At the beginning of the Nativity Fast, it seemed appropriate to offer to my parishioners a few encouraging words about fasting. Being quite busy at the time, I decided to look over some of my previous posts on fasting and send out a link. After all, Christians have been fasting for two millennia (and humans in general for much longer than that). Why should there be a new blog post every time? What new thing can I say that has not already been said?
Having looked over my previous posts, alas! I found nothing that I myself thought meaningful. It is not that there were no good points or pious-enough exhortations in those posts. But nothing seemed to quite hit the mark. Over the past two weeks, since the beginning of the fast, I have browsed the internet in search of something profound to edify myself and the flock, but found more of the same. To be sure, this likely, at least in part, points to some of my personal unanswered questions, rather than a lack of homiletic talent of the various authors who toil in the virtual vineyard. And yet, since the esteemed pastors and theologians find the need to continue to write and speak on this matter, perhaps someone else is struggling with the same questions, answers to which I find sorely lacking in the contemporary pastoral approach to fasting.
Fasting from Facebook
One of the most puzzling phenomena in the modern pastoral approach to fasting is the seeming minimization of the role of fasting from food and an ever-increasing focus on fasting from smartphones, Facebook, Twitter and the like. Such advice certainly makes some sense, although it should be obvious to anyone that this is not fasting in any traditional form whatsoever.
First, it is not at all clear from what one is fasting when the same is fasting from his smartphone or social media. Is it from communicating with other people? This could be likened to a temporary vow of silence, of course, but it does not appear that the good shepherds of the Church are necessarily advising their flock to take on the vow of silence when they preach against smartphones. Although, a pastor advising his flock to practice more silence and heeding his own advice may do well.
Is it fasting from gossip? But gossip is never good or permissible–not during a fast, and not during a feast. So, fasting from it for a period of time and then, presumably, engaging in it with renewed vigor on the first day of Nativity or Pascha seems misguided at best. Besides, if one is in fact able to abstain from gossip or some other such vice for forty days, he should abstain from it altogether. In other words, if social media, for example, is a vice, one should not plan to return to it at the conclusion of Lent. And if he is not able to abstain from it, then the concept of fasting as a voluntary giving up of something does not apply. In fact, if a vice is understood as a symptom of a deeper illness which is the corruption of our nature by sin, then fasting from it makes no sense whatsoever! This would be similar to advising patients to fast from a runny nose or a fever. The illness needs to be cured, but not by plugging up the nose and thus “fasting” from sniffles.
Is it, then, fasting from a smartphone addiction as such, since so many people may in fact be at least mildly addicted to their devices? There may be a role that the Church can play in addressing addiction, including through fasting. But is this really the main purpose of fasting? I mean, proper fasting can also help with weight loss and, perhaps, lower cholesterol, but does this even matter, and should we be focused on such things? Would not this be just as much off the mark as thinking of Lenten prostrations as Orthodox burpees that help us get back in shape in the spring?
There are many physical and psychological ailments that afflict the modern man–from depression to addiction, and from eating disorders to an entire bouquet of ill effects from a sedentary lifestyle. So, why focus on Facebook and not on sugary drinks or exercise? In fact, focusing on exercise may be the most effective way to address the greatest number of health concerns, since people who keep a strict exercise routine tend to eat better, sleep better, be less anxious, less depressed, use less alcohol, etc., and have more willpower–something else that is often promoted as a benefit of fasting. So, should we preach in favor of gym memberships during the first week of Lent and schedule 5/10K races for Passion Week? I trust it is obvious that these are rhetorical questions.
The Church, at least when it comes to its fasting discipline, is not truly interested in addressing the health concerns of the faithful, despite the various pastoral assertions and dubious claims that meat makes one heavy and full of animal passions but vegetables make one light and prayerful. (Besides, it is starches, not vegetables per se, that make up the traditional fasting mainstay–at least, in northern latitudes.) Rather, it seems to me, the shifting of the focus from the fasting of the body to the fasting from social media (and from “evil thoughts,” but more on this later) betrays the deterioration of the fasting discipline of the Church.
The very premise which proposes that fasting is fundamentally and merely a switch from steak to shrimp and lobster and from ice cream to sorbet and vegan cake, coupled with the habit of liberally dishing out dispensations and self-dispensations to the young, the old, the sick, those who study, work, travel, those new to Orthodoxy, the busy, the lazy, those who cannot cook, and those who just have a hard time abstaining from anything–bankrupts the very foundations of Christian asceticism and gives rise to such pastoral aberrations as claims that it is okay to eat meat during Lent so long as we do not “eat our neighbor” (a perversion of the thought attributed to some of the Fathers) or that fasting is
a purely personal business, and one should follow one’s own “unique” rules, rather than those of the Church. If the fasting of the body is thus turned into a relativist pursuit of unclear goals of dubious meaning, a shift toward things even more uncertain and dubious, such as a fast from FaceBook or from “evil thoughts,” is but expected. If we are no longer willing to actually FAST, then we can at least blunt our feelings of inadequacy by giving up chocolate, social media, or “evil thoughts” for Lent.
Fasting from evil thoughts and passions
This brings us to another popular pastoral assertion: that it is more important to fast from evil thoughts and passions than from meat and milk. I myself have used this very rhetorical punch in many a sermon… and, of course, it is confusing at best and likely disingenuous. To examine this idea, let us first take a closer look at the admonition that it is better to eat meat than to eat one’s neighbor, which in recent years turned into something like this (a paraphrase from a Russian-language source): “If you want to eat meat during Lent, then eat meat. If you need to eat yogurt, then eat yogurt. Just don’t eat your neighbor.”
In other words, if you continue to mistreat your neighbor, then you might as well eat meat during Lent; but if you do not mistreat your neighbor, well, then there is no reason for you to abstain from meat. The problem is that this is a perversion of a patristic thought. Saint Basil the Great said something a bit different: “You may not eat meat, but you devour your brother.” Likewise, Saint John Chrysostom asks: “For what does it profit if we abstain from fish and fowl and yet bite and devour our brothers and sisters?” The presumption in both cases is that we do, in fact, abstain from fish and fowl, and that upon this foundation we are to rise to higher levels, so to speak.
Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works! Is it said by what kind of works? If you see a poor man, take pity on him! If you see an enemy, be reconciled to him! If you see a friend gaining honour, envy him not! If you see a handsome woman, pass her by! For let not the mouth only fast, but also the eye, and the ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies. (John Chrysostom. On the Statues.)
Note: Do you fast? is a rhetorical question with a presumed affirmative answer. “Since you DO fast, do this also”, not “do not worry about fasting, just do these other things.”
Now, on to evil thoughts. It is often the case, and not just in homiletics, that we say things that sound good without questioning their meaning. We must fast from evil thoughts!–who can possibly argue with that?! But what does this even mean? To begin with, what are evil thoughts? To be sure, most of us routinely experience momentary unpleasant states of frustration, irritation, impatience, and so forth. But evil thoughts? First, it has to be a conscious thought. Secondly, it must be evil, as in “Why don’t I find a kitten and torture it!” Or, like the prophet and king David, “Why don’t I get another man’s wife pregnant and then arrange to have the man killed!” (see 2 Sam 11)
Fully acknowledging the human capacity for evil and that humani nihil a nobis alienum, after nearly two decades of pastoral work, I must say that I do not see a specifically-urgent and annually-recurring need for most people to take a forty-day break before Christmas or Easter from thinking about torturing kittens or killing the husband of a woman they got pregnant. This is not to say that there are no people who torture kittens or plot to kill their lovers’ husbands. If this is the reality of someone’s pastoral work, I pray for God to give them strength and wisdom. But I simply do not think that “fasting from evil thoughts” is meaningful pastoral advice in most situations.
Moreover, as I mentioned earlier, we do not FAST from evil things. Evil things–whether thoughts or deeds–are to be MASTERED: “Sin is crouching at your door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Gen 4:7). That is to say, we must becomes masters rather than slaves of our fallen nature, control it, rule over it, and to offer ourselves wholly to God just as as we “were once slaves of sin” (Rom 6:17). This, however, is a matter different from fasting, although, not entirely separate, since everything in theology tends to be interconnected. As for fasting proper, it is best described as an act akin to an Old Testament sacrifice, rather than a forty-day self-help or self-improvement course.
Fasting as sacrifice
It seems most appropriate to me if we think of fasting not as giving up things that are bad, but those that are good. In some ways, this is quite obvious. We do not give up meat, eggs, and cheese during a fast because they are bad, despite certain monastic opinions held on this matter. In a footnote that the compilers of The Rudder provided for the Apostolic canon 51, it is asserted that, “eating meat, the most fatty food among all foods, is opposed to the purpose of monasticism, which is wisdom and virginity, by tickling the flesh and raising a war of wanton appetites and desires against the soul.” It would hardly be appropriate to discuss here whether this means that lean cuts of meat are somehow more spiritually preferable to fatty cuts, or whether a healthy vegan diet is incompatible with an active libido. What the commentary likely refers to is what the canon itself calls “restraint” or “mortification”–that is, the purposeful weakening of the flesh with the goal of gaining rational control over its urges. As for meat as such, the canon makes it clear: “If any bishop, presbyter, or deacon, or any one of the sacerdotal list, abstains from marriage, or flesh, or wine, not not by way of religious restraint, but as abhorring them, forgetting that God made all things very good…” etc.
Thus, meat is “very good” and “the most fatty food”–no doubt, a recognizable reference to the qualities of an acceptable sacrifice to God. Our own tradition offers us further support of this idea. After a lengthy fast, on the most-holy Feast of the Resurrection of our Lord, the Church prays and asks God to bless our partaking of meat by referencing both the idea of sacrifice and of nourishment. Would the Church do this, if meat were bad–like evil thoughts, gossip, or passions? What we are to give up for Lent is not our petty gripes, complaints, or lack of patience for our spouse or neighbor (how would it even be possible to give up a lack of something?!), but that which is generally considered to be something good and valuable as an offering and a sacrifice to God.
We give up meat precisely because we value meat (some variations in personal preferences notwithstanding), and many of us think that it is tasty. We give up butter and oil because a plain boiled potato without butter, cheese, sour cream, or at least some oil just does not taste the same. A sacrifice has to be meaningful, it has to be valued–otherwise, it is not a sacrifice. This is why attempting to replace foods that we like with soy substitutes or enjoying “Lenten” desserts distorts the very idea of what fasting is. The Typikon does not list foods that are forbidden. On the contrary, it lists simple foods that can be eaten in great moderation. Many modern Christians take the exact opposite approach and diligently study packaging labels for “forbidden” ingredients. They have turned the noble idea of Christian asceticism into a legalistic dichotomy of clean and unclean, kosher and non-kosher, halal and haram. And many pastors have properly felt that such an exercise is quite pointless, and the faithful would do better to focus their attention on fasting from social media, evil thoughts, or some other such thing.
Can we imagine Saint Mary of Egypt or Anthony the Great practicing their fasting by eating buckets of pasta with meat-free sauce and vegan cakes? Can we imagine Saint John Climacus interspersing his Ladder of Divine Ascentwith Lenten dessert recipes for every day of the Great Fast (“desert desserts”)? If these ideas sounds ridiculous, it is because we know them to be such. We feel this with our gut, so to speak. We know that our modern approach to fasting has nothing to do with the path of the saints or the tradition of the Church. We know that demons do not come out by prayer and dark chocolate (Matt 17:21). We know Jesus did not spend forty days in the wilderness drinking coffee with non-dairy creamer and eating bagels with tofu spread (Matt 4:2). We also know this through our own personal experience. I have never met a Christian who said: “I switched to vegan cakes and got closer to God,” or “Shrimp teriyaki really elevates my prayer so much better than turkey breast,” or even “Soy hot dogs make me a better Christian.” I have never heard anyone say anything of this sort. We know this kind of “fasting” to be meaningless.
Fasting has to be meaningful, and it has to be sacrificial. This is why a mere switch to a vegan diet is simply not fasting. It is dieting, for whatever this is worth; but it is not fasting. Another way to think of this is that cookies, cakes, and sorbets can certainly be vegan, but they cannot be Lenten. When we fast, we must offer to God the best of what we can, the things we value most, not least: the foods we value most, our time that we value so much, our best efforts. Trying to give up bad habits for Lent is like offering our trash to God. To be sure, trash should be collected and regularly disposed of, including during the time of fasting. In fact, a time of fasting may provide an excellent opportunity for such a clean-up. Yet it is not our refuse, our trash that should be offered as a sacrifice to God, but that which we most value and with which we do not wish to part: starting with bacon and cakes–whether vegan or not–and including our time and our efforts, which we often value far more than bacon and cake.
“And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights…” (Matt 4:2)
If the general principle is that fasting is our sacrifice to God, then, as it applies to food, our meals must be sacrificially simple. The focus should be not on what not to eat, but on what to eat. In other words, the silly complexity of trying to avoid the “forbidden” ingredients is not solved by obsessing over packaging labels, but by choosing the simplest foods in the first place: a piece of good bread, a boiled potato, a cup of tea, or something like that. Perhaps only two meals a day, perhaps only one. Some days it might be best to keep a strict fast and skip meals altogether. Keeping a strict fast allows one not to think about what to cook, what to eat, how much to eat, etc. It is free, it does not take any time, and with very rare exceptions, strict fasting seems compatible with most health conditions and lifestyles.
When it comes to our time, it is one of the most valuable things we have. In essence, our time and what we do with it makes up our life. Perhaps, in recognition of this fact, a good exercise to practice at the beginning of each fast is a careful observation of what we do with our time. Obviously, the time spent at work is not entirely ours, and our physiology demands rest and certain other considerations. But if we take a closer look at just our free time–that over which we have control–we can guess at what we hold as most valuable. If we write down the amount of time that we choose to spend on one activity or another, we can see what value the activity has in our life based on how much of our life we sacrifice to it. Perhaps we will be satisfied with what we discover, and find that the time of our life is well spent. Or, perhaps we will find that we do not value that to which we sacrifice a good portion of our time, and thus we are quite literally wasting our life.
The goal, however, is not so much in recognizing that time is wasted, but in finding a proper use for it and in offering it to God. The king and prophet David, the one who had a problem with evil thoughts, also wrote of an acceptable offering to God of our time and effort: “Let my prayer be set forth before Thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice. (Ps 141:2) Our time and efforts can be offered as prayer or as works of mercy and charity–we all have different talents. But the point has to be in that–not in some random fasting from social media for its own sake, but in a purposeful and meaningful offering to God of that which we truly value–the first, the best, the fattest, a bullock, or a ram, or at least a dove, according to each one’s means, but pure and without blemish–a “sacrifice of righteousness” (Ps 51:19).