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Fasting

Jesus Him­self fast­ed and taught His dis­ci­ples to fast.

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 their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fast­ing may not be seen by men, but your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16–18)

The pur­pose of fast­ing is to gain mas­tery over one­self and to con­quer the pas­sions of the flesh. It is to lib­er­ate one­self from depen­dence on the things of this world in order to con­cen­trate on the things of the King­dom of God. It is to give pow­er to the soul so that it would not yield to temp­ta­tion and sin. Accord­ing to St. Seraphim, fast­ing is an “indis­pens­able means” of gain­ing the fruit of the Holy Spir­it in one’s life (cf. Con­ver­sa­tion with Motovilov), and Jesus Him­self taught that some forms of evil can­not be con­quered with­out it (Matthew 17:21, Mark 9:29)

Man does not fast because it pleas­es God if His ser­vants do not eat, for, as the lenten hymns of the Church remind us, “the dev­il also nev­er eats.” (Lenten Tri­o­di­on) Nei­ther do men fast in order to afflict them­selves with suf­fer­ing and pain, for God has no plea­sure in the dis­com­fort of His peo­ple. Nei­ther do men fast with the idea that their hunger and thirst can some­how serve as a “repa­ra­tion” for their sins. Such an under­stand­ing is nev­er giv­en in the scrip­tures or the writ­ings of the saints which claim that there is no “repa­ra­tion” for man’s sin but the cru­ci­fix­ion of Christ. Sal­va­tion is a “free gift of God” which no “works” of man can accom­plish of mer­it. (cf. Romans 5:15–17, Eph­esians 2:8–9)

Men fast, there­fore, and must fast, only to be deliv­ered from car­nal pas­sions so that the free gift of sal­va­tion in Christ might pro­duce great fruit in their lives. Men fast so that they might more effec­tive­ly serve God who loves them and has saved them in Christ and the Spir­it. Fast­ing with­out effort in virtue is whol­ly in vain.

Why have we fast­ed, and Thou seest it not? Why have we hum­bled our­selves, and Thou tak­est no knowl­edge of it?

Behold, in the day of your fast, you seek your own plea­sure and oppress all your work­ers. Behold, you fast only to quar­rel and fight…Fasting like yours… will not make your voice to be heard on high.

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness…to let the oppressed go free…is it not to share your bread with the hun­gry, and bring the home­less poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cov­er them…

Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your heal­ing shall spring up speed­i­ly; your right­eous­ness shall go before you, the glo­ry of the Lord shall pro­tect you. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; then you shall cry, and He will say: Here I am. (Isa­iah 58:3–9)

Fast­ing in the body, O brethren, let us also fast from sin.” This is the Church’s song in the lenten sea­son of fast­ing. It is also the teach­ing of the saints.

…in fast­ing one must not only obey the rule against glut­tony in regard to food, but refrain from every sin so that, while fast­ing, the tongue may also fast, refrain­ing from slan­der, lies, evil talk­ing, degrad­ing one’s broth­er, anger and every sin com­mit­ted by the tongue. One should also fast with the eyes, that is, not look at vain things…not look shame­ful­ly or fear­less­ly at any­one. The hands and feet should also be kept from every evil action.

When one fasts through van­i­ty or think­ing that he is achiev­ing some­thing espe­cial­ly vir­tu­ous, he fasts fool­ish­ly and soon begins to crit­i­cize oth­ers and to con­sid­er him­self some­thing great.

A man who fasts wisely…wins puri­ty and comes to humility…and proves him­self a skill­ful builder. (St. Abba Dorotheus, 7th c., Direc­tions on Spir­i­tu­al Training)

Saint Paul him­self fast­ed, and in his teach­ing on food insists that men fast and do so in secret, with­out mutu­al inspec­tion and judgment.

Brethren, join in imi­tat­ing me, and mark those who so live as you have an exam­ple in us. For many of whom I have often told you and now tell you with tears, live as ene­mies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruc­tion, their god is their bel­ly, and they glo­ry in their shame, with minds set on earth­ly things. (Philip­pi­ans 3:17–19)

All things are law­ful for me, but not all things are help­ful. All things are law­ful for me, but I will not be enslaved by any­thing. Food is meant for the stom­ach, and the stom­ach for food — and God will destroy both one and the oth­er. The body is not meant for immoral­i­ty but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. (I Corinthi­ans 6:12–13)

Let not him who eats despise him who abstains, and let not him who abstains, pass judg­ment on him who eats, for God has wel­comed him. Who are you to pass judg­ment on the ser­vant of another?

He who observes the day, observes it in hon­or of the Lord. He also who eats, eats in hon­or of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; while he who abstains, abstains in hon­or of the Lord and gives thanks to God.

Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of him for whom Christ has died… for the King­dom of God does not mean food and drink, but right­eous­ness and peace and joy in the Holy Spir­it, he who thus serves Christ is accept­able to God and approved by men.

Do not for the sake of food destroy the work of God…the faith that you have keep between your­self and God…whatever does not pro­ceed from faith (whether eat­ing or abstain­ing) is sin. (cf Romans 14)

The spir­i­tu­al fathers, as strict­ly ascetic as they were, are very clear in their teach­ing about fast­ing. They insist with the Lord and the scrip­tures that men must fast in order to be free from pas­sions and lust. But they insist as well that the most crit­i­cal thing is to be free from all sin, includ­ing the pride, van­i­ty and hypocrisy which comes through fool­ish and sin­ful fasting.

…eat­ing beyond the point of being sat­is­fied is the door of mad­ness through which lust enters, for the bel­ly is the queen of pas­sions which man serves as a slave.

But you, firm in this knowl­edge, choose what is best for you, accord­ing to your own powers…for the per­fect per­son, accord­ing to Saint Paul ought both “to be full and be hungry…and do all things through Christ who strength­ens (Philip­pi­ans 4:12–13)

Thus a man who strives for salvation…must not allow him­self to eat to fullness…but should still eat all kinds of food so that on the one hand he avoid boast­ful pride and on the oth­er not show dis­dain for God’s cre­ation which is most excellent…Such is the rea­son­ing of those who are wise! (St. Gre­go­ry of Sinai, Instruc­tion to Hesychasts)

St. Isaac of Syr­ia says, “Mea­ger food at the table of the pure cleans­es the soul of those who par­take from all passion…for the work of fast­ing and vig­il is the begin­ning of every effort against sin and lust…almost all pas­sion­ate dri­ves decrease through fasting.”

For the holy fathers taught us to be killers of pas­sions and not killers of the body. Par­take of every­thing that is per­mis­si­ble with thanks­giv­ing, to the glo­ry of God and to avoid boast­ful arro­gance; but refrain from every excess. (The Monks Cal­lis­tus and Ignatius, 14th c., Direc­tions to Hesychasts)

If such is the teach­ing to hesy­chast monks, it is cer­tain­ly applic­a­ble to all Chris­tians as well. The whole essence of the mat­ter is put sim­ply and clear­ly in these two short sto­ries from the fathers of the desert.

A cer­tain broth­er brought fresh loaves of bread and invit­ed his elders. When they had eat­en much, the broth­er, know­ing their tra­vail of absti­nence, began humbly to beg them to eat more. “For God’s sake, eat this day and be filled.” And they ate anoth­er ten. Behold how these that were true monks and sin­cere in absti­nence did eat more than they need­ed, for the sake of God.

Epipha­nius, bish­op of Cyprus, called the abbot Hilar­i­on to see him. A por­tion of fowl was set be- fore them and the bish­op invit­ed the abbot to eat. The old man said, “For­give me, Father, but since the time I took this habit I have nev­er eat­en any­thing that has been killed.”

And Epipha­nius said to him, “And from the time I took this habit I have let no man sleep who has any­thing against me, and nei­ther have I slept hold­ing any­thing against anyone.”

And the old man said to him, “For­give me, Father, for your way of life is greater than mine.” (The Say­ings of the Fathers)