Square Zero

A Long and Sustained Effort

Posted by Eric (March 5, 2007 at 1:00 pm)

Blessing Hand by Fr. Tom LoyaWe are now in the third 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.

My short answer is: Yes.

Of course, every Christian must thoughtfully adopt a plan of fasting appropriate to his own station in life and particular circumstances. For some, it may be fitting or even necessary to modify the fast on weekends.

But as a general principle, we should not think of Sundays as “days off” of the Great Fast. In support of this view, I’d like to refer (as I did last year) to Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann’s excellent little book, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha.

Two Modes of Fasting

In addressing this topic, Schmemann first distinguishes between two modes of fasting: the total fast from all food and drink, and the ascetical fast involving abstinence from certain foods and an overall reduction of one’s diet.

This distinction, Schmemann says, explains the apparent contradiction in the Eastern Church’s canons on fasting, which prohibit both fasting on Sundays and breaking the fast on any of the forty days of Great Lent. It is the total fast, a necessarily short fast of preparation, which must be broken on Sunday, for once one has received the Eucharist at Divine Liturgy, that for which one was preparing has been accomplished.

But the ascetical fast, the purpose of which is “to liberate man from the unlawful tyranny of the flesh, of that surrender of the spirit to the body and its appetites,” is not to be broken on Sunday. Schmemann explains:

It is only by a slow and patient effort that man discovers that he “does not live by bread alone”—that he restores in himself the primacy of the spirit. It is of necessity and by its very nature a long and sustained effort. The time factor is essential, for it takes time to uproot and heal the common and universal disease which men have come to consider as their “normal” state.

The ascetical fast is “of necessity and by its very nature a long and sustained effort.” There is more to be gained from a long fast of seven weeks than from a series of seven short fasts of five or six days.

Striving towards the Ideal

It needs to be said, again, that we’re talking about the ideal towards which we are striving over a lifetime of Lenten journeys. It is alien to the Eastern Christian ethos to speak of spiritual “rules” that are to be “obeyed” or “broken.” Rather, the Church offers a canonical ideal and invites each of the faithful to approach that ideal to the best of his ability within the circumstances of his present life.

But we need to remember what that ideal is. I offer a reminder of it here because I have heard much whispering this Lent to the effect that by tradition one need not fast at all on Sundays or even that it is wrong to fast on Sundays. But this is not the teaching of the church.

Perhaps it should be said here that this writer falls far short of the canonical ideal himself. I did not, for example, restrict myself to only two meals during the entire first week of Lent, to be eaten after the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts on Wednesday and Friday. I have not practiced xerophagy on certain days, nor restriced my use of oil to Saturdays. And so forth.

I don’t wish to say much about my own private fast this year, but I will say that my experience confirms what Schmemann says about both the spiritual need for a “long and sustained effort” and the spiritual benefits of making that effort.

I would not wish to see any of my brothers deprived of the opportunity to reap a greater harvest from the Fast simply because they were never shown the Ideal—never encouraged to plow more deeply into the fertile soil of repentance.

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2 Responses to “A Long and Sustained Effort”

  1. 4HisChurch says:

    I have recently become interested in extending my fast beyond the pitifully non-existant “fast” that the western church currently requires. Thus, I have discovered your blog. Thank you for addressing the need to “plow more deeply into the fertile soil of repentance.”

    Comment posted March 7th, 2007 at 12:06 pm
  2. Eric says:

    4HisChurch—I’m glad that you found worth in my words about the Great Fast. You might also want to check out the other articles, from last year, that I linked to in the article above.

    Comment posted March 9th, 2007 at 1:40 pm