Fasting March 10, 2020

Prierlechapelet: Fasting / pixabay

Self-control, that is, self-discipline, is a difficult thing to learn (especially when we live in an era which tells us to follow our desires without restraint).  And yet, learning such discipline is an important part of proper self-development. To become good at some particular skill requires an investment in time and effort where we put aside many of our wants and desires which would get in the way of acquiring the proficiencies which we desire for ourselves. Thus, for example, athletes have to follow specific diets and activities which require prevent them from many other activities while in the midst of their training.

Spiritually speaking, we must learn to discipline ourselves, indeed, discipline our bodies, so that we can grow spiritually strong. The flesh is full of desires; the desires themselves are not bad, but the way we try to engage them can become bad. Giving into the desires of the flesh without moderation will hurt the body even as it weakens our connection with our spiritual side. Thus, when we think about eating, the problem is not eating, but eating either too little or too much. In either extreme, our body will grow sluggish. When we do not know how to properly take care of ourselves we find ourselves to be in trouble. “Hunger is a sickness of nature, and food is the medicine for it. Therefore the pleasure that comes with it is not a sin, insofar as it is natural and needful; but when it passes into lust and the wish for pleasure, then it is sin.”[1]

The key is to recognize our needs and to know when our body, with the pleasures it can give us, will lead us astray if we let it take full control of activities instead of tempering it with discipline. Spiritually speaking, when the body gains too much control over what we do, our will, our self-control, indeed our spirit is weakened. This is because we end up focusing upon only our physical desires and pleasures, going after them without end, we lose sight of our whole person and the greater good which lies beyond such physical needs.

We all share a common desire to eat, and to enjoy what we eat. This is not bad, but it can become bad if we let it consume our activities so that we become hedonists looking only for epicurean delights in the world. We need to gain control over ourselves and our eating habits instead of letting them control us. Sometimes, though, our desires come from some other source, as various eating disorders show, and people are become addicted to the sensations they receive from under-eating. This is why our concern is not just about over-eating, but under-eating as well.

While there are many ways we can and should learn to discipline ourselves, one of the universal ways encouraged for such self-discipline is fasting; fasting, to be sure, should be seen less about food and whether or not we eat and more about how we discipline ourselves and our eating habits. Generally, we fast, we eat less, in order to learn how to control ourselves so that we do not become slaves to food and drink. But for those who suffer from eating disorders, the spirit of fasting is found in those who combat their eating disorder and actually learn how to eat and overcome the passions and habits which have led them to such a self-destructive engagement with themselves.

Fasting, then, is not about self-destruction. Rather, it is about finding a way to build ourselves up, freeing our will from its enslavement of bodily habits. It must never be used to reinforce bad ideas about food or drink.  “With regard to self-control in eating, we must never feel loathing for any kind of food, for to do so is abominable and utterly demonic. It is emphatically not because any kind of food is bad in itself that we refrain from it.” [2] It would be better not to fast than to misconstrue what it means to fast and use fasting to nihilistically deny our own needs. There typically are general rules which are used to show us how to fast, but we must remember, there can be and often are exceptions to those rules. Those who are starving and are offered food can eat that food without worry about whether or not they should fast (thus, saintly monks who have been known to fast throughout the year have been known to eat meat in times of fast because of some extreme need).

We must understand that the point of fasting, even when it is done as an act of penance, is to help us to become holistic in our lives, to bring together our bodily and spiritual sides, and let them merge together and act as one. It is meant to lift us up. It should not make us morose, but rather, through such discipline, we should learn how to free ourselves from only following the direction of our inordinate passions. Fasting should help us find the moderation which we need between over-eating and under-eating, between two forms of eating disorders, so that through it we can make our body as healthy as possible without it taking control of our lives. St. Hildegard, like Siddhārtha before her, understanding this, says to us

No one should play a lyre in such a way that its strings are damaged. If its strings have been damaged, what sound will it make? None. You, gluttony, fill your belly so much that all your veins are bloated and are turned into a frenzy. Where then is the sweet sound of the wisdom that God gave man? You are mute and blind and you do not know what you are saying. Just as heavy rain destroys the earth, so also excess meat and wine lead man into blasphemies of mockery. I, however, saw a beautiful form in the mud as God put man together. I am, therefore, like a soft rain so that man does not have to sprout weeds. I draw moderation out of men so that their flesh does not revolt and burst, having been flooded with more lifegiving food than it needs. For I am a lyre sounding praises and piercing the hardness of heart with good will. For when a man feeds his body moderately, I reverberate like a lyre with his praises in heaven. When he feeds his body temperately with modest food, I sing accompanied with musical instruments. [3]

When we let our body direct us without any restraint, without any self-control, our focus will be on the body and we will lose out on much of what is going on around us and within us. We will lose sight of our ourselves and limit ourselves to only a part of who we are. The body, then, becomes like a veil which covers our spiritual side. Thus, St. Symeon the New Theologian relates that fasting should serve as a way to remove that veil:

Fasting gradually disperses and drives away spiritual darkness and the veil of sin that lies on the soul, just as the sun dispels the mist. Fasting enables us spiritually to see that spiritual air in which Christ, the sun, who knows no setting, does not rise, but shines without ceasing. Fasting aided by vigil, penetrates and softens harness of heart. [4]

Sin, when repeated, forms bad habits. By taking control of ourselves with fasting, we can dispel various bad habits and the thought processes which come from them, finding ourselves freer to discern reality as it is, as Pope Benedict XVI explains:

The faithful practice of fasting contributes, moreover, to conferring unity to the whole person, body and soul, helping to avoid sin and grow in intimacy with the Lord. Saint Augustine, who knew all too well his own negative impulses, defining them as “twisted and tangled knottiness” (Confessions, II, 10.18), writes: “I will certainly impose privation, but it is so that he will forgive me, to be pleasing in his eyes, that I may enjoy his delightfulness” (Sermo 400, 3, 3: PL 40, 708). Denying material food, which nourishes our body, nurtures an interior disposition to listen to Christ and be fed by His saving word. Through fasting and praying, we allow Him to come and satisfy the deepest hunger that we experience in the depths of our being: the hunger and thirst for God.[5]

We must remember what fasting can and cannot do. Fasting itself, as with other forms of self-discipline, is a practice which is to be put into our service, to help us grow in spirit. It should never be seen as our goal. Fasting is a tool, not an end in and of itself. Our goal should be to become partakers of the divine nature, to experience the kingdom of God. All forms of self-discipline should be employed as ways to initiate our progress towards that goal: “Fasting is good and so are vigils, ascetic practice and voluntary exile. But all these things are but the start, the prelude to citizenship in heaven, so that it is altogether senseless to put one’s trust merely in them.” [6] And so, just as eating is good, when it is done with its proper purpose and use, but becomes a problem when it becomes our goal in life, so fasting can become a problem if we take it as our goal, for then it becomes another inordinate passion which leaves us acting unholistically and failing to go on and search for the transcendent good. Indeed, as the pleasures of life itself are goods given to us by God, we should accept them for the goods which they are, and not reject them; we should see them as gifts given to us to help us until we find and receive something greater:

It is in no way contrary to the principles of true knowledge to eat and drink from all that is set before you, giving thanks to God; for ‘everything is very good’ (cf. Gen. 1:31). But gladly to abstain from eating too pleasurably or too much shows greater discrimination and understanding. However, we shall not gladly detach ourselves from the pleasures of this life unless we have fully and consciously tasted the sweetness of God.[7]

This is also why, when we fast, we should fast in as proper a fashion as possible. We should not focus ourselves on the fasting and try to gain accolades from others for engaging some sort of extreme fast. Rather, we should try to fast while appearing to be no different than those who are not fasting:

And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matt. 6: 16-18 RSV).

Fasting is a good tool. It helps us learn self-discipline. It helps us overcome an unbalanced way of life. It helps the spirit become elevated as it frees itself from the slavery of the body. Fasting is not about denial of food or drink, of rejecting our necessities for life, nor even the pleasures which come from them, but rather, it is about helping us not become overly attached to them. The proper fast is one which remembers the goal is not the fast, but what we want out of the fast: a better relationship with the world around us, and the slow realization of the spiritual reality that we have otherwise not perceived so that we can experience the greater good of God himself. Thus, when we fast, if it helps make us better persons, we are doing it right; but if we find it is making us bitter, more cantankerous, even if we are following the letter of the law, the fast is not right. Then, we need to find some other discipline to follow to make us better.[8]

[1] Walter Hilton, The Scale of Perfection. Trans. John P.H. Clark and Rosemary Dorward (New York: Paulist Press, 1991), 145.

[2] St. Diadochos of Photiki, “On Spiritual Knowledge,” The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume One. Trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, Kallistos Ware et. al. (London: Faber and Faber, 1983), 266 [#43].

[3] St. Hildegard of Bingen, The Book of the Rewards of Life. Trans. Bruce W. Hozeski (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 74-5.

[4] St. Symeon the New Theologian, The Discourses. Trans. C.J. deCatanzaro (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 168 [Discourse XI].

[5] Pope Benedict XVI, “Message for Lent 2009.” Vatican translation.

[6] St. Symeon Metaphrastis, “Paraphrase of the Homilies of St. Makarios of Egypt” in The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume Three. Trans and ed. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware, et. al. (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), 335 [V: Love].

[7] St. Diadochos of Photiki, “On Spiritual Knowledge,” 266 [#44].

[8] Remembering the spirit of the fast should help us answer questions such as whether or not we can eat meat substitutes during a fast. Those who would object to such meat substitutes during fasting times, saying they go against the spirit of the fast, are themselves going against the spirit of the fast by judging others for what they eat. For some, perhaps, the substitutes are not sufficient, but for others, for many others, they are. By eating such substitutes, we become more in tune with what we eat, the consequences of what we eat, and the need to reform ourselves and our eating habits so that we become less of a burden on the world around us. Is that not in the spirit of the fast itself?


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