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pray_hands.GIF (680 bytes) Prayer & Spirituality
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True Nature of Fasting
by Tenny Thomas

'We waited and at last our expectations were fulfilled'.

The sense of resurrection joy forms the foundation of all the worship of the Orthodox Church; it is the one and only basis for our Christian life and hope. Yet, in order for us to experience the full power of this Paschal (Easter) rejoicing, each of us needs to pass through a time of preparation. 

'We waited' says Bishop Nikolai, 'and at last our expectations were fulfilled'. Without this waiting, without this expectant preparation, the deeper meaning of the Easter celebration will be lost.

So it is that before the festival of Easter there has developed a long preparatory season of repentance and fasting, extending in present Orthodox usage over seven weeks. The six weeks or forty days of the Great Fast of Lent (in between falls the 25th Day of Lent called MID-LENT and also the last Friday before Passion called 40th Friday); and finally Holy Week. Balancing the seven weeks of Lent and Holy Week, there follows after Easter a corresponding season of fifty days of thanksgiving, concluding with Pentecost.

What is the meaning of the word 'fast' (nisteia in Greek)? On the outward level fasting involves physical abstinence from food and drink, and without such exterior abstinence a full and true fast cannot be kept; yet the rules about eating and drinking must never be treated as an end in themselves, for ascetic fasting has an inward and unseen purpose. The human person is a unity of body and soul, 'a living creature fashioned from natures visible and invisible'; and our ascetic fasting should therefore involve both these natures at once. The tendency to over-emphasize external rules about food in a legalistic way, and the opposite tendency to scorn these rules as outdated and unnecessary, are both alike to be deplored as a betrayal to true Orthodoxy. In both cases the proper balance between the outward and inward has been impaired.

The tendency to scorn rules of fasting and Lent as old fashioned is doubtless the more prevalent in our own day, especially in the West. In East and West alike, the Lenten fast involved a severe physical effort. But in Western Christendom over the past five hundred years, the physical requirements of fasting have been steadily reduced, until by now they are little more than symbolic. Exposed as it is to Western secularism, the Orthodox world in our own time is also beginning to follow the same path of laxity (however, there are exceptions in this case).

The decline in fasting is due to a false `spiritualism' which rejects or ignores the body, viewing the human being solely in terms of the reasoning brain. As a result, many contemporary Christians have lost a true vision of the human person as an integral unity of the visible and the invisible; they neglect the positive role played by the body in the spiritual life, forgetting St Paul's affirmation: `Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit…….glorify God with your body' (1 Cor. 6:19-20). 

Another reason for the decline in fasting among the Orthodox is the argument, commonly advanced in our times, that the traditional rules are no longer possible today. There is a measure of truth in this. But it needs also to be said that fasting, as traditionally practiced in the Church, has always been difficult and has always involved hardship. Many of our contemporaries are willing to fast for reasons of health or beauty, in order to lose weight; cannot we Christians do as much for the sake of the heavenly Kingdom? Why should the self-denial gladly accepted by previous generations of Orthodox prove such an intolerable burden to their successors today? Once so abundantly manifest in the past, but no longer apparent in our own day, is `a firm resolve'.

The primary aim of fasting is to make us conscious of our dependence upon God. It is to lead us to a sense of inward brokenness and contrition; to bring to us, that is, to the point where we appreciate the full force of Christ's statement, `Without Me you can do nothing'  (John 15:5). We have to strip ourselves from the specious assurance of the Pharisee – who fasted, it is true, but not in the right spirit – Lenten abstinence gives us the saving self- dissatisfaction of the Publican (Luke 18:10-13). Such is the function of the hunger and the tiredness: to make us `poor in spirit', aware of our helplessness and of our dependence on God's aid.

Abstinence leads to a sense of lightness, wakefulness, freedom and joy. Many doctors acknowledge, periodical fasts contribute to bodily hygiene. While involving genuine self-denial, fasting does not seek to do violence to our body but rather to restore it to health and equilibrium. Most of us in the Western world habitually eat more than we need. Fasting liberates our body from the burden of excessive weight and makes it a willing partner in the task of prayer, alert and responsive to the voice of the Spirit.

Fasting is not a mere matter of diet. It is moral as well as physical. True fasting is to be converted in heart and will; it is to return to God, to come home like the Prodigal (son) to our Father's house. In the words of St John Chrysostom, it means `abstinence not only from food but from sins'. 

It is useless to fast from food, protests St Basil, and yet to indulge in cruel criticism and slander: `You do not eat meat, but you devour your brother'. The inner significance of fasting is prayer, fasting, almsgiving. Divorced from prayer and from the reception of the holy sacraments, unaccompanied by acts of compassion, our fasting becomes pharisaical or even demonic. Prayer has to be linked with fasting. Fasting is seen, not an end in itself, but as an aid to more intense and living prayer, as a preparation for decisive action or for direct encounter with God.

Prayer and fasting should, in their turn, be accompanied by almsgiving – by love for others expressed in practical form, by works of compassion and forgiveness. Without love towards others there can be no genuine fast. And this love for others should not be limited to formal gestures or to sentimental feelings, but should issue in specific acts of almsgiving. It is to give not only our money but also our time, not only what we have but what we are; it is to give a part of ourselves. We should be able to follow the words of the Lenten Triodion:

While fasting with the body, brethren, let us also fast in spirit.
Let us loose every bond of iniquity;
Let us undo the knots of every contract made by violence;
Let us tear up all unjust agreements;
Let us give bread to the hungry
And welcome to our house the poor, who have no roof to cover them,
That we may receive great mercy from Christ our God.

Always in our acts of abstinence we should keep in mind St Paul's admonition not to condemn others who fast less strictly: ` Let not him who abstains pass judgment on him who eats' (Rom. 14:3). Equally, we remember Christ's condemnation of outward display in prayer, fasting or almsgiving (Matt. 6:1-18). 

We should not despise our neighbor when we fast nor condemn our brother when we abstain from food. 

We cleanse ourselves by almsgiving and acts of mercy to the poor, but never to make a trumpet or show of our charity. Let not our left hand know what our right hand is doing and let not vainglory scatter the fruit of our almsgiving. Our fasting, prayer and almsgiving should be in secret. In secret let us call on God who knows all secrets and pray, `Father, forgive us our trespasses, for thou lovest mankind'.

See Also:

The Great Lent- An Opportunity for Us to Cleanse Our Mind, Body and Soul
While confessing, repenting and seeking forgiveness, we too should prepare ourselves to forgive others. In that way, let us get rid of all the ill-feelings from our mind and purify it, so that the heavenly peace can enter our hearts and stimulate us, to lead a true Christian life.

A reconciliation prayer for the great lent

Lenten Prayers of St. Nersess

St. John Chrysostom on Fasting

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