For this, the last week of my responses (Part I and Part II) to the question of “why is fasting important?”, I would like to look at fasting as a way of participating in a higher and more noble mode of living, a means by which we consciously emulate (to the extent that it is possible for us to do) the circumstances of the life of the Paradise that was lost, and the life of the Kingdom that is to come, a life the monastics in the “angelic habit” seek more fully to emulate in their daily life.
Why is this important? Unfortunately, under the circumstances of our fallen existence as human beings, we must participate in thousands of complex and often impossible to unravel systems of violence and deception. Everything from the clothing we wear, the energy resources we use, the financial systems we participate in, and the political systems of the nations in which we live are all tainted with abuse, waste, oppression, and violence in ways that we are often largely unaware of and in ways that we often cannot, by ourselves, repair or avoid even when we come to fully understand them. This is tragic, and the complexities of these realities often blunt our sense of sorrow or responsibility to repent for the shared sins and misfortunes that we are participants in.
The reality and significance of this kind of situation is reflected in the ancient Biblical story, in which the fundamental biological realities of death and decay enter the world as a result of human iniquity–a circumstance that only God, in His restoration of all creation, can finally repair. In response to the resulting human desperation, God subjects His creation to human necessities, providing clothes of skin from the bodies of slain creatures and permitting human beings to eat the flesh of animals who must suffer death for us to do so. This was then, and still is, a currently necessary state of affairs–for straightforward biological and agrinomical reasons. Even now, the world’s agricultural system could not function well or sustainably provide food for everyone were all, or even most, humans strict vegetarians or vegans–and we are certainly neither commanded nor expected to refrain from eating meat by the Orthodox faith. But our status as part-time carnivores comes at a price, and we should never shed the blood of other creatures lightly or without consideration for the well-being and care of the animals that we must raise for our own consumption. Fasting from meat (and this prohibition against meat during the fast is also related to the reasons for which both wine and oil, each of which were stored in animal skins in ancient times, were proscribed by the canons) is a way of limiting our dependence upon such a system of innocent suffering and an ecclesiasial and personal acknowledgment that such dependence, even though necessary and unavoidable as things now stand, is not a reflection of the ultimate and final will of God for his creation.
Here, too, is found the symbolic significance and importance of the canonical proscription of sexual relations between married individuals during the fast–as fallen creatures, humans participate in a biological world of procreation, birth, and death, a fact that the Patristic fathers also referred back to this business of God clothing human beings with “coats of skin.” Since procreation is necessary for the continuance of our race, the conjunction of this necessary biological function with the deep and lovely intimacy that grows up between maritally committed spouses is something which is God-pleasing and beneficial within the current organization of things. It is, however, something which will ultimately be transcended in the kingdom, where biological reproduction will serve no useful function, and where the related love and intimacy of the married state will be elevated to transcend the particulars of any individual relationship, becoming part of the greater love that unites the people of God to one another and to Christ. In either case, whether when fasting from food, or from sex, those who are fasting set aside, if only temporarily and by anticipation, the particular and the transitory, for that which is eternal and ultimate. In doing so, they find their aspirations clarified, their desires elevated, and their tragic participation in structures dependent upon death, decay, and the related to be warily re-examined with an eye to greater and more careful spiritual discrimination, moral self-examination, and sorrowful repentance.
As I hope to have convincingly argued, fasting is of incalculable benefit for Orthodox Christians. I hope, however, to have been equally clear that I am not encouraging anyone to start looking down their noses at those who have not yet embraced the fasting rules of the Church. Even less am I seeking to encourage the more obnoxious amongst us to engage in obsessive label reading of their roommates’ canned food products. Fasting, as I said at the outset of this series, is a second-order virtuous activity, one which is spiritually beneficial principally because of what it enables us to do, learn, or achieve. For rather obvious reasons, one can only benefit spiritually from one’s own fasting. Even then, one does not, as it were, acquire brownie points in heaven for fasting, nor does one seek to “earn” one’s salvation by starving oneself. Christ has told us what He shall ask us at the day of judgement, and whether or not we have fasted is not one of His questions. Indeed, given the character of those questions, extreme fasting without any effort to pray more, or to become more receptive to God’s grace, or to become more decent and kindly to others, is worse than useless, since it deprives the one who engages in such a pointless activity of the good and gracious things of God’s physical creation without increasing in him or her a portion of the better things of God’s uncreated grace. In the reasonable context of an authentically and piously lived Christian life, however, fasting is a genuine mode of participation in God’s grace–one that is, when combined with charitable acts, increased participation in the liturgical services of the Church, and regular participation and receptions of the Mysteries (especially Eucharist and Confession), strongly conducive to one’s own spiritual growth and eventual theosis.
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.
College is a challenge. A challenge to your mind, a challenge to your body (who needs sleep??), and often a challenge to your faith, your morals, your standards of right and wrong.
So how do you respond to these challenges? Do you hide under a rock for four years and hope nothing sneaks up on you? Do you throw yourself into the college culture with abandon and hope you can sort the tough stuff out later? How will you decide when to engage and when to take a pass?
I think some times when we face a difficult moral decision, we’d all like it to be as simple as sending in a permission slip to God, “Check ‘yes’ if this is allowed; check ‘no’ if this is a sin.” Sorry, not gonna happen. But if you’re doubting your moral compass, here are some ways to check yourself:
- Everything matters. First off, let’s get one thing clear: everything we think, say, and do affects who we are and how we relate to God and others. Now, you can look at this as an onerous cloud hanging over you or you can think of it as a blessing that every single breath you take is an opportunity to love, ask forgiveness, show mercy, spread joy, offer prayer, be patient, give thanks, promote peace, stand up for the oppressed, and dedicate yourself more fully to God.
- Some things are pretty clear-cut. We may struggle with the idea, but some things are simply forbidden by God because, like a good Father, he really does know what’s best for us. The limits placed on our actions are laid out for us in Scripture and throughout the Tradition of our Church and are there to lead us on a path that allows us to be freed from the bonds of sin and able to love truly. I find the opening list from the Didache (a first century Church document) helpful for learning to integrate God’s commandments into my own heart and actions.
- Accountability to others helps. Whether it’s through confession and counsel with a priest, which we can’t encourage enough, or through your OCF peers who know you and your Orthodox standards well, accountability for your actions helps you make decisions more clearly. If you’re not sure if going to some party is a good idea or being in a particular situation will be healthy, having someone who loves you and whom you trust to call upon can be invaluable.
- Prayer is always the key. Having a regular and rich prayer life which includes both communal and personal prayer time and the reading of Scripture is the sure way to develop a discerning heart. Letting Christ dwell within you will let you see with His eyes and desire with the will of His Father. A nun once suggested to us in a College Conference workshop that we make a commitment to pray, “Lord bless this,” before everything we did. Her advice was that if we couldn’t ask for a blessing on our actions, then it probably wasn’t the right decision.
You’ll be faced with all kinds of challenges and moral decisions in college and throughout your life–sometimes you’ll make the right decision, sometimes the wrong one. When you go the wrong way, come to your senses quickly, run to God, and sincerely repent. Sin is missing the mark which means when you mess up that you’re in need of more target practice (prayer) and a good coach (a spiritual guide). Always remember that as you learn and grow, fall and get back up, God is with you, He loves you, He desires your salvation, and His Church always opens Her arms to you.
So, I went to the doctor recently since I wasn’t feeling at all well after dragging a cold around for a few weeks. As usually happens, it had locked my chest up tight and I wasn’t getting any better. The friendly receptionist checked me in quickly and, after taking my vitals, directed me to the examination room.
Soon enough the doctor entered the room and asked “What seems to be the problem?” I really wanted to tell him about my cold and chest congestion and how miserable I felt but was embarrassed and afraid that he might think poorly of me for not washing my hands frequently, not eating properly, and not exercising, so I mumbled; “Nothing.”
There I sat with relief from my suffering at hand but I couldn’t bring myself to admit the reality of my illness. So I left the office no better, with no prescription in hand, and no reason to hope I would improve anytime soon!
Rather silly, huh? We can easily understand how vitally important it is for us to level with our family doctor about our physical ailments but we struggle with applying the same logic to our spiritually lives. Simply substitute the word “priest” for “doctor” and “sins” for “a cold” in the anecdote above and you get the point.
In precisely the same way that we wouldn’t anticipate being judged for being ill (after all, even doctors get sick, right?) we should not anticipate being judged when we go to confession in our parish (after all, even priests sin, right?) As with the physician, so with the priest; confession is not about judgment, it is about divine healing!
Like a cold virus, sin attacks the host. St. Paul wrote the believers in Rome (6:23) “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” God is not offended or diminished in any way by my sins. It is I myself who am harmed by the sins I commit. Sin pays a “wage” and that wage is death.
But since Jesus Christ is the “Great Physician,” He desires to make us well, to bind up our broken parts, to cleanse our wounds, to nurture us back to good health, and to set us on the path to recovery. And the means He has ordained for this healing ministry is the Holy Mystery of Confession.
Some people today make the claim that confession is unnecessary but St. James disagrees when he writes (James 5:16) “Confess your faults one to another that you may be healed.” And for centuries Christians did precisely that; confessed their sins publicly in the Church before receiving Holy Communion. But as our Church communities grew, it became necessary for confession to take place privately between the penitent and the priest.
God is merciful and He desires our salvation as St. John famously wrote (1 John 1:9) “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” And much hinges on that little word “if.” In order to confess our sins we must first admit that we have them. And everyone sins!
But beyond merely wiping the slate clean of our sins through confession, these regular check-ups with our spiritual physicians establishes a regimen of spiritual wellness. We receive wisdom from the Holy Spirit, light for our path, and the strength to keep walking. The weight of our sins is removed as we reconcile with God as He pulls us into His embrace to say “I love you, my child! Don’t give up! I walk beside you!”
We may have many who judge us in this life but God isn’t one of them! Jesus Himself says; (John 3:17) “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world but so that the world might be saved through Him.” And as I kneel in front of my spiritual father when I confess I know that I am not receiving judgment but divine healing!
For the sake of our souls, we must run to Holy Confession frequently to be refreshed and made well and to be reminded of Christ’s love for us “who Himself bore our sins” (1 Peter 2:24) as we lay our sins, doubts, and worries at His feet!
About the Author
This is a guest post from Fr. Apostolos Hill at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix, AZ. Fr. Apostolos has been active in OCF in a variety of areas; hosting regional retreats, leading OCF Real Break trips to Greece, Guatemala, and Skid Row, and in the College Conference West.
In the late fourth century in North Africa, a boy who would one day become a saint was born. The path of sanctity, however, was not paved with simplicity or virtue for St. Augustine in the beginning.
Born in a Roman family of moderate standing, St. Augustine’s parents highly valued education for their son. They did everything within their means to make sure that he went to the best schools and was able to receive the training he needed to be a highly successful rhetorician when he graduated. Though St. Augustine wasn’t terribly interested in his education, he did what his parents required of him.
What Augustine was interested in doing during his “college years” was getting by and having a good time with his friends. In his Confessions, Augustine admits that he felt that his parents were willing to turn a blind eye to his social and moral decisions so long as he completed his education. So while he was completing his studies, Augustine was also spending his time partying with his friends, satisfying his lusts, and pulling mindless pranks. When his mother finally realized a little of what was going on and warned him against certain behaviors, especially with women, Augustine scoffed at her reprimands and continued on his destructive path.
As a student and citizen of Rome, Augustine was also exposed to a variety of philosophies and religions. It was around the time of his late-teens and early-twenties when Augustine joined the ranks of the Gnostic sect, the Manicheans, turning away from the little bit of Christian upbringing that he had been given. He also dabbled in astrology for many years and later when he had abandoned Manicheaism, was interested in the philosophy of Neoplatonism.
In the meantime, his mother Monica had been drawn more strongly to the Christian faith and began to encourage her son to abandon his profligacy and worldliness to become a follower of Christ. Under the influence of St. Ambrose of Milan, Augustine began to learn about the teachings of Christ and the Christian way of life. For many years, Augustine struggled in his heart with Christianity, knowing especially that a true conversion would mean a huge change in lifestyle for him (by this time, he had been living with the same woman out of wedlock for 13 years and had fathered a son by her).
Eventually, Augustine was convicted by the life of St. Anthony the Great, and made his full confession of Christ, repenting of his past sins and committing himself to a life of purity, charity, and repentance. It was then, at the age of 32, that St. Augustine began to move away from destruction and towards Life. Today, the Church commemorates him as a blessed bishop who fought against heresy, wrote beautiful spiritual books such as his Confessions, and lived a life pleasing to God rather than one pleasing only to himself.
St. Augustine’s moment of conversion in his own words:
I flung myself down under a fig tree—how I know not—and gave free course to my tears. The streams of my eyes gushed out an acceptable sacrifice to thee. And, not indeed in these words, but to this effect, I cried to thee: “And thou, O Lord, how long? How long, O Lord? Wilt thou be angry forever? Oh, remember not against us our former iniquities.” For I felt that I was still enthralled by them. I sent up these sorrowful cries: “How long, how long? Tomorrow and tomorrow? Why not now? Why not this very hour make an end to my uncleanness?”
I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl I know not which—coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.” Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon. For I had heard how Anthony, accidentally coming into church while the gospel was being read, received the admonition as if what was read had been addressed to him: “Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.” By such an oracle he was forthwith converted to thee.
So I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle’s book when I had left there. I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.>
Closing the book, then, and putting my finger or something else for a mark I began—now with a tranquil countenance—to tell it all to Alypius. And he in turn disclosed to me what had been going on in himself, of which I knew nothing. He asked to see what I had read. I showed him, and he looked on even further than I had read. I had not known what followed. But indeed it was this, “Him that is weak in the faith, receive.”
Source: St. Augustine’s Confessions, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/augustine/confessions.toc.html