As we discussed last week, one of the principal benefits of fasting is because of the physiological and psychological benefits that a substantial and committed approach to fasting generally has upon one’s actual efforts to pray seriously. I suggested then, however, that there are other benefits of fasting that are available even for those of us who do nothing more than keep the basic fasting rules regarding what types of food may or may not be eaten on given days (although I do suggest that one not simply replace meat and dairy products with equivalent quantities of simple carbohydrates and processed food – that way diabetes lies!) In this case, the principal benefit of fasting to those who keep these rules is that of character-building, in that the practice makes one more virtuous through a habitual obedience that develops in us the more general virtue of self-restraint. Fasting, to put it bluntly, gives us practice in setting our own desires to one side for the purpose of fulfilling God’s will.
It is hard to avoid self-centeredness.
Contrary to certain romantic opinions, we do not come into the world as gentle, kindly, and self-effacing noble savages, and for good reason. As psycho-physical creatures of sense, we cannot help but see and experience the world through our own bodies and our own experiences. Whether we like it or not, the narrative of our lives is, from the very beginning, written in the first person singular, and this “situation” precedes our full exercise of reason. We must, in fact, be taught to overcome our egotism, firstly by our parents, and then by our religious faith, and this business is part of the reason for the hard work of ascetical practice. For while our moral instructors, our religious faith and, eventually, even our own fully developed adult intellect–not to mention the still, small voice of God–all call us to generalize this first person experience, and to recognize that it is neither unique nor particularly advantaged, but rather the same sort of experience shared by all of the creatures that God has made, it can be difficult, as a practical matter, to do so. We are constantly being redirected by our strongly felt emotional needs and desires to think of ourselves as the center of creation and as the benchmark by which all things are measured.
Overcoming this self-obsession, however, is vital for the spiritual life, since the egotistical attitude is both objectively false and spiritually poisonous. The world does not revolve around me. It is not oriented upon me. It does not derive its goodness, its character, or its existence from me, but from God. It is, indeed, His will and not mine that is to be done, just as we pray every day, using the prayer Jesus gave us.
In following the “fasting rules” of the Church we are, in at least one simple, clear, and deliberate way, humbly accepting and acknowledging our own peripheral place in the greater scheme of things. We are doing that which we have been asked to do by God, through his Church: setting aside our own inconsequential but strongly felt desires for delicacies, intense flavors, and full stomachs, in order to accept the simpler fare recommended to us for our spiritual benefit and for the better provisioning of others (since charitable giving, too, is part of what is enjoined upon us during the fast). We are humbly acknowledging that God’s will has a prior claim on us than our own desires and that we are, by virtue of our more limited perspective, rather poorly equipped to determine what is good for ourselves and others anyway.
By means of such ascesis–embraced and accepted over and over again during all the other prescribed fasts of the Church–we gradually develop within ourselves the habit of unflinchingly setting aside our own irrational desires in order to do what we are asked to do by God. This creation of a space between our desires and their fulfillment–a space that enables us to consider the relevance upon the morality of our actions of God’s laws and the needs and concerns of others–is of inestimable importance in the religious life. To make moral decisions, one must develop the habit of giving oneself the time and space to decide whether or not “doing what one feels like” is actually for the best. If one cannot set aside one’s desires long enough to consider this question, then one cannot live for God or for others, and one becomes locked up into one’s own small world of self-interest. Fasting, then, is one of several ascetic practices that enable a Christian to transcend his or her own personal self-obsessions in order to enter into a world of genuine and responsible freedom, attuned to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, by which one is made “fit for every good work.”
Before I conclude, I’d like to briefly touch upon the wretched matter of “legalism” and “following rules.” There are some people, even in the Church, who act as though following rules is a Bad Thing or that living a life according to the wise precepts handed down to us by our religious tradition is somehow inferior to a more “authentic” and “spiritual” life in which we make things up as we go along, or in which we only do those things that we are commanded to do when we feel interiorly moved to do so. This way of thinking about things manifests a basic moral confusion in that it pits authenticity against obedience rather than pitting the authenticity of humility against arrogance and pride, the real sins of the Pharisees whom Christ warned us against in Scripture. Jesus did not condemn the Pharisees for following rules, but rather for feeling self-satisfied for doing so and for playing parlor games in which they used one set of rules to justify overlooking far more significant religious and ethical obligations.
As I say, I don’t have time to go into this issue at any great length, but as a thought experiment, I would like you, my reader, to try and imagine how you would feel if a parent of a two-year-old told you something like “well, yes, I feed my child every day, but only because I really want to–if I didn’t feel like feeding her it would be wrong for me to do so because it would be, like, you know, so inauthentic!” I trust the example itself makes it clear enough that there is something wrong with this way of talking and thinking. Some things–indeed, most things worth doing at all–are important enough that they should be done even when we don’t feel like doing them–and the doing so is neither blameworthy nor inauthentic. Christianity calls us to strive to bring our feelings into line with what we most seriously believe to be right and good, rather than the other way around. A spirituality that has no time for rules is, more often than not, merely an excuse for moral and spiritual laxity.
Next week, we’ll look at the last of the three advantages of fasting–that it provides us with a way of participating in a higher life, one that reflects the life of paradise, and the life that is to come.
About the Author
This is a guest post from Fr. Cassian Sibley at The Life-Giving Spring of the Mother of God Russian Orthodox Church in Bryan, TX. His wife is a college professor, and his daughter is a freshman in college. He was raised in Africa, and is an adult convert to Orthodoxy. Fr. Cassian also has an active prison ministry, and in his spare time is a permaculturalist and organic gardener.
Disclaimer: Orthodoxy is not a minimalist faith (“God has a checklist of stuff for me to do. What is the minimum I can do to be saved?”) but a maximalist faith (“God and the experience of God is inexhaustible. There is always more I can do to love more purely, repent more earnestly, pray more fervently.”). This means that no list of five things can encompass the spiritual life. These five things are intended simply to cultivate the beginnings of the right kind of attitude to live a life of prayer.
1. Find a Spiritual Guide
Christianity is not a religion meant for the individual–we’re meant to be in communion with Christ, and that includes His Body. It’s so important to having an authentically Christian life to live within the community of believers (and yes, that includes the ones you don’t like or don’t get along with, too). But all relationships within the Church are not equal: having Christ-centered peers is imperative, but having a spiritual guide, someone who is further along the path than you, who sees you in a different light than you see yourself, who can understand your struggles and show you the right direction, is essential to a healthy spiritual life. You really can’t do this for yourself. It’s just not possible. It’s like trying to be married to yourself–it doesn’t make any sense, doesn’t allow for love of another, and it’s a bit delusional.
This passage from the Wisdom of Sirach (which I highly recommend for college students–it’s between the Wisdom of Solomon and Hosea in your OSB) says it all:
Stand in an assembly of the elders,
And who is wise? Attach yourself to him.
Desire to listen to every divine narrative,
And do not let proverbs of understanding escape you.
If you see a man who has understanding,
Rise early in the morning
And let your foot wear out the threshold of his door. 6:34-36
Having a spiritual guide is way more than having someone to go to when you mess up. It’s about seeking after someone who lives a godly life in a manner you can strive to imitate. One my dearest spiritual guides is a mother who exemplifies Christian love and prayer in the way she wipes up boogers, does her dishes, and greets her guests. She’s someone whose threshold I cross as often as is possible, whose narratives and proverbs I cling to.
2. Try Not to Make Excuses
It can be so easy and so tempting in the midst of life’s goings-on to start to make little excuses on not-so-little things. We tell ourselves, “It’s been such a busy week, and I have so much going on right now, there’s just no way I could make it to church/wake up and pray/go to OCF/etc.,” or we tell ourselves, “We’re all human. Everybody makes mistakes. That little one I made was really no big deal in the grand scheme of things. It could’ve been way worse.” The latter excuse sounds a lot like some guy we’re gonna hear about this Sunday in church, and let’s just say, that he’s not the guy we want to imitate. The problem with the former excuse is that, over time, a one-time thing becomes a habit. If we’re willing to make the excuse occasionally, we’re likely to slip into habitual laziness and forgetfulness.
Now, this isn’t saying there aren’t legitimate reasons that one might miss church, but our priorities have to be in order, and we have to be truly honest as to what our motivations are. Being honest with where we are and not making excuses for ourselves and our mistakes requires a constant process of reevaluating ourselves and our intentions (see #1 for assistance in this area).
3. Focus on Yourself
Every person is on their own journey, even those of us in the Church who are trying to follow the one True Way. It is completely fruitless, then, to compare yourself to other people or spend time mulling over what everyone else is or isn’t doing or try to “fix” other people. Just don’t do it. It’s the beginning of judgement of others, despair, and spiritual delusion. We only have complete dominion over own thoughts, words, and actions, and it is there that we should focus our time and energy. I always remind myself that I have enough problems and passions hiding in the corners of my heart to last me a lifetime; there’s no time for me to wonder why someone else is eating meat on a Friday.
4. Have Hope
I think a particular struggle of college students today is the feeling that the world has become overwhelmingly bad and that we are helpless to do anything about it. People can seem so divided against one another over the smallest of things, and yet we are constantly told to use our own virtue and skill (yikes) to help heal humanity. But the truth is God is always present, and it is He who cares for all things–from our tiniest personal struggles to the wars and rumors of wars that plague our world. Offer up earnest prayer on behalf of all, and take solace in the words of the psalmist:
Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob;
His hope is in the Lord his God,
Who made heaven and earth,
The sea and everything in them,
Who keeps truth forever,
Who executes justice for the wronged,
Who provides food for the hungry.
The Lord frees those bound.
The Lord restores those broken down.
The Lord gives wisdom to the blind.
The Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord keeps watch over resident aliens.
He shall adopt the orphan and the widow.
But He shall destroy the way of sinners. 145:5-9
5. Keep Doing a Little
Becoming a saint doesn’t happen overnight, and there are no shortcuts. Now, this can cause us to throw up our hands and give up or it can be an invitation to patience, with God, with ourselves, and with others. In the meantime, keep doing a little. Go to church. Make your cross before you eat. Say your morning and evening prayers. Read a little Scripture. Get to know the saints. Find little ways to pray through your day, one little thing at a time.
I know someone who told me that a few years ago, when she was having a lot of bad dreams, she started making the sign of the cross and reciting “Let God arise, and let His enemies be scattered,” right before she fell asleep, and now, it’s become such a habit that she doesn’t fall asleep without saying that little prayer. Another person shared with me that whenever he hears a siren of a police car, ambulance, or firetruck he crosses himself and says, “Lord have mercy on those in harm’s way.”
Perhaps in such a simple manner–and with hope, humility, earnestness, and guidance–our lives can become unceasing prayer.
As Orthodox we always ask ourselves how much publicity and noise we should make on campus. We have left the home, the comfortable context where we feel our identity to be less challenged. Morality was also easier with someone else in charge: parents, priest, home parish community, etc. So here we are at college, learning to stand on our own feet (hopefully). Who are we? Do we shout “ORTHODOX HERE!?” Do we forsake Church with the first mistakes and signs of imperfection or impurity? We are learning to be ourselves but are told to be free of pride… How do we manage it all?
Sin and temptation that comes in a time of freedom and uncertainty is also a providential place of challenge that helps us grow and improve spiritually. There are some shocking sayings of St. Anthony in the Alphabetic Collection of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers:
Anthony said to Abba Poemen,
4. This is the great work of a man: always to take the blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath.’ 5. He also said, “Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.’ He even added, ‘Without temptations, no-one can be saved.’ 6. Abba Pambo asked Abba Anthony, “What ought I to do?’ and the old man said to him, ‘do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach.’ 7. Abba Anthony said, ‘I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, “What can get through from such snares?” Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility.”
The readings before Lent challenge us to not argue about things with people who have different opinions: “As for the man who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not for disputes over opinions. One believes he may eat anything, while the weak man eats only vegetables.” (Romans 14:1-2) We control the “tongue and… stomach.” Notice: we are eating vegetables now! We do this to repent, or “re-think” and change, gain confidence in God’s ability to change us. This is humility—to know that God gives victory, not our righteousness, successes, intellect, or purity. Everything else is defeat; only Christ’s humility is perfect faith. We feel it by the Paschal vigil, when we are tired, weak and hungry…
We ask “Who are we and how do we define ourselves?” Be defined by going to Church, believing, self-restraint and the confidence that does not proclaim our righteousness, but rather the confidence of Christ’s silence, God’s silence at the Cross, the silence of the life-giving Tomb and the silence of Christ who is in the “hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison…”(Mathew 25:44). This silence is what teaches us to listen to and love others. This silence (of mouth, mind, internet) is what gets us through the “snares,” the mistakes we have to ‘make for ourselves.’ The prodigal son knows this. We will have temptations and fall; we can only learn humility this way—the confidence that God saves and raises us. This is the truly successful OCF chapter:
where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all. (Colossians 3:11, OSB)
My practical tip, the one which is best borne out by working with OCF chapters, is this: Learn restraint and silence together!
All the ideas and programs in the world don’t help without learning humility and restraint that guide us toward confidence in Christ.
About the Author
This is a guest post from Fr. Elijah Mueller. Fr. Elijah is the pastor of St. Makarios Mission, OCA, at the University of Chicago and the Director of the Diocese of the Midwest OCA Catechist and Diaconal Vocations Program. He is the Chapter Spiritual Advisor at the University of Chicago, and the Great Lakes Regional Spiritual Advisor for OCF. He is currently completing his Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Marquette University, which he will complete this Spring. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.