The Meaning Of Fasting For Man
by St. Ignatius Brianchaninov
"But take heed to yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the cares of this life." (Luke 21:34)
It is good for the salvation of our souls during the Holy 40 Days of Lent not only to oppress our bodies by fasting, but also to speak about fasting; it is for the salvation of our souls for us to direct all the necessary attention to the warning against over-eating and satiation made to us by the Lord Himself; "take heed to yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the cares of this life."
The institution of fasting is a divine institution. The first commandment given by God to man was the commandment of fasting. (".of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat." Gen 2:17) It was indispensably necessary for us in Paradise prior to our fall; it is even more necessary after the fall. The commandment of fasting was given in Paradise; it is repeated in the Gospel. Let us lift up our thoughts to the divine institution of fasting and by a consideration of this institution, let us revitalize with our soul the effort of fasting itself.
The effort of fasting does not belong exclusively to the body; the effort of fasting is useful and necessary not only for the body; it is useful and necessary primarily for the mind and the heart. "Take heed of yourselves that your hearts not be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness." The Savior of the world showed us in these words something worthy of special attention, the effect of the excessive use of food and drink, a terrible consequence, a soul destroying after-effect. The heart is hardened, coarsens, is weighed down, from pleasing the stomach; the mind is deprived of its lightness and spirituality; man becomes fleshly. What is meant by a "fleshly man?" Holy Scripture calls fleshly that unfortunate man who is nailed to the earth, who is incapable of spiritual thoughts and feelings. "My Spirit shall not remain in man forever, since he is flesh" (Genesis 6, 3), testifies God. The fleshly man is incapable of the worship of God. Even the spiritual man, once he has subjection himself to satiation, loses his spirituality, loses in some way the very ability to know God and to serve Him. "And Israel waxed fat," says Holy Scripture, calling Jacob the true servant of God, "and became stub-born; you became fat, you grew thick and became sleek; then he forsook God who made him and scoffed at the rock of his salvation" (Deuteronomy 32, 15). The saint comes to such a condition when he excludes from his efforts the effort of fasting. Plumpness and laziness passed on to the body by excess and lack of discrimination in food, little by little are passed on by the body to the heart and by the heart to the mind. These spiritual eyes, the heart and the mind, are then deadened; eternity is hidden from them; earthly life appears to the unhealthy sight as endless. Our earthly life is guided by these ideas and feelings and the ill-fated, blinded traveler, together with the serpent who was cast out, walks "on his belly" and "eats dust" all the days of his earthly life. (Genesis 3, 14). Breaking the fast threatens the disciple of Christ with falling away from Christ.
Such an effect of intemperate or even imprudent and careless use of food on man, explains the reason why man, in the very state of his innocence, in the midst of the enjoyments of Paradise, needed the commandment of fasting. It was intended to preserve the newly created creation, composed of two natures, the bodily and the spiritual, in a spiritual state. It was intended to keep in balance the two natures and give the preference to the spiritual nature. With its help, man could always stand in thought and heart before God, could be unapproachable to thoughts and dreams of vanity.
The commandment of fasting is even more necessary for fallen man. A weakness for the earth, for the transitory earthly life, its sweetness, greatness, glories, the very inclination to sin have become the way of life for our fallen nature, just like the feelings and attractions proper to an illness. We are nailed to the earth, attached to it with all our soul and not only with the body: we have become completely fleshly, deprived of spiritual feeling, incapable of heavenly thoughts. The commandment of fasting again is the first commandment necessary for us. Only with the help of fasting can we tear ourselves away from the earth! Only with the help of fasting can we withstand the attractive power of earthly enjoyments! Only with the help of fasting can we break the bond with sin. Only with the help of fasting can our spirit free itself from the heavy chains of the flesh! Only with the help of fasting can our thoughts arise from the earth and look toward God! As far as we take upon ourselves the blessed yoke of fasting does our spirit acquire greater freedom; it aspires to the realm of spirits akin to it, it begins to turn often to the contemplation of God, to submerge itself in this measureless and wonderful contemplation, to acquire a skill in it. If things in the natural world, enlightened by the rays of the sun, without fail borrow brilliance and shine from it, then how shall our spirit be enlightened once it, having overthrown by means of fasting the coarse and thick curtain of fleshiness, shall stand directly before the Sun of Truth, God? It is enlightened! It is enlightened and changed! In it arise new thoughts, divine ones, to it are opened up mysteries, which before were unknown to it. "The Heavens," declare to it "the glory of God"; the firmament proclaims the omnipotence of the Hand which created it; all creation, both seen and unseen, loudly proclaim the unspeakable mercy of the Creator! It tastes spiritually and sees spiritually "how good is the Lord!" The blessed lightness and fineness of the spirit is passed on to the body; the body, after the spirit, is attracted to spiritual feelings and prefers imperishable food for which it was created to the perishable food to which it has fallen. At first it submits with difficulty to the healing and violence of fasting; at first it rebels against the institution of fasting, sets our spirit against it, arms itself against it by various rationalizations drawn from falsely-called reason; but, being tamed and healed by fasting, it already feels and thinks differently. Its relationship to satiation is similar to the feelings of a man, who is healed, towards harmful foods, which he used to desire violently during the illness. His relation towards eating are like the attitude towards a detected and evident poison by which mastery over the flesh is taken away from the spirit, by which man is reduced from his likeness and kinship to the Angels to a likeness and kinship with unreasoning animals. Spiritual soldiers who have gained victory over the flesh by means of fasting, who have stood before the face of the Lord to learn the greatest mysteries and the highest virtues, hear from His lips the teaching of the highest virtue of fasting and are shown the mystery of that condition which little by little takes shape from over-eating and satiation; "Take heed to yourselves, less your heart be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness." These conquerors are reminded of carefully keeping near them that weapon by which the victory was won. And the victory is won and the spoils gained by that victory by the very same weapon-fasting.
The ascetic, the hero of Christ, illumined from above and learning from his religious experiences, as he examines the effort of fasting in itself, finds really necessary not only abstinence from satiation and constant eating, but also a strict discrimination in food. The discrimination seems to be excessive only upon a superficial and fleeting look; but, in essence, the quality of food is especially important. In Paradise, only the quality was forbidden. In our valley of tears on earth, we find that lack of discrimination in the quality produces many more spiritual distresses than excess in quantity. It should not he thought that a cluster of grapes has a way of acting on our mind, on our soul, but every kind of food has its own effect on the blood, the brain, the whole body and through the body, on the soul. whoever looks after himself attentively, exercising himself in the effort of fasting, will find it really necessary to practice abstinence of the body and soul from the continuous use of meat and even fish; he will greet the regulations of the Church concerning fasting with love and will obey them.
The Holy Fathers called fasting the foundation of all the virtues since our mind is kept in the necessary purity and sobriety, while our heart is preserved in fineness and spirituality by it. He who shakes the foundation of the virtues, shakes the entire building of the virtues.
Brethren! Let us run the course of the holy fast with sincerity and thoroughness. The deprivations to which our body is apparently subjected by the rule of fasting are really nothing in the face of the spiritual worth which the fast is capable of bringing. By means of fasting, let us tear our bodies away from the luxuries and rich table and our hearts from the earth and corruption, from that deep and destructive forgetfulness, by which we separate ourselves from eternity which stands before us and is ready to embrace us. Let us aspire both in body and in soul to God! Let us fear that fleshly condition caused by breaking the fast. Let us fear the complete inability of worshipping God and the Knowledge of God produced by despising the fast. This destructive inability is the beginning of eternal death. This fatal inability is shown in us when, due to scorning the Divine commandment of fasting, we allow "ourselves and our hearts to be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness. Amen.