What follows is the text of a class from a series on Basics of Living the Christian Life in the World Today. This class was given on November 15, 2006 at Christ the Saviour Orthodox Church in McComb, MS.

This evening’s class on Fasting will be the last of our first series of classes on the Basics of the Christian life. And basically this evening, I’d like us to look at why Christ calls us to live an ascetic life. What good does it do us to give up things, and to struggle to do other people’s (God’s) will? Our case study, so to speak, will be fasting. What is happening, what is the purpose, of our fasting?

So first, the outer aspects of our fasting. In the Orthodox Church, we fast a good bit. Almost half of the days of the calendar year involve some sort of fasting. Wednesdays and Fridays, Nativity and Great Lent, the Dormition and the Apostles Fast, as well as the fast required of those approaching the chalice for Holy Communion. We can see just from the amount of fasting we do that it’s an important aspect of the spiritual life—and we’ll see why in a minute. When we fast, the modern observance is to refrain from eating certain foods—animal products, alcohol, and oil. In the ancient Church, the practice involved less what you could eat, but when—one meal per fasting day after sunset. In today’s practice, however, the norm is simply to refrain from certain foods, and to closely observe moderation in how much we eat. Not only do we give up food during fasting seasons, but especially during the fast before communion we observe a total abstinence—no eating, no drinking, no smoking, etc. Any of the things that draw us away from prayer, we give up before the Eucharist. We separate ourselves from the things of the world to focus on the things of the Kingdom. And this pre-Communion fast really is the model for all of our fasting. In addition to the abstaining aspect, on fasting days we’re also called to give ourselves to more prayer, to more reading of the Scriptures, to more closely paying attention to our struggle not to sin. The Father’s say what good is fasting from food if we don’t fast from all sin. Now, the things we give up during a fast are not sinful of themselves—eating meat is not a sin, for example. But if we give ourselves to sin while we fast, then our fasting isn’t doing us any good.

The command for the Christian Church to fast comes directly from Christ. In the Old Testament, there were prescribed fasts. So we can see that God has always required fasting from His people. When Christ was asked why His disciples didn’t fast, it’s interesting to see that the Pharisees fasted (so the Old Testament people were fasting), and the disciples of John the Baptist carried out some sort of fasting. And Christ’s response is that when He is gone, His disciples will fast. He doesn’t leave it as a choice, He says that they will fast. In another place Christ says that some forms of evil cannot be overcome without prayer and fasting. So we can see that Christ expects fasting from His Body. But He never gives any specific guidelines about how we’re to fast. That task is left to the Apostles, to the leaders of the local Churches. And as we’ve already said, these specific guidelines are different in different places, and even change over time. They’re given for us to grow, not to crush us.

So now, to the heart of the matter. Regardless of the outer manner in which we fast, what is the reason Christ has required us to fast? The purpose of fasting is to gain mastery over oneself and to conquer the passions of the flesh. We don’t fast because it pleases God if His children don’t eat, “the devil never eats” (Lenten Triodion). We don’t fast in order to afflict ourselves with suffering and pain, that doesn’t make God happy. Neither do we fast with the idea that our hunger and thirst can somehow serve as a “reparation” for our sins. This understanding is never given in the Scriptures or the writings of the Saints which claim that there is no “reparation” for man’s sin but the crucifixion of Christ. Salvation is a “free gift of God” which no “works” of man can accomplish or merit. We fast, therefore, and must fast, only to be delivered from carnal passions, to be delivered from our bondage to sin and to our own desires. We fast to make ourselves receptive to the operation of grace in our lives. So that we can become the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.

We make ourselves receptive to the grace of God in our fasting in two major ways—learning to control our will and passions, and in the purification of our nous (a term we’ll define and discuss in a minute). The Father’s often point out that the Fall was caused by eating. And one of our greatest struggles is with our belly. When you read the sayings of the Desert Fathers, they constantly warn us to beware of what and how much we eat. By eating the fruit in the garden, Adam follows his own will. He chooses his way over God’s way. And instead of food being for man’s nourishment and livelihood, it became the means for his death and destruction. And we continue to see the effects of this—food is abused. We don’t just eat to stay alive—we eat out of passion. Food is given to sustain and nourish our bodies. And it does taste nice. God gives us wonderful things. But in our fallen state, we tend toward abusing good things by over-indulging. So in our fasting, we’re learning to make proper us of the things God has given us. And we do this in such a way that it also helps us learn to control our wills. We don’t decide when and how long and from what to fast. The guidelines are established by the Church. And then we follow them. So not only do we get the benefit of struggling against our passions in fasting, we get the added benefit of crushing our pride and submitting to the will of another. In the Christian life, we can also offer fasts to God in times other than the fasting periods set aside Church. We see very clearly in the Scriptures that people would fast for different reasons, especially accompanying fervent prayer with fasting. But in an Orthodox mind, in order to avoid pride and self-will, even these “private fasts” would be undertaken with the blessing of one’s spiritual father.

Briefly, how does fasting help curb the passions? In addition to the above mentioned curbing of will and pride, fasting also helps us in a practical physical way. The fact is, we’re psychosomatic beings. We have a soul, and a body, inextricable linked. What affects the soul, also affects the body, and vice-versa. The testimony of the Fathers is that eating certain foods, and eating in excess, fuels the passions. The Church doesn’t arbitrarily regulate the types of food we should avoid, but the foods that will most easily heighten the passions within a person. In the beginning we ate only plants, and for some reason eating animal products has a physical affect that makes us more susceptible to passionate feelings. So by eliminating animal products from our diet, we help to build a sort of protective hedge around ourselves—we lessen the physical effects that could leave us open to spiritual harm. Alcohol is the same way. When we drink alcohol, we are changed. Even if its just more relaxed, or comfortable, or whatever. When we come to Christ in prayer and repentance, we have to do it fully sober and fully in control and fully who we are. And we can never be totally genuine if we can’t set aside these things to allow our bodies to help us in our spiritual struggles. It’s the same with prostrations, for example. The Father’s say that in the physical things we do—fasting, prostrations, vigils—we’re humbling our bodies and allowing them to assist in our struggle to be like God, instead of our bodies being a greater source of temptations.

Now to another incredible important but often overlooked and not discussed and not understood aspect of our fasting—the purification of the nous. Nous is a word we can’t translate into English. It’s often translated mind, heart, intellect. But we get these translations because people don’t like to see a Greek word in their English text. But it’s a word we need to know, and we need to understand. The nous is the aspect of man’s soul whereby he knows God. I know you because I see you, I touch you, I talk to you. I see God with my nous, I communicate with God by means of prayer—noetic prayer, I hear God with my nous. We often hear people complain, if God is real then why doesn’t He just show Himself. Why doesn’t He prove He exists. The problem is not that we can’t see and know God, the Father’s tell us that the problem is that the aspect of our soul that lets us know God is clouded. Our passions cloud the nous. To see, and to hear, and to know God, requires a cleansing of the nous. It means we have to know we have this ability to apprehend God, and then we have to figure out how to clean it off and use it. If a person with 20/20 vision never opens their eyes, it’s not that they’re blind, they just never use their ability to see. And the same is true with us—it’s not that we can’t know God, but if we never tap into our ability to know Him, then how can we?

When Adam is created, his nous functions fine. He walks in the garden with God, and he knows it. But as soon as he looks away from God, as soon as he chooses his own will over the will of God, his ability to see God is lessened. His nous is clouded, is the language the Fathers use. And the more we look away from God, the more we choose our own way, the more clouded our nous becomes. So in our fasting, we’re beginning to lift the veil. We’re beginning to uncover our clouded nous. We’re struggling to purify our passions, and thereby healing our nous. We’re not destroying our passions, we’re learning to properly direct them. Anything that we have should be directed at Christ, and then it can be properly used. In our fasting, we’re seeking to redirect the passionate aspects of the soul away from things of this world and toward God. For example—hunger is a natural movement that properly used helps us stay alive and healthy, but when it’s directed at the world it becomes a passion that can lead us to gluttony and drunkenness. The sexual drive is present in human beings from birth. St. Gregory Palamas writes that the sexual instinct is natural and without blame. When properly used in the context of marriage, it’s an incredible communion and sharing between two people. When improperly used, it leads to all sorts of perversion and self-gratification. And to go a step further, many of the Fathers write that eros is actually the intense love that should be directed towards God. Not in a sexual way of course, but that intense longing is what we should feel for God.

Not only in fasting, but in prayer, in following the commandments of Christ, we’re allowing our nous to be healed. In doing the things God asks, in focusing on trying to follow His will and trying to draw closer to Him, our ability to see Him begins to be healed. This is one of the most important aspects of fasting—by rejecting our will, by following the will of another, and by striving to love God, we begin to heal our nous. As we become more like God, we gain the ability to truly see Him, because the part of our soul that’s made to see God is being healed.

We don’t just fast to follow Christ’s commandments, we don’t just fast to help control our passions, we don’t just fast to learn to control our will—we fast to be healed from all that separates us from God. We fast to help us see the face of Christ.

If any of you haven’t picked a book to read during the Nativity Fast, I would highly recommend Passions and Virtues According to St. Gregory Palamas by Anestis Keselopoulos. He goes much more in detail about the working of the passions, and how we struggle to properly orient the passions and to acquire the virtues in the working out of our salvation in the Christian life.