Orthodox England

Excerpt from: Volume 1 Issue 2 Date 1st December 1997



Advent is upon us once more and with it both the expectation of the Birth of Christ and the Advent Fast.

For some reason fasting has become controversial in our times. And yet it was not always so. The older generation of Roman Catholics can certainly recall real fasting. And the Anglican Book of Common Prayer still enjoins fasting on Fridays and other days. But in recent times both these denominations have quite abandoned their Orthodox heritage in this respect (as, sadly, in many other respects) and today the only Christian fasters are devout Orthodox Christians. It seems ironical at a time when many people fast for their personal appearance and physical health (dieting, slimming), or for some political, social or ecological cause (hunger strikes, vegetarianism etc.), that only a few Orthodox remain to fast for spiritual health. And yet nobody ever became a Saint without fasting. Indeed one of the basic criteria of authentic Orthodox Christianity is most certainly fasting, the quest for spiritual health. Without fasting Orthodoxy becomes a mere outward ritual, a game in which the salvation of the soul is cast aside. Here too we must be careful for not all who fast, fast well. What advice can be given?

Firstly, we must beware of zeal. Zeal can be good, but it can actually also be bad. As the proverb says, 'Zeal without knowledge is fire without light'. Zeal is not the main virtue, which is Love. This is why the Apostle Paul advises us to temper our zeal with knowledge. There are times when we have to ask ourselves why we are fasting: is it to come to love God and our neighbour more, or is it out of some subtle form of the pharisee's spiritual pride, to imagine that we are devout? (Incidentally, we have observed that the pharisee often fasts to the letter, but consumes huge quantities of non-fasting food - this is indeed fasting according to the letter, but not according to the spirit).

One of the consequences of fasting can be irritability, if, that is, our fasting is not accompanied by prayer. For prayer and fasting go together and should never be separated. Fasting deepens our prayer and prayer increases our wish to fast, in a virtuous circle. And though this is a hard saying, he who fasts without love is ultimately, in some sense, fasting with the Devil.

We should also pay attention to our physical and mental health during fasting. Thus the sick, and pregnant women, and small children should not fast. Some, with undiscerning zeal and without guidance, have fasted and made themselves physically ill or, worse, fallen into depression. Zeal must be tempered by the knowledge of our own weakness. Those who are fasting for the first time should begin by abstaining from meat, then, if they can, from fish, then, from eggs, next, from dairy products, and finally from wine and oil. Orthodox married couples who manage to keep this fast should then consider if they are able to abstain from marital relations during the fasts - but only by mutual consent and with the blessing of their confessor.

It is essential to underline that fasting and abstinence must be undertaken only within the Church, according to a rhythm of confession and communion. Otherwise the results can be baneful. Many may find that it takes them years to achieve this, but humility and patience must not be sacrificed to fiery zeal, which all too often becomes a passion. 'Let us have hearts of fire, but minds of ice'. said St Symeon the New Theologian in the eleventh century.

May the Lord God bless all our readers in their quest for spiritual health.

Fr Andrew, Advent 1997

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(c) Orthodox England - Published within the English Deanery of the Church Outside Russia: with the blessing of the Very Reverend Mark, Archbishop of Great Britain and Ireland.