Today many Orthodox Christians experience fasting as a physical challenge or a change of food consumption.
Some even confuse it with the popular diets.
But fasting is a multi-dimensional device that has both personal and sacramental functions.
Fasting, as given by the Lord Himself to man, has a physical and mental component, whereby the spiritual is purposeful and more important then the bodily, and the physical is more or less in the service of the spiritual.
The goal of physical fasting is for man to learn discipline in order to be able to renounce the things that his body demands or represents his habits. Thus, fasting is a kind of training for our minds, for our personality, to achieve the goal that our mind rules our bodies.
But why should our mind rule over the body?
Our body, given by God, is not sinful in itself, but the temptations that can be harmful to us, come primarily from the physical realm, we call them passions. The passions remove us from the essence of life and harm our soul, often saying that we have sinned when this or that has done. For example, if a person drinks too much alcohol, he succumbed to the passion of drunkenness, which harms his body, which was given him by God, but even more harms his soul, for the passion of drunkenness divides us from God and from men. As Orthodox Christians, we know that through the people and through Christ that means through the Holy Trinity, we will be saved. Therefore, in order to be able to resist the temptations and passions, man has to train and discipline his mind, and that is what we do about physical fasting.
What should be the physical fasting?
Our church prescribes corresponding rules concerning the way of fasting. The strict fasting foresees that the orthodox Christian fasting on water, meaning without oil and fish. But these are the rules that come from the monastic ordinances and that are linked to a monastic life. This level of fasting is, so to speak, the final stage of physical exercise and mental effort. The majority of today's Orthodox population does not possess this mental strength or physical stamina, for such a type of fasting was not usually part of the life of infancy. People are generally used to comfort and avoid big victims.
But for every Orthodox Christian to reach that spiritual level and physical strength, he must gradually approach that level. No athlete training for a few weeks would be able to compete in the Olympics. So even someone who has fasted little or no, can not pass overnight a 40-day fasting on water. There is a great danger here that he will not even last a week and then completely quit the fast. For these reasons, man should first start fasting, even if he uses oil and fish in the beginning, then over time to intensify the rigor of fasting and thus increase his mental and physical strength. We must not forget that fasting accompanies us throughout our lives and should be a useful corrective to our mental and physical maturity. Therefore, there is no reason for excessive rushing and skipping mental levels. Again, the calmness should be our main character.
What is spiritual fasting then?
God has created us humans out of love and because of this for us unfathomable love of God, we were given the opportunity to live with God in a community that means to strive for deification and reach eternal life. But in order to live with God and people in a community, man must be a mature personality. Even the Lord, as God-man fasted for 40 days in the wilderness and has shown us how to strengthen our bodies and minds for the way to God, as well as defending ourselves against the temptations of the devil.
How do we become mature personalities?
Spiritual fasting gives us the ideal opportunity to shape our maturity and thus our personality. As the first place, we have to keep the honesty here. As we prepare in Lent for the Holy Mystery of Confession, we are called to develop our honesty. Man, in order to know himself and accept himself, with all his weaknesses and virtues, must be honest with himself. This is the first step to maturing and personality building in us. We cannot fight the weaknesses that we all have until we concede them, and at the same time we should not condemn these weaknesses. Only when we have identified a mistake and accepted it as a mistake, will we be able to overcome it step by step that means to defeat it. No alcoholic will stop drinking until he has admitted that he really has a problem with the alcohol. So, we too are not able to work on our weaknesses until we find them and accept them as part of us that means until we admit it to us.
Thus, spiritual fasting gives us the opportunity to focus intensively and intensely on our weaknesses in order to find, name and admit them. And then, in the next step, we are called to repent these weaknesses (sins) before God in the Holy Mystery of Confession. For these reasons, fasting without confession has no meaning, because without mental self-analysis, there is no honest confession. But on the other hand a confession without intense fasting, as we have already said, does not bring desired results of inner transfiguration and profound engagement with our weaknesses.
To conclude, fasting is not self-sufficient, nor is fasting an isolated exercise or ritual. Fasting is at the service of our self-maturation, our self-discipline and our personality development. If we understand and accept fasting in this way, then fasting will benefit our body, but most of our mind.
Mirko D. Kolundzic