Square Zero

A Bit Slow on Fasting

Posted by Eric (March 10, 2006 at 4:45 pm)

“There is no Lent without fasting.” —Alexander Schmemann

HogsheadLately I’ve heard some interesting discussion on Catholic radio about fasting and abstinence. It’s encouraging to hear people talking about fasting and even proposing to restore the tradition of abstinence from meat on Fridays throughout the year. But some of the discussion seems to miss the mark.

For one thing, after all the playing up of the value of fasting, we’re informed the the Church asks us to fast for a whopping two days every year. And they make out fasting from meat for a few Fridays every year to be some sort of tremendous sacrifice that we can hardly accomplish without great encouragment.

But more importantly, I think they miss the entire point of fasting, which is not just to make a kind of generic sacrifice. It is not true, as one so often hears, that it isn’t so important that one fast from food, that it’s just as worthwhile to give something else up instead—say, watching your favorite TV show.

It’s worthwhile to give up any good thing to which one is attached. I’ve given up, for example, listening to talk radio, and in addition to the value of the sacrifice itself, it is enlightening to learn how much of my time I thoughtlessly fill up with this noise—and to rediscover silence. But there is something particularly worthwhile about fasting from food, even essential.

Man Does Not Live By Bread Alone

The best treatment on this subject I’ve found is by Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, in his excellent little book, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha. Schmemann declares that fasting is “something decisive and ultimate” which is “connected with the very mystery of life and death, of salvation and damnation.”

Schmemann points to the sin of Adam, a sin of eating, contrasting this with Christ’s refusal to eat while fasting in the desert. Christ resists the temptation to which Adam succumbed, believing the lie of the devil. Adam eats for its own sake, as if he has life within himself rather than as a gift from God, and thus “life ‘by bread alone’ is identified with death.” We have inheritied that lie:

Man is still Adam, still the slave of “food.” He may claim that he believes in God but God is not his life, his food, the all-embracing content of his existence. He may claim that he receives his life from God, but he doesn’t live in God and for God. His science, his experience, his self-consciousness are all built on that same principle: “by bread alone.” We eat in order to be alive but we are not alive in God. This is the sin of all sins. This is the verdict of death pronounced on our life.

Fasting is the key to breaking out of the lie that we can live “by bread alone.” Schmemann declares that “fasting is the only means by which man recovers his true spiritual nature.” We must embrace hunger, the pain of being deprived of food: “Hunger is that state in which we realize our dependence on something else—when we urgently and essentially need food—showing thus that we have no life in ourselves.”

Fasting liberates us from Satan’s great lie:

[I]f one is hungery and then discovers that he can truly be independent of that hunger, not be destroyed by it but just on the contrary, can transform it into a source of spirtual power and victory, then nothing remains of that great lie in which we have been living since Adam.

We Must Suffer in the Flesh

So it is not enough to “give something up,” as worthwhile as that is in itself. We must, according to our station in life, specifically give up food—that is to say, reduce our intake of food to the point that we suffer hunger. No other thing that we might give up causes this kind of suffering.

We might strongly desire to watch that TV show, to read those blogs; denying the desire for the marital embrace can be particularly difficult—but in none of these privations do we feel pain. (Deprivation from sleep is the only other kind that causes pain—a suffering which has likewise been embraced by the great monastics.)

Fasting makes us feel our sacrifice in the flesh and not just in the mind. And since we are not merely mental beings but embodied persons, this suffering in the flesh reintegrates body and soul, yielding great spiritual benefits. Schmemann remarks that “this ascetical fast rather than weakening us makes us light, concentrated, sober, joyful, pure.” (I can attest that the fast will indeed make one lightheaded at the very least.)

Of course, true fasting is never easy: “[I]f it is true fasting it will lead to tempatation, weakness, doubt and irritation. . . . [I]t will be a real fight.”

It is this last observation which I think accounts for why fasting is being embraced with such enthusiasm by so many of us—because it is a real fight, and a real fight is precisely what we’re itching for.

The traditional fast challenges us to do battle with ourselves, with our fallen nature and our temptations, with the Tempter himself—to complete Christ’s suffering for us in our own flesh. The fast dares us to be truly alive.

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5 Responses to “A Bit Slow on Fasting”

  1. John Carriere says:

    Not a thrill of success, there’s a kind of gladness in this hunger. Satisfaction in dissatisfaction. Unexpected spiritual benefits, I guess.

    Comment posted March 11th, 2006 at 12:59 am
  2. James Fitzgerald says:

    One thing we often miss though, even when plunging headlong into fasting, is that it should – as the Church says in this Lenten season – go with almsgiving. It seems there are three areas where God – or Satan – can really get to us: the stomach, the ‘zipper-zone’ and the pocket. And to sacrifice all three?! That would be a holy offering.

    How many of us actually use the money we have saved from buying fancy foods, to donate to the hungry? Surely the fast of the rich should become a feast for the poor.

    Comment posted March 11th, 2006 at 10:30 am
  3. Eric says:

    To tell you the truth, I’m not sure how much money I really save during the Fast—a vegan diet isn’t necessarily cheap.

    But you bring up a very important point, James. I haven’t given almsgiving the consideration it deserves. Right now we’re pretty broke, with the lingering hospital bills from Mary’s birth and several very expensive recent repairs (minivan and sewer).

    Excuses, excuses. I am, however, donating time and professional skills to the design of a local church website. I don’t know how this fits into the whole concept of almsgiving—perhaps its more in the way of tithing.

    Again, this topic deserves further contemplation. Thanks for bringing it up.

    Comment posted March 12th, 2006 at 1:24 am
  4. Square Zero » Blog Archive » A Long and Sustained Effort says:

    […] We are now in the second week of the Great Fast. I wrote several posts about the Fast last year, but as yet I don’t feel called to write much about it this year. However, I do want to address the question of whether one ought to fast on Sundays during Lent. […]

    Comment posted March 5th, 2007 at 6:27 pm
  5. Mike W. says:

    Stumbled onto your blog. Very good insight into fasting. This Bible Protestant appreciates your insights! (and your love for coffee!). Thank you! Best wishes in Jesus to you and your family.

    Comment posted August 25th, 2009 at 5:59 pm