Fasting – because Lent is only a month away

StJohnCassian_vice4We’ve just cleared the Christmas season, today being the First Sunday After the Epiphany. You might be thinking that now it’s time for your church leaders to kick back and relax. You’d be wrong, though! Even if all they’re doing is Lenten liturgies, and not organising special studies or thematic sermons, your clergy and lay leaders are probably already engaged in preparing for Lent. Easter is early this year, March 27, so Lent is early, too. Ash Wednesday comes on February 10. One month away.

My friend at the Urban Abbey in Thunder Bay, which I’ve mentioned before, graciously included me in their Lenten preparations, asking:

do you have some resources you would suggest for a six week preaching series on the role of fasting, and how it relates to Lent- even some crucial, often overlooked aspects- or simply put, what would you focus on?

I’ve been too busy preparing for a job interview to have given it a lot of thought, unfortunately. The interview has passed, though. So here I am, blogging about fasting. I still have to think more about this for my friend, though…

The first resource I would like to draw everyone’s attention to is my dear friend John Cassian (d. ca 435). In Book 5 of his Institutes, John Cassian discusses the ‘Spirit of Gluttony’ as part of his analysis of the Eight Deadly Thoughts/Spirits (these are an adaptation of Evagrius Ponticus that will be modified by Gregory the Great into the Seven Deadly Sins).

One of the themes running through both of Cassian’s major works (The Institutes and The Conferences) is discernment. Discernment is central to the disciplined life. It keeps you from doing more ascetic things than you can reasonably handle — a problem for ancient monks — as well as from being too lax (if a discipline is doing you no good at all or is really, really easy, is it really evidence of your sanctity?). Discernment is also helpful in our relationships with others — we cannot judge others if their rule of fasting or prayer is different, or if they are sore tempted by things we barely feel.1

Therefore, the first rule of fasting that comes out of Cassian is not to obsess over what others do. The second is related to it — set a fast that will challenge you (one meal, two meals, three meals, 24 hours, two days, a week, 40 days, or maybe two days out of a week or whatever). On a few occasions in Book 5 of the Institutes, the difference of the rule of fasting in different monastic or ecclesial communities addressed, as is the issue that a lot of monks break their rule of fasting in order to show hospitality to Cassian and his friend Germanus as they travel around the famous ascetics of Egypt.

The third rule is to remember what the purpose of fasting is.

Fasting is not an end in itself. As Cassian discusses in the first Conference, the point of all ascetic effort, of all the disciplines, is purity of heart. The goal of purity of heart is to see God (cf. Matthew 5:8). In Institues Book 5, the argument is set forth that we cannot attain to spiritual purity until we have learned to control our bodies. The spirit of gluttony lies at the root of many of our problems; if we can tame the stomach, we can start to tame the thoughts that run through our heads.

We need to remember that we humans are, indeed, spiritual beings, but that we are also a psychosomatic unity. Everything we do is embodied. The embodied reality of human life means that Christian disciplines are not simply spiritual and intellectual — prayer, Scripture reading, contemplative prayer, praise of our God — but they are also physical — fasting, kneeling, prostrations, Eucharist, baptism, sexual purity.

As Sergei Bulgakov says, we mortify the flesh in order to gain a body.

I hope these thoughts help as we look forward to the Lenten season.


1. One of the stories out of the Egyptian desert is about a young monk who was struggling with the spirit of fornication to a very high degree. He went to seek the advice and wisdom of one of the elders, and explained his thoughts and desires and temptations about fornication. The elder had never really suffered from strong temptations to fornication and was horrified at what he heard and berate the young monk so such an extent that the younger monk was on the verge of giving it up. An angel was watching and was not well-pleased, so he opened the elder monk up to just a small fraction of what temptations the younger monk was suffering, and the elder monk could barely handle it. The moral of the story is that you don’t know another person’s suffering and temptations; what they need from you are your advice, your prayers, and your love, not your judgement. That’s the role of discernment.

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