The Tool Is Not The Goal

The Tool Is Not The Goal November 7, 2022

No Photographer Mentioned: Fasting Is A Tool Like A Raft / pxhere

A time of fasting is a time of preparation. However invaluable fasting, or any other ascetic discipline, can be, we must remember the point behind doing them. They should be done for our own benefit. They are meant to be tools which are to be used when needed, and not as a way of trying to make ourselves look great in front of others. They don’t have any particular significance in and of themselves as if they are goals we should attain. They are means to help us silence ourselves, to overcome whatever inclinations of the body and soul which distract us from our own personal development. They are meant to help us keep in control of ourselves instead of finding ourselves enslaved by our passions. What we need to do is shift what holds our focus in our lives, and fasting, and similar ascetic disciplines, help us do just that.

When we fast, we do so, not because what we abstain from is not good in and of itself, but rather, because often that good can overwhelm us and have us ignore other, similar, sometimes even better goods. That is, though we can understand the good of food, we must not become so consumed with food that we ignore other aspects of our lives. And while we might not think we do so, fasting often proves to us the contrary. So, through fasting, as with other ascetic disciplines, we learn more about ourselves and the various ways our unconscious desires influence our lives. It allows us to take better measure of ourselves, to truly come to know ourselves better. We see this is true, not just in the spiritual realm, but in and with medicine, as doctors will often  have us fast in order to get a better sense of what is and is not happening in our bodies.

Thus, fasting, and other similar disciplines, can be helpful tools, preparing us for what is to come next in our lives. Jesus began his ministry with his own fast, a fast which led him to experience and realize the temptations inherent in the human condition:  “And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him” (Mk. 1:13 RSV). Unsurprisingly, this made Jesus hungry: “And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit  for forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing in those days; and when they were ended, he was hungry” (Lk. 4:1-2 RSV). He was hungry. He let himself become hungry, so that through such hunger, he could be in solidarity with the poor, the homeless, that is those who found hunger as a significant concern for their life and existence.  Though there were many ways he could have engaged his hunger, such as by eating, he did not, for he truly wanted to take on the human condition and be one with the most vulnerable in society.

We, too, often find ourselves called to experience a forty day fast, connecting ourselves with Jesus and his fast. Our fast might not be extreme, indeed, it most likely is not, nor is it expected to be. However we engage it, we should use the time to refocus ourselves, to see the temptations which come to us in our lives and fight them while also finding a way to better attune ourselves to the world around us so that we can be open to the needs of others and share with them the gifts, and grace, we have received.  In doing so, we should not treat what we do as special, for if we did so, we would embrace pride and through that pride, we would not really be open to all that God has in store for us. Thus, when Abba Sarmatas went on his own forty day fast, he told Abba Poemen there was nothing special about it; all that he learned how to do was to go to sleep or wake up whenever he wanted to do so:

They said of Abba Sarmatas that on Abba Poemen’s advice, he was often alone for forty days. He completed this time as though he had done nothing special. Abba Poemen went to see him and said to him, ‘Tell me what you have seen by giving yourself such great hardship.’ The other man said to him, ‘Nothing special.’ Abba Poemen said to him, ‘I shall not go till you tell me.’ Then he said, ‘I have discovered one simple thing: that if I say to my sleep, “Go,” it goes, and if I say to it, “Come,” it comes.[1]

We can only imagine what led to this response. Abba Sarmatas was alone for forty days; he was, as a monk, engaging all kinds of ascetic discipline. He was fasting. He was praying. He was singing psalms. He left himself open to accept whatever God would reveal to him. He probably found himself tired often. He probably had to confront the so-called noonday demon which would encourage him to give up. He fought the temptations which came upon him, and in the end, was victorious against them. He didn’t gain a special revelation or experience of God, but he did gain wisdom from his experience,  probably of a kind of which he was not looking and yet needed. For, with such a victory, he found a way to use his time properly, not letting sloth get the best of him.  What he learned was not something we would consider special, and yet, in reality, it was. How many of us have the strength and endurance Sarmatas displayed? It also seems that during his ascetic discipline, Sarmatas learned to accept the needs of the body, to give it its due, including its rest, which is why he told another monk: “When you are hungry, eat; when you are thirsty, drink; when you are drowsy, sleep.”[2] It is not good to deny oneself what is necessary, for if we deny what is necessary, we will destroy ourselves by the vainglory and pride which encourages us to embrace such an extreme  course of action.

It can be good to silence ourselves, to cut ourselves off for a time from the world and all that is in it. In this manner, we can better understand our imbalanced relationship with the world and God. And yet, we must always remember, when we do this, we are embracing a tool which is to help prepare us for the next stage in our spiritual journey. The tool is not the goal. When we have to get to the other side of a river, we might use a raft to do so; once we have crossed over, we don’t put the raft on our back and continue to take it with us, because if we did, the tool would then become a burden. We must remember that ascetic disciplines of any sort is like the raft, a tool which has limited value; it should be used to prepare ourselves to accept what God would have us to learn, never expecting or demanding from God the response we will get from God.

[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 225-6 [Abba Sarmatas 2].

[2] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 226 [From Abba Sarmatas 3].


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