March 23, 2019
The superior (abbot) of the famous Studite Lavra (Monastery) of the Dormition, Fr. Makariy, shares some thoughts on fasting as we find ourselves making the journey of Lent - the Great Fast. Some might see in his observations positions that of a truly monastic outlook. However, as Fr. Makariy points out, we each must make our own decision as to how deeply we want to enter into the fast and enter into the spiritual life...
FASTING, SERIOUS FASTING CAN REVEAL NEW INSIGHTS INTO THE SPIRITUAL LIFE
We now [find ourselves] in the period of the Great Fast (Lent). For Christians, this fast is very important. Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself gave us the example of fasting. Before going out to proclaim the Good News - the Gospel - to all people, Jesus Christ fasted for 40 days and 40 nights. St. Basil the Great says that the practice of fasting is as ancient as mankind itself. Still in the Old Testament the prophets fasted, as did the righteous men and all the patriarchs - Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. Ancient philosophers also maintained a fast, because fasting for them was a type of internal force, an interior strength. Because, truly during a fast a person feels a closer connection with God.
When reading the lives of the Saints, we often come upon accounts about people that fasted prior to a difficult task in life, so that the Lord would grant them a more profound strength. Even great warriors would keep a strict fast before a great battle in order that the Lord might accord them greater strength.
Presently, people are given a different sense of fasting. A fast often carries a purely symbolic characterization. Some people decide, for example, to not eat meat with the intention that their mother would recover from an illness or to have success in studies or for work. The holy Fathers used to employ fasting as a means to enhance the fervour of their prayer so that their prayer would become more pleasing and fervent before God. With such a method of fasting and prayer before God they asked for various gifts.
Often the holy Fathers said, "offer the flesh in sacrifice and receive the spirit". Besides the spiritual factor, the nature of regular human psychology is also at work. When we deny ourselves something bodily, we can be certain to discover something of a spiritual nature.
Fasting must be connected with our faith in God. Otherwise what we are dealing with is a regular diet.
Many Christians, before a fast begins, resolve to abstain from certain foods or from some practices that they believe they abuse in their daily lives. This is also important. Because by doing so we acknowledge our weaknesses. But what is most important during a fast is that a person feels the special state of spirit - of having drawn closer to the Lord.
A fast will not be authentic without physical abstinence.
I can tell you from my own experience that after the second or third week of a strict fast, spiritual gifts begin to appear. A person will not experience this if the practice is merely to not eat meat a couple of times a week. Yes, the Church does not direct modern man to maintain a strict fast. This is a choice that each person must make. However, if a person does not choose a stricter fast, the person will not fully experience the glories and beauty of Lent.
I will share something of my own experience. From young childhood I was taught to fast. At home, during the Great Fast, we never ate fast food. For ten years, during the Great Fasts - [40 days before] Christmas and Easter - I completely abstained from food, living only on liquid nourishment.
I can assure you, that it is then that great internal strength comes to light. One's interior nature begins to reveal itself in a different way. It happened for me that after a couple weeks of fasting when one of the priests would preach a homily or speak on a spiritual topic, tears would start to emanate as though something was released from within me. These were not tears of sadness or sorrow of some kind, but rather of joy that is difficult to explain in words. It can only be experienced.
It's sort of odd that a person abstains from meat, but yet eats fish. Such a fast really doesn't make a lot of sense, because the person will not experience the desired result. After all, to open up a different spiritual state, one must become a bit physically weakened.
The [Roman] Catholic Church asks its faithful to maintain a fast only on Fridays. While according to the [new] particular law of our [Ukrainian Catholic] Church, the faithful are asked to maintain the fast on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The Church made that decision [of a fairly lax fast] like a good mother, since at the end of the 20th Century people became for dynamic and people worked more and get tired more.
Friday, however, continues to be an important day for fasting. After all, we Christians remember that it was on a Friday that Jesus Christ was crucified. I always ask people; can they really not give up at least meat for the sake of the Lord - Who gave up His life for us on the cross?
In general, seeking only enjoyment in food - is also not healthy. God gave us food as a divine gift. And we should consume it calmly, not paying it more attention than we do to spiritual things. We eat to physically stay alive.
The early Church Fathers when consuming food were really concerned with provoking God by deriving greater enjoyment from that food than they did from prayer. So, they even did things like - pour sea water over their food and ate it like that. We cannot criticize them for this. They simply loved God so much that they did not want to disappoint Him even by their smallest action.
We can become fasters in our daily life. Do not assault your innards with great volumes of food, but eat half as much, and then later, even less. The human mind and spirit can then be liberated from that physical burden. And, besides, the human organism does not need as much food as people regularly consume.
Hieromonk Fr. Makariy
Abbot of the Dormition Lavra monastery of Univ, Ukraine
[BTW - Fr Makariy, besides the spiritual life, also knows something about physical health... he was the 2017 GPF world bench-press champion]