Even as we enjoy the fast-free week before us, Orthodox Christians are preparing for the coming struggle of the Great Fast. To aim our readers in the preparation, we offer this excerpt on the spiritual discipline of fasting from the recent publication, A Practical Handbook for Priestly Ministry compiled by Holy Trinity Monastery and published by Holy Trinity Publications.
Here we must also speak of fasting, attentiveness, and sobriety, all of which the word of God joins with prayer: But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life.1 Be serious and watchful in your prayers2 …that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer3 Therefore, we also should in like manner offer our prayers, supplications, and thanksgivings with watchfulness and seriousness, and at the proper seasons also with fasting.
There are two forms of fasting—social and religious. The first kind is otherwise called philosophical or natural; so far as prescribed by medical rules, it falls under the subject of diet. The second kind, the religious or ecclesiastical fast, is a holy and Christian observance.
Fasting is abstinence from all kind of food and drink or at the very least from all that is pleasant or superfluous.
Fasting is abstinence from all kind of food and drink or at the very least from all that is pleasant or superfluous. Such a fast as this was ordained by God Himself in the Old Testament to be observed at the yearly purification: This shall be an ordinance forever for you: … you shall humble your souls with fasting.4 According to the example of this statute, whenever the Israelites repented before God, they always humbled their souls with fasting: The sons of Israel were assembled with fasting, in sackcloth, and with dust on their heads … and they stood in their place … and confessing to the Lord and worshiping the Lord their God. 5
Some holy fathers of the Church consider the beginning of fasting to be in paradise. St John Chrysostom, in his first sermon on Genesis, writes thus:
As gluttonous appetite is the source of countless evils for mankind, so also is fasting and the non-indulgence of the appetites of the belly the constant source to us of unspeakable benefits. Therefore God, when He had first made man and knew that this was the medicine he would most need for his soul’s salvation, gave him, even at the very beginning of all, this first commandment, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.’ By these words fasting was instituted.
St Basil, in his first sermon on fasting, traces it to the same beginning. Fasting was especially joined with prayer by all in the Old Testament at times when the Lord by His just judgment was preparing to bring any punishment on sinners. But even in this case, He Himself, solely in His love for mankind, willing to correct the children of Israel and to turn away His own just wrath, ordered all to fast and pray: Blow the trumpet in Zion, consecrate a fast, call a sacred assembly, gather the people, sanctify the congregation. 6 And such a public fast, joined with prayer, was always an effectual means of deliverance, as appears plainly from the same chapter, where the Lord, seeing them praying with fasting and weeping, turned His anger into mercy: The Lord was zealous for His land and spared His people. 7
In the New Testament, our Lord and Lawgiver Jesus Christ Himself fasted and in defending His disciples before the Pharisees He exempted them from fasting only while the Bridegroom was with them, but for all remaining time, after the Bridegroom would be taken away from them, He distinctly confirmed the duty, Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.“8Mt. 9:14–15 Furthermore, He instructed us how to fast, so that our fasting should not be like that of the Pharisees, nor have its reward from men, but from God: Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.9 And again, the great Physician of our souls and bodies Himself showed how great is the power and benefit of fasting when, for the expulsion of a devil that had settled itself in a man, He prescribed no other medicine than prayer and fasting: However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting 10
The fasts of the Church of the New Testament are nothing else than appointed times for repentance and days of yearly purification.
It is known to all that upon this foundation, that is, upon the words of God, Christ’s Church of the New Testament has appointed yearly fasts and particular days of abstinence. This was done so that the children of the new Israel, through prayer to God, with fasting and contrition of heart and confession of their sins, would be brought to true repentance. Consequently, the fasts of the Church of the New Testament are nothing else than appointed times for repentance and days of yearly purification.
The Christians of the first ages observed moderation and temperance always, and at appropriate seasons fasting also, joined with prayer, as the special marks among themselves of an honorable Christian life and decent civil society, and at all times they abhorred luxury and excess. To this St Clement of Alexandria bears testimony in the first and second books of The Instructor.
However, it is absolutely necessary that he who keeps outward fasts also fasts spiritually, that is, he who fasts and prays outwardly must at the same time avoid all sin and unrighteousness and be charitable and diligent in every good work. For …prayer is good with fasting, almsgiving, and righteousness. 13But if any man keeps the fasts extremely strictly, but remains without charity or honesty to his neighbor, such a fast is not acceptable to God:
If you fast for condemnations and quarrels, and to strike a humble man with your fists, why do you fast to Me as you do today, so your voice may be heard in crying? I did not choose this fast, and such a day for a man to humble his soul; nor if you should bow your neck like a ring and spread sackcloth and ashes under yourself, could you thus call such a fast acceptable. I did not choose such a fast. Says the Lord: ..rather loose every bond of wrongdoing; untie the knots of violent dealings; cancel the debts of the oppressed; and tear apart every unjust contract. Break your bread for the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house. If you see a naked man, clothe him, nor shall you disregard your offspring in your own household. Then your light shall break forth as the morning, and your healing shall spring forth quickly. Your righteousness shall go before you, and the glory of God shall cover you. Then you shall call cry out and God will hear you. While you are still speaking He will say, ‘Behold I am here’” 14
Similar instruction is also given by the Lord through the Prophet Zechariah15 See also St John Chrysostom, in his fourth sermon on Genesis, for a very profitable discussion on the same subject.
Sobriety is necessary for one’s entire life because without it a person cannot keep himself in order.
St John Chrysostom, in his first homily on Genesis, writes thus:
“See how Divine Scripture always reproves a life of indulgence! At one time it says, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play,’ at another, ‘Jeshurun ate and drank, grew fat, thick, and broad, and apostatized.’ And the people of Sodom, beside their other sins, by this sin most of all drew down upon themselves God’s wrath and destruction from heaven, for hear what the prophet said, ‘This was the iniquity of Sodom,’ for it was in fullness of bread and wine that they fell to lust after evil pleasures, and so intemperance is, as it were, the source and root of all evils.”
In order to be able to observe the order of prayer and all other duties connected with it, we have the greatest need of spiritual sobriety and vigilance, nor can we neglect these duties as regards the body. This rule is prescribed us by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself: Take heed, watch, and pray; and what I say to you, I say to all: Watch! 19 Behold, I am coming as a thief. Blessed is he who watches, and keeps his garments, lest he walk naked and they see his shame. 20 And the Apostles also, in the spirit of Christ’s words, exhort us to do the same: Be sober, be vigilant. 21 Let us not sleep, as do others, but let us watch and be sober 22 Such attentiveness and sobriety are no less necessary for Christians than eyes are for our bodies or the light of the sun for our eyes.
All these things—fasting, attentiveness, sobriety, prayers night and day, ascetic labors and struggles—are appointed in the Lord’s commandments solely to help us become holy and blameless before God
All these things—fasting, attentiveness, sobriety, prayers night and day, ascetic labors and struggles—are appointed in the Lord’s commandments solely to help us become holy and blameless before God in the faith of the Gospel and in love, that is, to fill us with the fruits of the Holy Spirit. But if these are not found in us, then all our prayers and labors will profit us nothing, as the example of the five foolish virgins plainly shows:
And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding; and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open to us!’ But He answered and said, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming 25Matt 25:10–13
A Practical Handbook for Priestly Ministry is a guide for the contemporary Orthodox priest in his application of the Apostle’s words to his everyday life, as he serves to convey God’s grace as a shepherd of Christ’s flock. It focuses on the internal formation and preparation of the soul that should underpin the priest’s pastoral mission.
The text was edited and compiled by Holy Trinity Monastery from recent and historical sources reflecting the rich heritage of the Russian Orthodox Church, for the benefit of the twenty-first century pastor and aspirant to the priesthood. It is replete with detailed quotations from the Holy Fathers and the Canons, together with over one hundred references to Holy Scriptures, covering every conceivable pastoral issue.