Orthodox Asceticism and Spirituality for the Modern World

Orthodox Asceticism and Spirituality for the Modern World

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Apostles' Fast and Vulnerability as Ascesis

The Beginnings of the Fast
     Orthodox Christians fast.  A lot.
     We fast a couple of days each week of the year.
     We fast for Great Lent—a fast not entirely lost to the modern world, but one that has greatly lost its original intent and meaning.
     We fast for the Nativity of Christ, which prepares us not just for the Logos Incarnate in the world, but for the coming of Christ into our bodies, our minds, and our souls.
     We also fast—although not nearly as long—in preparation for the Nativity of the Theotokos, the ever-blessed, ever-Virgin Mary.
     And, finally, during most summers, we observe the Apostles’ Fast, also referred to by many Eastern Christians as the Saints Peter and Paul Fast.  The Apostles’ Fast began a few days ago—it is a fast from all meat and dairy products, as well as many days without alcohol and/or cooking oils.
     The Apostles’ Fast has its foundation in both Sacred Tradition and Holy Scripture.
     In Matthew’s Gospel, the disciples of Saint John the Forerunner ask Christ why it is that the Pharisees fast often, whereas His disciples do not.  Jesus’ reply: “Can the children of the bridechamber mourn as long as the Bridegroom is with them?  But the days will come when the Bridegroom will be taken away, and then shall they fast.”
     That time came—Sacred Tradition tells us—when, after Pentecost, the apostles prepared to spread Christ’s message to the ends of the known earth.  In preparation, they began a fast, coupled with intense prayer, to ready themselves for the arduous undertakings that were to follow.
     The Apostles’ Fast was established.
The Ascesis of Fasting
     Fasting—as evidenced by its almost total disregard among western Christians—is not popular in the modern world.   Even Christians who know about—or perhaps even “practice”—fasting, often misunderstand it as some form of Christian “dieting.”  But this is a mistaken view.  Here is what Father Stephen Freeman has to say about the real nature of the Church’s fasts:
Fasting is not dieting.  Fasting is not about keeping a Christian version of kosher.  Fasting is about hunger and humility (which is increased as we allow ourselves to become weak).  Fasting is about allowing our heart to break.[1]
     This may sound odd, but I enjoy fasting.  Sure, it can be tough at times (cheese and hamburgers never tasted so good as when breaking a long fast).  And, sure, it can become a real pain to follow when attempting to pick up a quick bite to eat somewhere for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.  But it also has real benefits for the Christian who wishes to draw closer in intimacy with God—and that should be all Christians.
     Now, if you wish to read a more rigorous testimony of what the Church says about the benefits, the merits, and the various reasons why an Orthodox Christian must fast in his or her ascetic struggle, there are, I assure you, better articles than this one.  This post is simply about one benefit (of many) that fasting has provided me as I continue toward “the one thing needful.”
Vulnerability and the Fast
     Several years ago, I suffered from several herniated disks in my neck that caused intense pain as the weeks, and eventually months, wore on.
     Before the ever-worsening injury began, I prided myself on how strong I was.  (I competed in powerlifting meets, and could squat over 600 pounds.  As the injury worsened, I reach the point where I could barely pick up 10 pounds without being in almost unbearable pain.)
     Nothing made it better.  There was no therapy that helped, no injection that improved it, and no narcotic pain medicine that caused it to subside.
     Eventually, I had surgery.
     And then it took me another six months of recovery before I could start a basic weight-training program again.
     Because of my pain, and its effect on my inability to do remedial tasks, I had to rely solely on others at times.  Co-workers took up my slack at work, and family members had to help with basic needs, such as driving me to and from doctor’s appointments, among various other things.
     Oddly enough, it was one of the happiest times in my life.
     I became vulnerable, and my vulnerability led me to rely, not just on others, but on God.  It was as if God said, “Okay, son, you have gone long enough in ignoring me.  It’s time to lean on my embrace, and to understand the meaning of true strength.”  (Strength is found in weakness for the ascetic who labors toward theosis.)
     I grew close to God in my vulnerability, closer than I had ever been up to that point.
     Vulnerability lowers our defenses, and can make us more receptive to God in surprising ways.
     Fasting is one way to make us more vulnerable.
     When I look upon my life, on times when God was the most present, it was often during times of difficulty and pain, and whether the pain was emotional or physical didn’t really seem to matter.
     Fasting is hard emotionally.
     It is hard physically.
     It is a cross that we willingly carry so that we might, in one way or another, die to our old selves.  And, in dying, we might enter life eternal.

[1] Taken from Father Freeman’s wonderful blog “Glory to God for All Things.”  

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