St Seraphim of Sarov on Fasting: ‘Once there came to him a mother who was concerned about how she might arrange the best possible marriage for her young daughter. When she came to Saint Seraphim for advice, he said to her: “Before all else, ensure that he, whom your daughter chooses as her companion for life, keeps the fasts. If he does not, then he is not a Christian, whatever he may consider himself to be.”‘
— From a sermon of Metropolitan Philaret, quoted in The Ladder of Divine Ascent, pub. Holy Trinity Monastery, pg.xxxiii.
Fasting is an essential aspect of living the Orthodox life. You cannot be Orthodox and not fast. Unfortunately, many in the Church today do not participate in this grace-bestowing and life-giving ascetic practice. They do this to the loss of their own spiritual and bodily health.
Why do we Fast? Fasting with Prayer is GOOD for us! There are several reasons: the Church says so, the Church Fathers say so, and Jesus Christ did! If we wish to come closer to Him, we should imitate Him and Fasting is one thing He did often, accompanied by Prayer.
Fasting in the New Testament was introduced by our Lord Jesus Christ Who gave us a great example of fasting. After His Baptism in the river of Jordan He withdrew into the wilderness where He spent forty days and forty nights in prayer and fasting in preparation for His Sacred ministry. Jesus taught his disciples and followers to fast, thus us. He told them not to fast like the Pharisees, but when they fast bodily they should be completely natural in their behavior — humble and penitent.
“And when ye fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men, but by your Father Who is in secret. And your Father Who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matt. 6:16-18)
There are many examples of Old Testament Prophets fasting as we read about Moses fasting for 40 days before he was to receive the 10 Commandments from God.
Christ’s Apostles continued this practice of prayer and fasting as we see in Acts. They fasted as they accomplished their ministries by the power of the Holy Spirit and by prayer: “Now in the church at Antioch… while they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul (Paul) for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.” (Acts. 13:-13)
When we actually do Fast we provide ourselves an occasion to enrich our soul and elevate it to a higher level of spiritual discipline. St. John Cassian wrote, “We should not be confident that the outside fasting of food is enough alone for the purity of the heart and body, unless it is accompanied by the fasting of the soul.” He also stated that, “Fasting is an important means which leads to purity of heart and not as a goal in itself.”
Fasting of the soul is spiritual discipline. The importance of spiritual discipline can be found in the Holy Book of Proverbs 25:28, “Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control.” This tells us that a man without self-control and discipline is defenseless and disgraced.
Spiritual discipline prepares an Orthodox Christian to exercise faith and enter the Kingdom of God. St. Paul wrote:”Do you know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus not with uncertainty. Thus I fight not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it under subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should not become disqualified.” (I Corinthians 9:24-27)
Fasting is then understood to be a tool we can use to develop our spiritual strength and ability to “walk according to the Spirit” instead of walking according to the flesh. (Rom. 8:12-14) It is not the goal, it is not an end in itself, but a tool to reach a specific goal.
St. Theophan, in his rewrite of “Unseen Warefare” says it this way:
There are many who say that the perfection of Christian life consists in fasts, vigils, genuflexions, sleeping on bare earth and other similar austerities of the body. Others say that it consists in saying many prayers at home and in attending long services in Church. And there are others who think that our perfection consists entirely in mental prayer, solitude, seclusion and silence. But the majority limit perfection to a strict observance of all the rules and practices laid down by the statutes, falling into no excess or deficiency, but preserving a golden moderation. Yet all these virtues do not by themselves constitute the Christian perfection we are seeking, but are only means and methods for acquiring it.
(St. Theophan, “Unseen Warefare”, New York (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press), pp. 77-78)
As we begin to view and use Fasting as end in itself, this is when it becomes destructive to our spiritual life instead of beneficial. Pride results instead of humility. In place of conquering the passions, we feed them. It is this specific use of fasting which Jesus condemned in the Pharisees.
Thus, as our Church has given us the tradition to Fast at certain times throughout the year, Christ has set the standard and example. In all things, you should talk with your Spiritual Father, your Priest, about Fasting and Prayer for his guidance.