God demands the following three virtues of every baptized Christian: from the soul - true faith, from the body - chastity, from the tongue - truth. (St Gregory the Theologian)
Beloved Brothers and Sisters in the Lord,
Please allow me to begin this small treatise by asking you, pious reader, to forgive me a sinner for whatever thoughts I may express herein that may not be of benefit to the salvation of your souls, such uninspiring words are those that come from a proud and self-willed heart. We know that whenever one sits down to write instructions for the benefit of leading Christian souls to salvation, especially if that writer possesses a soul that is ravaged by the passions, that person takes on the great risk of bringing spiritual destruction and damnation to his own soul as St Gregory of Sinai warns us:
Those who write and speak without the Spirit, and wish to instruct the Church, are natural, 'having not the spirit (Jude 19)' They come under the curse, which says: 'Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight (Is 5, 21)'. For they speak from themselves, instead of from the 'Spirit of their Father which speaketh in them (Matt 10, 20)' as the Lord has defined. Those who speak from their own thoughts, before having acquired purity, are seduced by the spirit of self-esteem. Of these the Proverb says 'Seest thou a man wise in his own conceit? There is more hope of a fool than of him (Prov. 26, 12)'. And again wisdom teaches us: 'Be not wise in your own conceits (Rom. 12, 16)'. And the Divine Apostle, filled with the Spirit, himself testifies, saying: 'Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is in God (2 Cor 12, 5)' and 'We speak before God in Christ (2 Cor 12, 19)'.(St. Gregory of Sinai "Texts on Commandments and Dogmas" 128)
However, beloved reader, trusting in the great mercy, and tender loving compassion of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, and by the prayers of His most pure Mother and of all the saints, and with the advice and blessing of those in the Church who posses much more spiritual knowledge and acumen than I, We shall attempt to set forth for lovers of Spiritual knowledge, some thoughts on fasting, taken wholly from the writings of the God inspired Saints, that are of great interest to us in these days of apostasy, and wholesale abandonment of spiritual struggle.
Often one reads in contemporary Orthodox Christian literature, a multitude of opinions on how we Orthodox Christians should conduct ourselves during periods of fasting, and during prayer. These opinions vary wildly from one publication to another. For example, with respect to fasting: some assert that fasting does not require abstinence from specific foods, but rather only the amount of food taken. Others teach that we should not concentrate on the amount or types of food taken, but rather only on our activities. That is, that we should deprive ourselves of various forms of entertainment and other distractions that we find enjoyable outside the Lenten season. Still others advise us to practice the two great commandments, that is to love our Lord God with all our heart, all our mind, and all our soul, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, and that by so doing we fulfill all that is required of us during Lent. While all of these opinions seem at first glance to be beneficial, upon closer inspection they are found lacking. For example, why would the Church prescribe abstinence from specific foods, if such a requirement were not useful? Is the Church mistaken? Or why should we only occupy ourselves with the fulfillment of the two great commandments during Lenten seasons? Shouldn't we be occupied with the fulfillment of these commandments at all times? If the abandonment of certain forms of entertainment during Lent is beneficial, why should we return to them when Lent is finished? Rather, it would seem more God-pleasing if we were to avoid these activities at all times? Surely there must be a better way to understand fasting.
What do the Saints tell us about the practice of fasting? And what can we do to emulate them, in a way that is pleasing to God, and advantageous to our souls? Rather than rely on our own opinions, it is most beneficial to search the scriptures, and the writings of our Holy Fathers, and from these wellsprings find that living water that nourishes our souls and leads us on the path to salvation. A good place to start such a God-pleasing investigation, is to find the answer to the Question "Why do we need to fast at all?" The answer to this question is easily reckoned when we look at the condition of our fallen human nature.
Our forefather Adam, and his companion Eve, were placed in a Spiritual garden of inexplicable spiritual satisfaction, and delight. There they communed with God as with a friend, and beheld his glory, growing in spiritual knowledge through the contemplation of the Divinity in their pure souls. They beheld, breathed, and moved in that uncreated light that overshadowed the Holy Apostles on Mount Tabor at the Lords Transfiguration. What madness could have led our ancestors to abandon this blessing? What beguilement could have pulled them away from such beatitude?
We know from the book of Genesis that God created Adam and Eve in his own image, and that they possessed free will, and a likeness of the Godhead within themselves. Some of the Fathers refer to this image of the Holy Trinity that we hold within us as the mind, the soul, and the spirit. Others look at the natural abilities of the soul. That is, the three powers we posses within our souls: The intellectual power, or the ability to reason, the desiring power, and the irascible power, or the power that motivates us to act. Adam and Eve were created with these powers, all of which worked harmoniously within them to draw them into an ever-closer union with their Creator. The intellectual power in concert with the desiring power created within them an ever growing desire to be more intimately united with the source of knowledge that surrounded them in that garden, and the irascible power provided the spiritual fire that drove them to fulfil their desire for this knowledge. And so, they grew from day to day in the knowledge of God. But, like certain chemical reactions, a catalyst was needed so that Adam and Eve would, in a right manner, harmonize the powers of the soul that they were created with, and, of their own free will, grow in this knowledge. What was this catalyst? It was obedience to a simple commandment.
This simple commandment, to abstain from partaking of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, provided the souls of Adam and Eve with the catalyst they needed to focus the powers of their soul towards pleasing their Creator, and to grow in the knowledge of God. As they beheld that tree, and avoided partaking of its fruit, the intellectual power understood that they were pleasing God, by being obedient. The desiring power was strengthened by this knowledge to desire a more intimate union with their loving Creator, and the irascible power was strengthened to spur them onto even greater God-pleasing endeavors. Such was the blessed state of our ancestors in that garden, all the powers of their soul working in a harmonious manner drawing them into an ever-deepening union with their Creator. Our holy ancestors remained in this state until they were beguiled by the serpent to disobey that simple commandment.
What was it that the serpent used to beguile them, and draw them away from their Creator? It was a false promise, an empty promise, and the most subtle argument. We read in Genesis
Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which [is] in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. (Genesis 3:1-5 )
The serpent promised Eve that she would become a god, an equal to her Creator. Let us look at how this subtle false promise disrupted the powers of Eve's pure soul. Her desire had, till this point in time, remained in a God-pleasing state of desiring to please her Creator, to grow in knowledge of Him. The serpent, having gained corrupt knowledge from his own experience as one cast from a blessed state for desiring to be an equal to God, knew that beguiling Eve with such a foolish desire would separate her from the union she enjoyed with her Creator. Therefore, out of jealousy, he set about to corrupt the desiring power of her soul with the same poison with which he was corrupted. As we know Eve entertained this thought and succumbed to the subtle temptation and broke the simple commandment given her by God. She then persuaded her companion Adam to do the same, and in such a way, the powers of their souls were confused and alienated from God. Their reasoning power comprehended that they had disobeyed their Creator and produced guilt within their souls. This is what is meant when we read:
And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they [were] naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons. (Genesis 3:7)
The desiring power, corrupted by the false and empty promise, became confused, and rather than openly seek their Creator and desire healing for their transgression, hid from Him.
And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden. (Genesis 3:8)
The irascible power, also confused, no longer motivated them to act in a God-pleasing manner, but rather produced the tares of angst within them, even against their Creator. Later we read how Adam blamed his Creator for his own failing: Implying that had God not created a companion for him, he would not have been led to disobedience.
And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest [to be] with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat. (Genesis 3:11-13)
And so, Adam and Eve, of necessity, and by their own actions, were cast out of that spiritual garden. Why "of necessity" did our ancestors have to be cast out of that blessed garden? Just as there exist immutable laws that govern the physical world, and the world would not exist in the form in which we see it were any of these laws to change. So also there exist immutable laws that govern spiritual life, and, for these laws to change, the nature of the Divinity itself would have to change, which we know is impossible. As students of modern physics know from their studies, it is impossible for matter to exist should any of the discovered laws that govern the physical world change. In a similar way it is impossible for the divinity itself to exist should the discovered laws that govern spiritual life change, since the laws themselves proceed from the very nature of the Divinity. The Church recognizes this when she exclaims:
For he established the heavens which shall not be shaken (Refrain from Vespers)
And the holy Evangelist Luke noted the words of our Lord:
And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the (spiritual) law to fail (Luke 16:17)
One of these immutable spiritual laws is that transgression confuses the powers of our soul, and separates us from communion with God. Once Adam and Eve transgressed, they were no longer able to remain immersed in that blessed and divine light. After the transgression, they, of necessity, had to be removed from the spiritual paradise they had dwelt in, since their nature, sullied by transgression, was no longer compatible with the purity of the divine nature, just as oil and water cannot be mixed. St Gregory of Sinai notes:
The weapon of evil - transgression - has not only disordered the simple memory of good in the soul, but has corrupted all its powers, darkening its natural desire for virtue. (St. Gregory of Sinai "Texts on Commandments and Dogmas" 61)
Our loving Creator, knowing the inability of mankind to correct the condition that we found ourselves in as a result of our ancestors fall, sent His only begotten Son, to show us the way in which we may, once again, return to that blessed state that Adam and Eve enjoyed in the Garden of Eden. The Lord did this by showing us, by his own life, how we should live here in this temporal world, and by providing us, through the establishment of His holy Church, the sacramental means to partake of His divine grace. The practice of the virtues, accomplished by obeying the commandments shown to us in the Gospels, and the active participation in the grace filled life of the Church, restore the powers of our soul to that harmonious condition that our ancestors enjoyed.
Beloved reader, just as a physicist, through much tedious experimentation and analysis, arrives at the discovery of a governing physical law, so the experience and ascetic labors of our holy and God bearing fathers provide for us knowledge of spiritual laws. This knowledge was obtained with much spiritual and bodily effort, and we should be eternally grateful to our Lord for rewarding them with this knowledge, and to them for making the effort to acquire it. Rather than ignore this treasure, we should make good use of it and search within it to find the answers to those perplexing spiritual problems that arise in our lives, such as the question expressed previously. What do the holy Fathers tell us, that would enable us to find a satisfactory answer to the question; "Why do we need to fast at all?"
With God's help, and a diligent search of the writings of the scriptures and the holy fathers we learn that it is impossible for a fallen soul to practice the virtues, or in other words to build the temple of God in their soul, without the help of the Lord. This is an immutable spiritual law.
Except the LORD build the house, in vain do they labour that build it: except the LORD watch the city, in vain doth he watch that guardeth her. It is vain for you to rise at dawn (Psalm 126:1-2)
We need to ask ourselves, what do we need to do, to attract this divine help, so that the Lord may rebuild the temple of our fallen souls. Fortunately for us, wretched as we are, the Holy Fathers who have gone before us have left us most excellent guidance and a most complete answer to this question.
The starting point in the birth of good or evil in the soul is the inclination of its desire; whatever the desire is inclined towards, that the soul takes for its stimulus and acts. (St. Gregory of Sinai "Texts on Commandments and Dogmas" 89)
And wise Solomon teaches us:
Through desire a man, having separated himself, seeketh and communes with all wisdom. Proverbs 18:1
We need only incline our desire towards God, and the birth of goodness takes place in the soul. The question then arises, how do we know if we have inclined our desire towards God in sincerity? It is here that the need for fasting becomes apparent. St Gregory tells us:
Those who struggle to regain their original state do so by keeping two commandments - obedience and fasting; for all evil entered into the generation of mortals through practices opposed to them. (St. Gregory of Sinai "Texts on Commandments and Dogmas" 18)
Adam and Eve through transgression of the simple rule of fasting were separated from their intimate union with their Creator. The holy scriptures tell us that the Lord has provided us with a promise of reconciliation if we humbly and sincerely repent of our sins, confess a right and God-pleasing Orthodox faith, and incline our desire towards pleasing God. Again, how do we know if we are sincere in our repentance, and in our desire to please God?
Knowing that our soul is changeable, and easily seduced, the Lord provided us with a means through which we can openly see this expression of our desire, just as Adam and Eve were able to in the Garden of Eden. The lord has provided us with the choice of following, of our own free will and volition, blessed obedience, and fasting. Obedience to the Church, and to our spiritual Father, and fasting practiced in obedience to the typicon of the Church. We see therefore, that the practice of fasting in and of itself is not what is beneficial to the soul, rather the practice of fasting in obedience is God pleasing. This enables us to strengthen our will. Through the experience of our holy fathers we are also taught that fasting subdues and humbles the soul, inclining it to seek the Lord. When a soul humbles itself through prayer and fasting, and learns from experience the benefits of blessed obedience, then the words of the Lord:
Come unto me, all [ye] that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke [is] easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)
Can be truly understood.
Once the soul is inclined towards pleasing its Creator, and through obedience and fasting is subdued, the soul thirsts for its Lord and prayer is made effective. Our Lord Jesus Christ then begins the work of cleansing the soul, and illuminating the intellectual power of the soul with a right understanding of its Lord and Creator. In this way the Lord rebuilds the temple of our souls, as the Psalmist notes:
LORD, thou hast heard the desire of the humble: thou wilt prepare their heart, thou wilt cause thine ear to hear (Psalm 10:17 )
For some this may occur very quickly, as in the blessed grace-filled state attained by the holy martyrs as they made their bold confessions. For others it may take their entire life. Nevertheless, if an Orthodox Christian continues in such a way the Lord will provide all that is necessary for salvation.
At all times we should avoid pernicious self-will, the spiritual ill that led to the fallen angels being cast from the kingdom of God. Rather we should embrace the advice of St's Callistus and Ignatius who teach us:
Those who deviate from the fundamental law of obedience and insolently choose to live according to their self-will, fall away from God, and so are banished utterly and cast into outer darkness. (St's Callistus and Ignatius, "Directions" 15)
And in another text we are advised to avoid being contrary and contentious, and not to follow that which high-minded self-opinion seduces us to believe in contradiction to the rules established by the Church.
For contradiction and contentiousness are not seemly for a Christian. The blessed Paul writes: 'But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God (1 Cor. 11. 16)'. This is quite simply forbidden to all Christians in general. (St's Callistus and Ignatius, "Directions" 15)
An argumentative man is like someone who deliberately gives himself up to his kings enemies. Argument is a fishing line baited with veracity (i.e. defense of truth, self-justification, self-defense) by which we are seduced into swallowing the hook of sin. In this manner, hooked by tongue and throat, the poor soul is wont to be ravished by evil spirits. Now rising upwards, now sinking into the chaotic abyss of sin, it is condemned with those that are cast down from heaven. (St. Simeon the New Theologian "Practical and Theological Precepts" 30)
The Divine Apostle Paul, the most obedient and humble of men, also gives us stern warnings with respect to contentiousness and disobedience. He also shows us clearly how blessed it is to express ones desire for the Lord in the patient practice of obedience.
To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life: But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath (Romans 2:7-8)
Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness? (Romans 6:16)
We see from the above investigation that the holy Church, inspired by its loving Creator, has provided to us rules for fasting, that in and of themselves are of no benefit to an individual, unless that individual understands that he fulfills them not as an empty obligation, but in obedience, without argument or contradiction, as a means of expressing ones desire to please the Lord. When we fast with such an understanding, the Lord rewards our well intentioned desire with a resolve to practice the virtues. In such a way the Lord undertakes the arduous work of rebuilding our wretched souls. Glory be to our Lord for all the benefits he bestows upon us poor wretches.
The two great commandments, and all the others that are contained in the Holy Gospels, are, for most of us, very difficult to follow, one can be become easily despondent when one realizes how far he or she has fallen short of this obligation. We know that the fulfillment of these commandments is what makes us Christians, and also, that the fulfillment of these commandments is of great benefit to our souls, As St. Simeon reminds us:
So it is with the soul: the grace of the Holy Spirit is preserved by keeping the commandments, and the keeping of the commandments is the foundation laid for receiving the gift of God's grace. Neither does the grace of the Holy Spirit remain in us without our obeying the commandments, nor can obeying the commandments be useful and salutary without Divine grace. (St. Simeon the New Theologian "Practical and Theological Precepts" 95)
Are there not Christians everywhere? But if you find it expedient, investigate and examine carefully whether they fulfil Christ's commandments; and indeed among myriad's you will with difficulty find one, who is Christian in both word and deed. Did not our Lord Jesus Christ say; 'He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also, and greater works than these shall he do (John 14. 12)' But which one of us will dare to say: 'I do the works of Christ and truly believe in Christ'? . (St. Simeon the New Theologian "On Faith" )
So it is that we are often tempted to fall into despair when confronted by the enormity of the responsibility laid upon us by bearing the name "Orthodox Christian". We should however realize that:
Compassionate and merciful is the Lord, long suffering and plenteous in mercy, not unto the end will he be angered neither unto eternity will he be wroth (Ps. 103: 8-9)
It is the Lord's will that all men should be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, He is always ready to help us in our struggles to lead a devout life. When we are tempted by such despondent thoughts, we can find comfort in our obedience to the Church, and to our spiritual father, and in the sincere desire we bear to please God, as shown to us in the following passage:
For those who have become lazy in fulfilling the commandments and desire to banish murky obscurity, there is no better or more efficient physic than complete obedience in everything, with faith and without argument. Such obedience is the medicine compounded of virtues, giving life to those who drink of it, and the knife which, with one cut, cleans festering wounds. (St. Gregory of Sinai "Texts on Commandments and Dogmas" 107)
As obedience brings us closer to God so disobedience separates us from God:
The five passions hostile to obedience (are); disobedience, argumentativeness, self-gratification, self-justification, and pernicious high opinion of oneself. Disobedience is the mouth of hell, argumentativeness its tongue, whetted like a sword, self-gratification is its sharp teeth; self-justification its throat; high opinion of oneself, which casts one into hell, is the belching of its (hells) all devouring belly. But he who through obedience conquers the first, by one stroke cuts off all the rest with one stride reaches heaven. Such is the truly ineffable and inconceivable miracle performed for us by our merciful Lord, Who gave us the possibility of straightway reaching heaven by means of a single virtue or rather commandment, just as through a single transgression we have descended and are descending into hell. (St. Gregory of Sinai "Texts on Commandments and Dogmas" 121)
Now that we have come to understand the benefit of fasting done in humble obedience to the rubrics given us by the holy Church, we should also be made of aware of the danger of priding ourselves in our adherence to these rules. Although as it will be shown in the next discussion, humble and sincere obedience will always protect us from this temptation.
The Publican and the Pharisee
And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others. Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men [are], extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as [his] eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified [rather] than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. (Luke 18:10 - 14)
Often today, when one is discussing fasting amongst Orthodox Christians, the discussion almost always returns to this parable. With those who say that strictly following the rules of fasting makes us a Pharisee. That rather we should be like the Publican, who found justification in the recognition of his own sinfulness. That we need not strictly adhere to the rules of the church, but do what we imagine is all that we can, and say at the end of it all "God be merciful to me a sinner". Unfortunately such a belief is fundamentally flawed, and the person who advocates it does so at great peril to their soul. This should be obvious based on the discussion above, but in order to make it more clear let us again turn to the Fathers of the Church, and from them learn what it was that brought such high praise to the Publican, and such a stern condemnation to the Pharisee:
Many at once are the faults of the Pharisee. For first of all he is boastful, and without sense; for he praises himself, although the sacred Scripture cries aloud: 'Let a neighbor praise thee, and not thy own mouth; a stranger and not thy own lips - Prov. 27:2' (St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke)
The Fathers who comment on this Gospel all agree that the mad boasting and spiritual pride of the Pharisee made his offering of prayer unacceptable to God, and not the works that he foolishly boasted about. Be not beguiled dear reader, God is pleased with any offering that is made in the spirit of humility and in obedience. But he will not accept an offering that is admixed with the bile of pride and willful disobedience, or self-will. Self-will is the most destructive passion, a passion that casts those who are afflicted with it headlong into the abyss. If we bring our offering of prayer to the temple and it is admixed with the bile of self-will, which has at its root the passion of pride, the Lord will not accept it. He will reject it for the same reasons that He rejected the offering of the Pharisee. These statements seem to be contradictive, however upon close examination they are found to be most true.
Let us look at exactly what it was the Pharisee was saying when he made his foolish observations and boasts. Firstly he imagined that he was more pious than others. Why did he feel this way? The sad truth is that he was content with his own piety. He felt no need to better himself, he felt that what he was doing was perfectly good enough to satisfy the Lord, and that as a result of his piety, he was elevated above those around him. Secondly, upon beholding the publican he assumed that, being a publican, he was an extortioner, and that he did not fast twice in the week, and that he did not tithe. However nowhere can it be found in the scriptures, or in all the commentaries of the fathers, that the Publican was indeed a murderer, or an extortioner, or that he did not fast and tithe as the law required. This was simply a foolish judgement made by the Pharisee. What we do know is that the Publican was not content with his own piety, he was aware that he was in need of spiritual healing, and sought that healing from the Lord.
If we entertain foolish thoughts that tell us we are doing enough to satisfy the Lord, that we need not exert ourselves, because we are content with our piety, we are making the same spiritual error that the Pharisee made, only in a more "enlightened" way. We assure ourselves that we are not judging others, and that we are sinful. Even though we make this admission only because we are familiar with the above parable, not because we harbor genuine remorse. Even so, as will be shown, by our spiritual slothfulness and incorrect understanding of the above parable, we are indeed making a most pernicious judgement.
Reading this parable many make the same foolish mistake as that made by the Pharisee, the mistake of judging the Publican, of assuming that he was not obedient to the law, and for that reason he prayed "O God be merciful to me a sinner". May the Lord preserve us from making such foolish judgements! The cry of the Publican was not a cry of admission of disobedience, it was a cry for help, a cry for healing, a cry that expressed his acknowledgement of his fallen condition. Yet somehow the true meaning of this parable has been distorted in many sermons and commentaries to indicate that somehow we can be disobedient, that we can ignore the rubrics of the church, and that we can live a life guided by self-will, and by entering church saying "God be merciful to me a sinner" our prayer will be accepted. To think this way is very foolish, and ultimately destructive. As the Lord told us, we are required to fulfill our obedience to the church, as a basis for spiritual rebirth. Obedience is only the foundation upon which our spiritual life is built.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier [matters] of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. (Matthew 23:23)
Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach [them], the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19-20)
If we wish to be like the Publican, we should not only observe the fasts and a life of obedience to the Church, and our spiritual father, as a means of expressing our desire to please God, but we should also seek healing and the restoration of the image of God in our souls through prayer. The prayer of the Publican is a most pure example of what all prayer should be; a supplication for healing and the merciful action of God's vivifying effectual and life-giving grace in our souls. When we turn our desire towards pleasing God, He will reward us with the desire for healing, and grant unto us His help and grace, providing both the inspiration to pray, and the restoration of our souls.
Often we hear claims that one cannot observe the fasts because they are weak or frail. When they make such statements they are rebuking their creator, who ordained this simple discipline for our spiritual well-being, as explained above. The Lord knows what we are made of, and as our creator would never place a burden upon us that we could not bear. It is well known that there are religious cultures who admonish their adherents to abstain from all animal products at all times, yet in these cultures we find healthy and well nourished adherents. How can we assume to tell our creator what is best for us?
Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay. (Romans 9:20-21)
Do you see dear reader, that when one uses such foolish arguments to justify their disobedience, they truly make a sorry spectacle of themselves, standing against God and His holy church, wagging their finger at Him and saying, "I know what's good for me, not you".
The Lord will provide you all you need for nourishment, even during times of sickness. To believe otherwise is to deny your faith in your creator.
For your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him. (Matthew 6:8)
The need for humble obedience and fasting cannot be fully understood without a discussion of the identifying traits of the humility expressed by the plea of the Publican.
Humility is a deep ocean, bottomless, unfathomable, and understood in practice by very few. However the Lord knows our thirst for a better understanding of this lofty virtue, and has, through the writings of our forefathers provided us with explanations that even we, wretches that we are, can comprehend.
The humility that filled the soul of the Publican is not one that is acquired by oneself, it is not an external and showy humility, it is rather a gift of God. It is given to those who, through much spiritual struggle, and after many tests of their desire to please God, realize that they of themselves can do nothing that is good, that only those things that occur in their life that are not God-pleasing come from themselves. They understand full well that they are truly worthless creatures, and that if there be any virtue within them, this virtue comes from God.
True humility does not say humble words, nor does it assume humble looks, it does not force one to think humbly of oneself, or to abuse oneself in self-belittlement. Although all such things are the beginning, the manifestations and various aspects of humility, humility itself is grace, a gift from above. There are two kinds of humility, as the holy fathers teach: to deem oneself the lowest of all beings and to ascribe to God all ones good actions. (St. Gregory of Sinai "Texts on Commandments and Dogmas" 117)
This understanding, (that all that is good within oneself comes from God and that only what is worthless comes from themselves) protects those who seek the Lord from falling into the snare of spiritual pride and vainglory. For the pure this lesson is learnt very quickly, for others it takes many years. We should also understand that there is a false humility, one that we should recognize and avoid, since it does not draw the soul closer to God, but rather lulls the soul to sleep, and deprives us of a thirst to please God. Of this humility St Simeon teaches us:
There is a false humility which comes from laziness and negligence and from strong reproaches of conscience. Those who possess it often regard it as a cause of salvation. But in reality it is not so, for it brings no joy-giving tears which should be joined with it. (For) the more a man descends into the depths of (true) humility and condemns himself as one not worthy of salvation, the more he mourns and sheds streams of tears. The more he mourns and sheds streams of tears the more spiritual joy flows into his heart, and with it flows increasing hope which gives him the most complete certainty of salvation. (St. Simeon the New Theologian "Practical and Theological Precepts" 73, 75)
May God grant us worthless sinners such humility and tears.
As we can see from the above discussion, there exists a God-pleasing humility that spurs those who posses it to even greater struggles and strengthens their desire to please God. They understand with their intellect that they can of themselves do nothing good. The intellect imbibed with such knowledge and strengthened by the desire for a more intimate relationship with their Creator, drives the soul to seek the Lord, and thereby drink of the goodness that experience has taught them comes only from God, and not in any way from themselves. Such are the gifts that are bestowed upon us by true humility. This is the humility that filled the soul of the Publican. For even though he was conscious of his sinfulness, and could not even look up to heaven, he realized that his Lord was the wellspring of life, and thirsting for that life he cries from the depths of his soul "O God be merciful to me a sinner". Do you see pious reader that the Lord praised the Publican not only for his humility, but because he was seeking the Lord with a right spirit and a right understanding of his own nature. The Pharisee on the other hand was blinded by his high minded opinion of himself and not only had his offering of prayer rejected, but left the temple without obtaining that intimate communion that God grants to those who love Him and seek Him in truth.
How can we relate this discussion to the practice of fasting? When we make the resolve to practice fasting in obedience to the Church, and understand with our intellect that we do this as an expression of our desire to please God, we begin to pray more earnestly. When, with help of our Lord, we find prayer rewarding, the enemies of God will not sit back and allow us to make such progress unopposed. Thoughts may arise in our souls and suggest to us that we are better than others, or that we are somehow righteous, perhaps more so than "so and so". Beloved reader, you should thank God when such thoughts arise, because He allows them in order for your intellect to realize that, like the Pharisee, you harbor within your soul that pernicious passion of pride. Rather than become despondent when such thoughts arise, fall down on your knees before your Creator and cry out "Lord Jesus Christ be merciful to me a sinner". And he will come quickly and grant comfort to your soul. These, and other temptations, are allowed by the Lord in order to test our desire, and to instruct our intellect about our own sinfulness. This instruction then inspires us to more fervently desire healing, and so we continue with even greater struggles to seek the Lord. Glory be to God for all things! Here we see the enemies of Christ attempting to lure us into the sin of pride, and the Lord is able to use such foolishness as a means of instructing us to pray more sincerely. We fall down before thee almighty God and thank thee for all that though dost accomplish in us, wretched as we are.
So, we see that adherence to the rule of fasting in obedience to the church, combined with prayer, and participation in all the sacramental sources of divine grace teach us to pray the prayer of the publican, and to abhor the boasting of the Pharisee. This prayer is one that is conducted with a full recognition of ones own sinfulness, and worthlessness, but at the same time is filled with a God pleasing desire for healing. Let us look now at what may come to pass if we mistake that false humility described by St Simeon above for that true God-pleasing humility exhibited by the Publican. "There is a false humility which comes from laziness and negligence and from strong reproaches of conscience. Those who possess it often regard it as a cause of salvation. But in reality it is not so". Why is such humility not a cause of salvation? The answer to this again lies in our understanding of the condition we are in as a result of the fall.
Recall that before the fall, our ancestors enjoyed an intimate union with their Creator, and that after their transgression, their souls became confused. The Lord came and showed us the way to restore our soul to its original condition, and we have a sacred obligation to seek as best we can that restoration of our soul. This implies that we must always be seeking the Lord, striving to please Him, inclining our desire towards Him. Laziness and negligence characterize the false humility described above, and as such this humility does not inspire those who posses it to please the Lord, to seek Him, to strive for healing. Rather, the soul of such a Christian is lulled to sleep, and eventually withers and dies. Such wholesale spiritual withering and death can be observed in our days throughout the entire Orthodox Church. Those who espouse the opinion that: 'We need not strictly adhere to the rules of the church but do what we imagine is all we can, and say at the end of it all "God be merciful to me a sinner"' are guilty of mistaking the true humility of the Publican for a false misleading and destructive humility. This humility is sullied also by the stench of transgression, since those who advocate it are willingly abandoning obedience to the church and following their own high minded self-opinion. This opinion and false humility threatens to lead them into the eternal sleep of spiritual death. May such a fate not come upon us!
In regards to the conduct each individual should embrace during Lenten seasons, and on days of fasting, the Blessed Apostle Paul has given us guidance:
For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs. (Romans 14:1-2) One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day [alike]. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. (Romans 14:5)
These verses were originally written to the Church in Rome, to dispel a dispute that had arisen between those who believed that all followers of Christ should observe the Mosaic Law and abstain from eating products taken from swine, while others maintained that this was not a necessary requirement. The Church wisely selected this reading for Forgiveness Sunday, in order that all of us should be aware of own weaknesses, and that we not fall into judgement of those we see around us who do not fast in quantity or quality of foods as strictly as others. We read further on:
Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him. (Romans 14:3) He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks (Romans 14:6)
This in no way is an open invitation to break the fast, here we are advised that there are those who are more strict with themselves than others. Those who are more strict should not judge those who are less strict, and similarly those who are less strict should not judge those who are more strict. For example, those whose work involves strenuous activity, where strength is required, should, during Lent, eat all that is permitted by the typicon, in quantities that are adequate to satisfy the body's need for strength. Others however that are engaged in more quiet labors can cut their dietary requirement considerably and fast over and above the guidelines laid out for us by the Holy Church. However, one should be reminded that great spiritual harm can come from excessive fasting, and that everything should be done with a blessing from ones spiritual father. Another way of looking at the intent of these passages is to understand that, with respect to diet, the monastic should never look down in judgement of the layman, and similarly the layman should never look down in judgement of the monastic.
There are a multitude of spiritual labors we can be occupied with during periods of fasting that are both God-pleasing and lead the soul to salvation, I do not wish to belabor you pious reader, with a long winded discussion about topics that you are most assuredly already very familiar with. The intent of this small treatise was to bring to our attention the need for humble obedience to the Church's typicon, and I pray that the Lord has helped me, a sinner, to be somewhat successful in doing this.
Pray for me,
Your humble servant in the Lord.