Why We Fast

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I was asked last year by an acquaintance in town: “Does your Church observe Lent?”

I quickly explained that we did. I was then asked how our Church fasted, and I explained something of the general outlines of Orthodox fasting. They then said to me that they needed their nourishment and instead had taken up walking every day as a Lenten discipline. The conversation ended with some pleasantries.

Why do Orthodox fast?

Fasting is far older than Christianity, and has taken various forms, from abstaining from certain foods (as we now do), eating less (as we also do), or refraining from food altogether (which is rarely done except by some monks). Some say that the first fast was commanded by God in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve were told that they could eat everything they wanted except fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is also said that the first sin was mankind’s rejection of the fast that God had set. That is true to a degree but the story of Adam and Eve is far richer than the fast that was part of it.

So why do we fast?

Christ Himself fasted and said that His disciples would fast. But what is its point? It can be said that fasting is to the body what prayer is to the soul. We are frequently ruled by our bodies and the demands they make. We do not like to deny them anything, whether it be food, experience, or any other desire. The simple practice of denying food to ourselves, first in the kinds of foods eaten, and also in the amount we eat. Bringing our body and our will into greater submission to God strengthens us in the work of repentance.

But the fast of Great Lent is far more than changing our eating habits. It includes increasing our time at prayer. The services are longer and we should make every effort to attend – at least more services than we have been attending. Fasting includes what we do with the goods of this world. Denying ourselves the benefit of our own riches, we share them with those who have less. This action conforms our heart to the heart of God and teaches us compassion. The fast extends even beyond these few examples. St. John Chrysostom, writing in the early fifth century offered these thoughts on the Lenten fast:

Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works.

If you see a poor man, take pity on him.If you see a friend being honored, do not envy him.

Do not let only your mouth fast, but also the eye and the ear and the feet and the hands and all the members of our bodies.

Let the hands fast, by being free of avarice.

Let the feet fast, by ceasing to run after sin.

Let the eyes fast, by disciplining them not to glare at that which is sinful.

Let the ear fast, by not listening to evil talk and gossip.

Let the mouth fast from foul words and unjust criticism.

For what good is it if we abstain from birds and fishes, but bite and devour our brothers?

May He who came to the world to save sinners strengthen us to complete the fast with humility, have mercy on us and save us.

19 Responses to “Why We Fast”

  1. Eric Says:

    Father Stephen,

    “refraining from food altogether (which is rarely done except by some monks” – Why is this rerely done anymore as a spiritual discipline?

  2. -C Says:

    Important and timely.
    Thank you for this post, Father.

  3. fatherstephen Says:

    There are a few days when we abstain from all food for most of the day (til sundown). Primarily it is not done as much as a spiritual discipline, because it requires watching. If you’re going to fast like a monk, then you should pray like a monk, or it can be useless or even harmful. The fast as it is practiced in parishes is entirely sufficient in its rigor for the life we lead.

    If you are young you can do some of these things with greater ease (great ascetic feats) but do not have the interior life to support it so you inevitably run into spiritual trouble (pride, delusion, etc.).

    I always ask my catechumens to begin the fast very simply, and learn to pray and give alms when they fast (this is the true traditional model). I would rather they learn a little the right way than to be distracted by lots of food rules and not pray and not give alms. Orthodoxy, it has been said, is the “absence of one-sidedness.” Thus I try to teach a healthy, balanced fast. This, I think, is clearly echoed in the quote from St. John Chrysostom.

  4. AR Says:

    My priest and parish say much the same. I feel so very fortunate to be part of a Way that points out the steps, and challenges me, but with such wisdom and restraint.

  5. JeremiasII Says:

    Fr. Stephen,
    Why do we fast from midnight to midnight when the liturgical day is from sunset to sunset?

  6. fatherstephen Says:

    Probably because we eat from midnight to midnight rather than from sunset to sunset.

    Many monastics make a practice of only one meal a day on certain strict days, and that meal is the evening meal. That is probably another reason.
    Orthodox is organic – not purely rational- it developed as it developed in such matters. But the monastic practice is largely the reason. Indeed, I would suggest that until you spend time in a monastic setting (traditional), you will not completely understand the rules (typicon) of the Church. Pretty much all of the typicon developed under monastic tutelage, or was greatly influenced by that setting. It would make more sense if we had more monasteries in the US. Some have suggested the development of a parish typicon. I would favor, instead, more monasteries.

  7. Eric Says:

    Father Stephen,

    What is the typical day in the life of an Orthodox monk? What I am really looking for is how much do they pray and when / at what times?

    Thanks…

  8. Jeff Says:

    Check out http://www.stanthonysmonastery.org. This is the monastery where Elder Ephraim lives. I think they have their schedule posted there – although it doesn’t reflect the private prayer rule of the monks – just the public service times. There are also links there to the other monasteries founded by Elder Ephraim. If you have an opportunity, I’d highly recommend a pilgrimage. We are blessed here in the Southwest to have two such monasteries within about a 6 hour drive.

  9. fatherstephen Says:

    It really varies according to each monastery. Very strict monasteries will have eight or more hours a day of pray. Some hours of work. Some sleeping and eating.

    Generally Orthodox monasteries practice hospitality, but do not engage in social work. They are primarily for prayer. But it varies widely. Looking at the website for the Monastery of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco (it’s in California and is OCA) they seem to spend about 6 hours a day in services. When I was in England we spent 5 hours a day in services. Valaam or the Holy Mountain would be famous for far longer services and stricter ascetical practices. But each monastery has its own typicon (rules) governing its practices, subject to the Abbot and the Bishop to whom it reports. It really varies.

  10. November In My Soul Says:

    Father,

    Thank you for providing your insight. This will be my family’s third Pascha. My wife still struggles with even the concept of fasting. It seems too foreign to her, very far removed from her experiences in the Protestant world. But she trusts and obeys, praying for strength and understanding.

    I accept and embrace the concept of fasting and the increase in prayer and almsgiving. It’s in the doing (or not doing?) that I struggle. As I try to put aside my bloated pride, to deny the cravings that overwhelm me I find myself making up excuses and fudging it. As I try focus on prayer my mind is flooded with the cares and concerns of daily life. As I try to let go my stingyness kicks in.

    Even as we struggle in the darkness we know the light is coming. Even as we hunger we know the great feast awaits us. I/we need these 40 days.

  11. fatherstephen Says:

    If there were no struggle none of it would be of any use to us. Thus we struggle, and cry, “Lord have mercy,” always remembering that we do these things to draw near to Him. If God is the goal, even failure, if rightly accepted, gains us much. May God bless your Lent.

  12. Fasting « Reck Says:

    […] Father Stephen writes about fasting here.  Though the entire post is worth reading, this section connects with contemporary concerns about […]

  13. lina Says:

    Hello

    I am Christian Orthodox from the Republic of Georgia.
    I am so thankfull to God being born in such a religious country. I do fast and pray…this is totaly different state of both body and soul. This is a joy and sorrow mixed together, this is laughter of happiness and tears of fear.
    I would be happy to observe the site and share my knowledge and experience with you all.

    God bless!

  14. Fatherstephen Says:

    lina,

    Welcome to the site. May God bless you during this holy season – this time of “joyful sorrow.”

  15. linamari Says:

    Thank you Father Stephen

    so glad I joined the site.

  16. linamari Says:

    I am in the UK at the moment and there is no Orthodox church around, want to move soon so that I am able to go to church often.

    People are surprised seeing me fasting and they tell me: Lina you do not need a diet, you are slim enough and when I try to explain that this is not for keeping in good shape but has the religious meaning they laugh. The thing is I so much want to let people around me (I mean here at the moment) know that Christmas is not about presents or Easter not about chocolate eggs but they so much enjoy present pleasure and bliss of material things, they do not even want to know what fatal results it may cause for their souls.

    I am not a person without mistakes and pure surely but what I know I want to spread among those who I care for, want them to get christined and come in communion with God because this will save them when time comes. I try but I have no right to force anything to anybody as we all are free. I just have a desire to do something realy useful but sometimes it is beyond our desires😦

  17. MuleChewingBriars Says:

    Lina –

    The desires of your heart certainly align with ours. I and my wife will be praying for you.

  18. lina Says:

    oh thank you so so much for those precious words, appreciate alot and means realy much, someone praying for me.

    God is great, He won’t leave us his children.

    Many many difficult periods are awaiting humankind as you know, I so much want to warn people to stay awake as devil is reaching the peak. Wars, drugs, pervertion, killing….humans becoming greedy…tells so much. More and more people have to realise what really matters and why we are living and what for on this temporary earth, they must open their eyes and ears and hearts to survive from the claws of Antichrist who will appear very very soon unfortunately : (

  19. lina Says:

    http://jumati.piczo.com/miracles-video-photo?cr=1&linkvar=000044

    this is the site you can enter and see pictures and videos that represent miracles happening in my country and it is very common.

    Icons producing tears, myron or blood that foretell many things. You won’t undertsnand videos because it is in Georgian language but is worth watching.

    When pupils were sent to preech Christianity, Georgia was chosen by Mother Mary and that is why it is called Her share of land so She always protects us and often appears as a vision to Georgians. She was clearly seen on the sky by many people and you also can see on those pictures.

    Any questions – do not hesitate to ask

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