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Fasting is good for heart and long life

by Fr. K K John, New York

Question: "How should an Orthodox Christian fast during Lent? Should he/she be fasting for the whole day? In that case is it allowed to fast after receiving the Holy Communion? I know that one should refrain from eating meat, fish etc during the Lent. What other things should one take care of? I would like to know the Orthodox teachings about the fast during Lent. Your reply would be a guideline for me for observing the Lent this year. Regards, John Varghese."

My answer:

(I), "Malayala Manorama dated Nov 29, 07 reported that fasting one day in a month is good for heart. American heart association in its 88th annual meeting presented the report of an eight year study from 1994 to 2002 involving 4629 people.

They found that the Mormons, who call themselves a Christian sect, have the least incidence of heart disease because they, as a matter of religious rite, strictly observe one day fast in a month. Of others, who did not fast monthly, 66% were found suffering from Coronary Artery disease, which is a condition due to decreased amount of oxygen blood supply.

Fasting 24 hours reduces the amount of glucose in the blood/ heart and that prevents disease. Smoking, coffee, and liquor are also prohibited to Mormons."

This supports my message to you last week captioned, "Christmas without alcohol." I worked with Marwadees in Bangalore (India) for a long time. Some of the good things I saw in them:

(1) Surely they fast every week on Friday from morning till evening.

(2) They start their daily duties with prayer in front of their God (photo of Rama, Ganapathy, Saraswathi or Parwathi, etc); and

(3) they help their own kind. I sometimes wonder how our faithful-mothers compel the children to eat in the morning before church service lest they would collapse if they do not take food."

I truthfully testify that since 1963 as an altar-boy I regularly took part in the liturgies that fall on weekdays, including Good Friday Service which started at 7.30 AM and ended at 4.00 PM without taking food or drink before or in between. On weekdays, service was from 7.00 to 9.00 AM; at the end there was breakfast and then rushed straight to 5 KM distant Catholicate Collage. I have practiced fasting before service for 45 years and still I find it good. I am diabetic for the last 20 years and yet I have not broken my practice of fasting on Sunday morning. I believe that is my strength. Fasting will not hurt anyone on the contrary, it will help.

As a principle for spiritual preparation, if one fasts before receiving Holy Eucharist in empty stomach it is good for health of mind, body and spirit. This I say to encourage all, young and old, to observe this Holy Lent with proper fasting, prayer and humility for the blessing of you, your family and the church.

Fasting in Orthodox concept is not merely abstaining from certain food and drink items but total abstaining from evil thoughts and deeds.

Isaiah chapter 58 lays down the principles of fasting,

(1) unacceptable fast,

(2) acceptable fast,

(3) benefits of acceptable fasts.

(1) Unacceptable fast is: "You carry own pursuits, fast ends in quarrelling and fighting, striking with wicked claw, you might fast so as to make your voice heard on high, v3-4.

(2) Fast acceptable to God is; "This is the fast I wish, keep a day of penance releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke, setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke, sharing the bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless, clothing the naked when you see them, v 5-7. Penance, forgiveness and sharing are the principles to emulate.

Purpose of fasting:

Excerpts from our evening prayer (Pampakkuda namaskaaram):

(1) Fasting is a weapon to fight against Satan.

(2) One who is free from Jealousy, slandering, gossip and evil thoughts and earnest in prayer, fasting and righteous deeds is blessed.

(3) Soul and body must fast together; as the body fasts from food the soul must fast from all evil thoughts; keeping away from food without repudiating evil thoughts is a contradiction and meaningless hypocrisy.

From Lileo (midnight) prayer:

(1) be able to win over Satan and his forces who endlessly engage in war with the faithful to defeat the spiritual fervor and to get them over to his side. Note: St Peter says Satan is roaring like a lion to devour the faithful; he tempts one when aims at steadfast faith and righteous deeds. He will flee only when resisted. So fasting resists Satan.

(2) be able to inherit eternal life with the Lord; what else could be a true believer's motivation?

(3) Worldly pleasures are indestructible imprisonment; alas, he who binds his soul to the worldly pleasures. Blessed is the one who inherits eternal life that is promised to God's astute followers.

(4) Adam's love of food made him eat the forbidden fruit; he was exposed to shame and was driven out of paradise. Our Lord defeated the desire for food by fasting and reinstated Adam.

(5) Fasting needs be done with purity of mind and body; it is the bright spiritual wing that helps the faithful to attain eternal life.

(6) Chief aim of fasting is: to be able to inherit remission of sins and forgiveness of trespasses.

(7) Be able to reconcile and be at peace with fellow beings and God.

(8) Be able to increase in deeds of righteousness.

(9) Be able to repent, to find mercy and be merciful to others.

(10) Be able to confess to others that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior.

(11) To be able make a good name, free from hypocrisy.

Application of Fast:

(1) Fasting literally means fully and willingly abstaining from eating and drinking anything. Not eating because of certain medical requirements/tests or for want of enough food is not fasting.

(2) All Wednesdays and Fridays are fast days; Wednesday in honor of Morth Mariam Basloos Yoldath Aaloho (Ever-Virgin St Mary, Mother of God) because Annunciation took place on Wednesday and Friday in honor of the passion and Crucifixion of our Lord.

(3) All Saturdays and Sundays are exempted from fasting, Saturday our Lord went to hell and preached Gospel to all the departed, from Adam to the time of Lord's visit. Sunday our Lord resurrected from the dead; hence greatest of all feasts; it is the greatest celebration of the Church.

(4) Second aspect is lent which is restriction of food. This is clinically proven good for health and long life. Fatty and non-vegetarian foods are sources of more energy and more energy leads to more activity in flesh creating lustful temptations and less concentration on spiritual matters; many fall out easily. Excess fat and protein are stored in the body for a heyday. Continuous intake of highly nutritious foods helps store more and more fats in the body which if not checked might cause ill-health or even death. For this reason fatty and non-vegetarian foods; milk, egg, meat and their products, are prohibited during Lenten days.

I suggest

(1) to avoid anything such as chocolates, soda, etc that would create a craving to consume more and more (addiction).

(2) I strongly suggest, not eating food items, anytime which the Mosaic Law has prohibited, e. g. pork, lobster, etc.

(3) must strictly abstain from alcohol, smoking and wine except medicinal use.

(4) Spouses may fast from conjugal relationship.

(5) Late HH Catholicos Mor Augen lifted the prohibition of fish by an encyclical. Thus fish consumption need not be considered as breaking the canon. Still, most faithful are found following the old tradition, not eating fish during lent and I hold it is good.

(6) During Lenten days we should fast until noon; that is, forgoing breakfast. When fasting, the body utilizes the stored fat and burns it into energy necessary to sustain life. This will prevent build up of cholesterol, high blood pressure, clogging of arteries, diabetes and a host of other illnesses. Empty or near-empty stomach is good for prayer and meditation.

Church insists on regular prayer and meditation. Canonical prayers are better than extempore prayers for they lead to penance and encourage growth in virtues while extempore prayers are often babbling for selfish gains. Undivided attention is the basic requirement for prayer and meditation; in full stomach it is seldom possible. Food restriction helps the faithful to enhance spiritual discipline; it is a proven fact, hold on to it.

(7) The most important reason why the Holy Church admonishes fasting is to taste the state of the hungry and starving, how severe is the condition of those starving and identify the faithful with suffering fellow beings. According to estimates two third of the world population is starving without means for one time square meals; our motherland is under the grip of poverty! Though we are not better than those suffering we are blessed more than them and it is our duty to share our bounties with the less fortunate. We waste a staggering amount of food, it is a crime, do not waste. Jesus asked his disciples, "Collect the bread fragments," Jn 6:12.

(8) Posture is very important; stand while praying, it is our tradition. Jenuflexion (kumpideel) is prescribed essential in which all of joints, muscles, nerves and blood systems activate fully and help burn the fat. It is the best form of workout, without the aid of a machine, free of cost.

(9) There is exemption for patients taking medication at regular intervals such as diabetes, post-surgery-patients, etc. Similarly, those who need medication on timely basis might take small amount of food, milk etc, which is not considered a canon breaking.

(10) Fasting after receiving Holy Quorbono is strictly prohibited because there is no greater celebration than Holy Eucharist in the Holy Church.

(11) Day begins at 6.00 PM as per Jewish/Christian calendar. So fasting ends at 6.00 PM.

(12) Holy Church admonishes the faithful to involve in humanitarian activities; visiting the sick, the old and the weak, and almsgiving such as financial aid to the deserving, poor and the oppressed, etc. The Church admonishes every member to be kind and merciful to others, forgive and not to offend others, shun violence and be at peace with all fellow beings and kindred, shun filthy, wicked, immoral life-style, evil words and habits and that is a full-fledged transformation of heart from hardness to kindness; that is what is expected of a faithful.

I recollect, in my younger days my mother used to save a handful of rice each time when she put rice for boiling (pitiyari) which the parish elder collected at regular intervals. That was the way people practiced the virtue of charity even in scarcity and within the limited resources. Are we not far better off now? I strongly suggest all the faithful, except very old and very young and chronic patients, forgo one-time meal a day during lent and place its value in the piggy-bank provided to each family and or calculate the fair value of forgone meals and make a check to the parish. That money will be used for charity purposes alone. This donation is tax exempted. Let us learn to do good things for others so that God will richly bless us all in return and that is the essence of fasting and lent.

See Also:

Lent Articles home

Great Lent: O Holy and Salvific Great Lent, come in Peace
What is the basic message of lent or the goal that we have to achieve by observing this fast? Through Lenten prayers, the Church Fathers teach us that the goal of Lent is a complete transformation from all the powers of evil to the perfect Love of God.

Why Should We Observe the Lent and Fasting?
We should keenly look forward to the Lent- because the purpose of Prayer & Fasting is to defeat the Satan.

A Different Approach to Fasting
Lenten fasts have a tendency to be oriented toward things like giving up food or television. But there are many other creative ways we can welcome Jesus' healing touch this Lent.

On Fasting
Fasting is a medicine. But medicine, as beneficial as it is, becomes useless because of the inexperience of the user.

Why Should We Observe the Lent and Fasting?
We should keenly look forward to the Lent- because the purpose of Prayer & Fasting is to defeat the Satan.

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