Yes, we are talking about fasting. It is one of the basic aspects of our life.
The below excerpt is taken from the book by Fr Lawrence Farley, One Flesh, pages 47-55.
A blessed Nativity Fast to everyone!
Our modern and secular culture knows little of the value of fasting as the ancients understood it. For us, any denial of our bodily desires is at best unnecessary and at worst unnatural and harmful. Abstaining from food is acceptable if part of a weight-loss program, for it has an acceptable goal in mind – namely, looking slim and sexy. But abstaining from food because it is Great and Holy Friday, with the goal in mind of pleasing the Lord, is less acceptable to our culture. It may be tolerated as part of a strange and incomprehensible religion, but it will not strike a responsive chord, because our culture does not recognize pleasing the Lord as an acceptable goal in the same way as it recognizes looking slim and sexy as an acceptable goal.
This means that between the weight-loss programs in our culture and ascetic fasting in all ancient cultures, a great gulf has been fixed. The ancients would have considered the goal of looking slim and sexy frivolous and unworthy, and our present culture considers ancient fasting odd and perhaps pathological.
What is it about fasting, we may ask, that is so important? Why was it assumed in ancient days as preparation for receiving revelation, and why did it become an integral part of the Christian’s life of discipleship? What does fasting do to a person? In a word, it makes one hungry. That seems too obvious to need stating, but we need to see how important and basic eating is to human existence to appreciate fully what the refusal to eat can accomplish. Man is, biologically speaking, primarily an eating machine.
I remember my grade ten biology teacher stating this: Manis a creature who only continues to live because he puts food into a hole near the top of his head (his mouth), lets the food pass through, and eliminates it at the other end. His feet and legs exist to carry him to his food; his hands exist to seize the food and put it into his mouth. He is, my high school teacher said, a being all of whose organs exist to help carry out these functions, a walking digestive system. Pretty much everything else in his biological existence is subordinated to the act of eating. Man could do without sex if he had to; he could do without philosophy and all cultural pursuits; but he could not do without eating.
It is not just my high school teacher who says this. Fr. Alexander Schmemann makes the same point. In his classic work “For the Life of the World,” Schmemann writes:
“In the biblical story of creation man is presented, first of all, as a hungry being, and the whole world as his food…. Man must eat in order to live; he must take the world into his body and transform it into himself, into flesh and blood … the whole world is presented as one all-embracing banquet table for man…. It is not accidental, therefore that the biblical story of the Fall is centered again on food.” (pages 11, 16).
Eating is basic to our existence, not just in the sense that if we stop eating we eventually die, but also because we were constructed inwardly by God to delight in eating, to orient our lives toward this act. As Schmemann also writes, “Centuries of secularism have failed to transform eating into something strictly utilitarian. Food is still treated with reverence. A meal is still a rite – the last ‘natural sacrament’.” (p. 16).
Eating is primarily what we do. It is in our spiritual DNA, and the most secret and deep parts of our mind, heart, and subconscious are saturated with hunger, a desire to eat. The degree to which eating is basic to our inner existence may be seen in what happens when we are unable to eat for days or weeks – in other words, when we begin to starve. The thin veneer of our civilization quickly wears away, and we will do anything to eat.
Exactly what we are prepared to do is reflected in such biblical passages as Deuteronomy 28:52-57 and 2 Kings 18:27 (which I invite you to read). We in North America often can be heard to say, “I’m starving!” when we are quite ready to eat, but the over-whelming majority of us have never known real hunger or starvation. God grant that we never will and that the historical realities reflected in the above passages will never occur in our days. Our North American affluence and the abundance of available food hides from us the degree to which we are, in Fr. Alexander’s words, “hungry beings.”
Having better appreciated the true significance of food, we can now appreciate also the significance of hunger. Hunger violates or at least pushes something basic to our inner equilibrium. It threatens our existence – and therefore our self-sufficiency. David spoke of humbling his soul with fasting (Psalm 35:13), for fasting does humble the soul, pushing one’s inner self to the edge, creating a spiritual void within the soul, as well as the obvious material void within the stomach. It is as we face this void and are pushed by our need toward the limits of our inner resources that we can enter a different realm.
In our normal daily life, we live superficially. Things like traffic jams, petty annoyances, and long lines bother us and often put us into a temper. We are distracted and absorbed by music, by headlines, by entertainment news. In short, we live on the surface, too easily absorbed and preoccupied by trivialities. When we fast, we have the opportunity to leave this all behind, to break through to a place where we can discern the basic from the ephemeral, what is really central to our existence from life’s passing adornments. Fasting allows us to see the world with new eyes, or at least with a renewed vision of what is essential. We see and know again in our depths that we are “hungry beings.”
If we are fasting and not simply starving (that is, if our fasting is voluntary and for the sake of the Lord), we can also know again that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4). It is because of this power in fasting that it was often coupled with prayer.
A full version of this chapter can be accessed here.
Unless otherwise specified, the articles here are posted by Father Aleksey, who has no sense of humor and is extremely straight forward.
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