Fasting Is Not The Point Of The Great Fast

Fasting Is Not The Point Of The Great Fast February 20, 2023

No photographer listed: Bread And Scripture / pxhere

With the Great Fast, Lent, it is easy for many, especially those who are new to Lent, or those who have found themselves having some sort of spiritual renaissance in their life, to get so caught up with the fast, and the externals (or rules) used in regards the fast, that they forget what the fast is all about. Fasting should never be the goal. The rules are not absolutes. There many reasons why normative fasting disciplines can be, and should be, dispensed. And for others, the rules do not go far enough, for they have some particular need which leads them to have a stricter fasting regimen; when this happens, they should not end up thinking their exceptional case should become normative for all, nor should they use it to judge themselves as better, or holier, than others. What fasting should do is help us discipline ourselves, and through such discipline, find a way to become better persons, even as we grow spiritually.

Fasting is a tool. We should use it to help us learn how to control ourselves and our worst impulses. We should realize that we don’t have to engage every single want our desire we have, because, though they might indicate some real substantial good, they can become unbalanced and take control of our lives if we don’t moderate them. We should not support a libertarian outlook which says we should do whatever we like to do without consideration of others or the harm which we can cause, not only to others, but to ourselves, when we act without proper discernment. If we can train ourselves with fasting, that is, if we can learn how to control ourselves in and through our eating habits, we can use that example to show us how we can gain control of ourselves in other, more difficult situations and temptations.

When, instead of being understood as a relative good and a tool to help direct us to some greater good, fating becomes misunderstood and treated as some goal in and of itself, it can then be used, not for our own well-being, but our own detriment. We will cut ourselves too much from the food which we need to sustain ourselves, and when we do that for too long, we risk doing great harm to ourselves. We might even break down as a result. Or, strange enough, we might become addicted to the experiences we have when fasting, and so instead of training ourselves how to overcome addictions and take control of our lives, we might just be replacing our attachments with new ones, showing we have not properly leaned what we should from fasting.  Thus, instead of training ourselves to move beyond bad habits, we become attached, once again, to a way of doing things without reflection, and this time, we think we are doing good and praise ourselves for what we have done. This is not how it should be. We certainly should not be praising ourselves, nor should we look for the praise of others, but if we do, it is likely we will get the reward we seek, the brief joy of the accolades we receive. That, however, will be it; we will not get anything else, anything substantial from our fast, which is why Jesus said:

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).

Abba Thomas, talking to St. John Cassian, reiterated this point. Fasting should be done, not for its own sake, but as a way to get control of ourselves so that we can then act upon and embrace the virtues, such as mercy, patience, and love:

For mercy, patience, and love, as well as the precepts of the aforementioned virtues, in which the good is an essential one, are not to be exercised on account of fasting, but rather fasting on account of them. An effort must be made to acquire by fasting those virtues which are truly good, and not to turn the exercise of the virtues towards the goal of fasting. The affliction of the flesh is beneficial and the medicine of hunger should be taken in order that thereby we might attain love. Therein lies the permanent good, which is stable and not subject to the vicissitudes of time. [1]

If we fast for glory, we are not embracing the virtues, and so all our fast does is cause us pain and sorrow for no good reason. Truly, the point is to make sure we do not end up becoming selfish,  using and consuming the world around us at the expense of others. If we love someone, we will take care of them and do good for them, even if it comes at our expense; training ourselves to deny ourselves through fasting helps us learn how to properly deny ourselves; it helps us make sure we can focus on what is good and true, which means, it should help us realize our work should be for the promotion of the common good. We can gain greater patience, we can learn how to be more merciful to others, by fasting, because we learn how to deny ourselves and wait for food and what it is like to experience hunger pains, and so find ourselves sympathizing with those who needlessly hunger all the time. Fasting, in this way, helps us join in solidarity with those who are poor and needy, to care about them and their wants and needs. This is what fasting is for. It helps us move beyond a selfish mode of living, so that we can truly give of ourselves to others. Thus, the self-denial found in fasting is always for a point, that is, it is for our spiritual growth; it is not to become or encourage some sort of nihilistic act of self-destruction.

Thus, as Abba Thomas, also says, fasting is like any and other such disciplines. It is to be put in practice properly, understanding the discipline is meant to help us grow, and through such growth, find ourselves becoming better, similar to the way others, such as smiths, develop their skills:

For the disciplines of medicine, goldsmithing, and the other skills that exist in this world are not pursued for the sake of the instruments that pertain to the work, but rather the tools are made for the sake of the skill. As these are useful to experts, so they are useless to those who are not acquainted with the discipline of the skill. And as these are of great assistance to the former, who make good use of them to accomplish their work, so they can be of no assistance at all to the latter, who, ignorant of the reason why they were designed, are content just with possessing them, because they place the sum of their usefulness in merely having them and not achieving a task. [2]

Thus, fasting is not the point of the Great Fast, rather it is what we can gain from fasting which should be the point. We should take the time of the Great Fast to develop ourselves, to grow, especially in our love, so we can reach out towards others a better, much more caring and sympathetic way. We should also use fasting as a way to help us understand how to limit ourselves so we can better give of ourselves to others. We should not, therefore, challenge each other to see who can fast the best by eating the least amount of food; rather, we should encourage each other to use the time of the Great Fast the best we can, to see how we can take its themes and disciplines as a way to become better, more loving persons.

[1] St John Cassian, The Conferences. Trans. Boniface Ramsay, OP (New York: Newman Press, 1997), 731-2 [Twenty-First Conference Of Abba Thomas On The Relaxation Of Pentecost].

[2] St John Cassian, The Conferences, 732 [Twenty-First Conference Of Abba Thomas On The Relaxation Of Pentecost].


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