for wisdom and discretion.
ii. We should choose which days we will fast beforehand.
The Church has, over the centuries, developed a calendar of fasting. This is naturally embraced by those who have been brought up in an Orthodox culture, and in a context where all of the food at certain times of the year will be fasting food. It is easier to fast when everyone around you is fasting.
For those of us in Britain, only just beginning to experience Orthodox spirituality, it is harder. There are many days each year when an Orthodox Christian will be encouraged to fast in some degree. But it is not sensible for someone to begin with such a calendar. Indeed many members of the British Orthodox Church are still striving to embrace the fasting calendar a little more each passing year.
This is not a sign of weakness and failure, but a mark of the spiritual growth which is being experienced. It is possible to be a little stricter each year, and that is all that is required, a continuing effort. Those who show even a little commitment will be blessed and will discover that even their little efforts are rewarded and should be considered a victory over self-will.
But it is sensible to have clear dates when we will try to fast, otherwise we will have a rather casual attitude and it will not seem important if we do not persevere on a particular day.
From the very beginning of the Church it has been the practice of faithful Christians to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. Why not begin there? It is only one day at a time, so it is not too great a commitment, but equally the opportunity keeps presenting itself to enter into the pratice of fasting.
During the season of Great Lent, which lasts until the Feast of the Resurrection, we should certainly try to make some change in our eating habits each, day, even if we are beginning to fast strictly on Wednesdays and Thursdays. The avoidance of all meat and meat products would be achievable by most, and would itself be a significant commitment for those who have not fasted for such a long period before.
iii. We should change our behaviour on fasting days.
A fast day should involve more than simply eating later and abstaining from meat and dairy products. Indeed our fasting might begin by being a day when we eat later, or it might be a day when we eat at the same time but only from vegan fare.
But however we begin to exercise self-control it is important that we increase our spiritual activity at the same time. If we only eat a little less then we are no different than someone who is dieting.
During a period of fasting we will experience a greater degree of spiritual conflict. Satan does not want us to fast. He does not want us to become self-controlled and offer our bodies as a sacrifice to God. So it is important and necessary that we pray, and that we pray even more than normal.
If you do not normally pray in the morning then try to make sure you do so on a fasting day, it is as important for our spiritual well-being as nutritionists tell us breakfast is for our physical well-being. If you normally pray in the morning then also try to pray, however briefly at lunchtime. Use the Jesus Prayer through the day and try to be aware of the presence of God with you.
In the evening try to pray again, and reflect on how the day has passed. Did you find it hard to fast? Which time of day was most difficult? Did other issues come to the fore while you were abstaining from eating? Prayerfully thank God for the positive experiences and ask His help in the future for those things that were more negative.
Finally, think of others while you are fasting. We should not let others know we are fasting, but they should find us more concerned for their welfare, more thoughtful, more giving of ourselves and our time.
For Orthodox Christians the experience of fasting is something joyful and a blessing, even when it raises other issues of self-centredness and self-indulgence which we need to deal with. Fasting is part of the spiritual fitness regime which has been encouraged in the Church since the beginning.
However simply and moderately we begin it is the beginning and the sticking at it that counts, the offering of ourselves that God rewards.
Of course it must be also said that pregnant and nursing mothers, the sick and the elderly should all exercise discretion when fasting. It is the spirit of godly self-discipline which pleases God and if fasting will make us unwell because of our health or circumstances then we should not fast in this way but should find other ways to develop our self-control and self-sacrifice towards God.
May the Lord grant us the blessing of this holy season, and the strength to persist in this spiritual exercise, for our own salvation and the glory of God. Amen.