With the fire of abstinence…

3rd Week of Great Lent – Monday Matins.


With the fire of abstinence let us all burn up the thorns of the passions that assault us, and with streams of tears let us put out the flame that shall never be quenched; and let us cry aloud to Him Who shall come to judge the whole earth: O Savior and all-merciful Lord, guard us uncondemned and grant us the forgiveness of our sins. Great Lent, the Third Week, Monday, Matins Sessional Hymn, Tone 8


Our services contain numerous exhortations and explanations about how to live the way of life; their poetry, especially when they are sung, touching the soul in sublime ways.


This hymn is an amazing example of one of the favorite poetical themes of our hymns – juxtaposing opposites, by taking some aspect of scripture and looking at it from a different perspective which is useful for our instruction and edification.


We sing a request for fire to BURN UP our passions. One does not usually think of fire in this way.


In scripture, fire is often used to allude to strong, “hot” passions, such as anger, hate, lust, and all passions of the flesh which burn within us. For instance, when the man with the demoniac boy described the pitiful state of his son, he said:


“Lord, have mercy on my son: for he is epileptic, and suffereth grievously; for oft-times he falleth into the fire, and off-times into the water.” (Mat 17:15)


The fire represents these “hot sins” and the water “worldly sins” such as acquisitiveness, distractions and vanity.


St Andrew of Crete vividly describes fiery sins in his Great Canon, when he refers to Esau as Edom (which is translated “red”):

“Esau was called Edom for his extreme passion of madness for women. For ever burning with incontinence and stained with pleasures, he was named Edom which means a red-hot sin-loving soul.” (Great Canon, Tuesday, Ode 4)

Abstinence is not generally thought of as a “fire”, but rather as something which cools it and starves it. After our Lord healed the demoniac boy, his disciples asked why they could not expel the demon. His answer is a main reason why we fast:


Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast it out? (20) And he saith unto them, Because of your little faith: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you. (21) But this kind goeth not out save by prayer and fasting. (Mat 17:1921)


This hymn looks at fire in a wholly different way, but not without precedent. Here, abstinence is referred to with the same vehemence as we would describe “hot” sins which often overpower the soul with their hot ferocity. Here abstinence is overpowering fire!


How can such a thing be? Only if we fast with desire. When the soul is aflame with fiery sins, it is taken away, and thinks of nothing else when the flame is burning. So it should be with our fasting.


If we fast haphazardly, occasionally, with numerous “exemptions” due to “circumstances”, then we are not burning our sins with fasting. We fool ourselves. If fasting can burn out fire, it must be even hotter than fire; if we fast inconsistently, or without strong resolution, then our fasting is only lukewarm, and lukewarmness is good for nothing in the spiritual life, and even causes our condemnation.


“So because thou art lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spew thee out of my mouth.” (Rev 3:16)


This hymn calls the passions “thorns”; no thorn is part of the vine of Christ. In the end, that which does not abide in Christ will be burned:


If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. (John 15:6)


Brothers and sisters! With our fasting, we have the opportunity to burn our passions before they burn us! If our abstinence is as fire, we are fulfilling the scripture:


If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as through fire. (1Corinthians 3:15)


Let us pass through the fire now, at a time of our own choosing! Our abstinence is difficult, and indeed, we suffer loss, but with this loss, we burn away our passions, so that in the end, we will not be burned.



Priest Seraphim Holland 2009.     St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney, Texas





New commentaries are posted on our BLOG: http://www/.orthodox.net/redeemingthetime


Daily Lenten Meditations on the service texts and scripture readings: http://www.orthodox.net/dailylent


Compendium of materials about Great Lent:



Use this for any edifying reason, but please give credit, and include the URL were the text was found. We would love to hear from you with comments!


2 Responses to “With the fire of abstinence…”

  1. Deborah says:

    Father, Bless,
    One of the main helps I have found from fasting is that abstinence from food is a metaphor for, and exercise in, abstinence from sin. I find that if I am sloppy with my fasting from food, it is a reflection of my sloppy approach to abstaining from sin. If I mindlessly break the fast, eating meat without thinking, then it is an indication that I am likely mindlessly sinning in other areas.  If I can rationalize breaking the fast for any and every reason then I am probably becoming more adept at rationalizing my sins. If I am not willing to practice discipline and self control in this area of my life, I am likely not practicing it in other, more important areas.  Fasting gives me an external, visible, physical indication of my internal, subconscious state of mind and soul.
    Saying no to certain foods is a lot easier than saying no to sin.  If I can become adept at controlling my appetite for food, which is like learning the 'ABC's' , the kindergarten class of self control, then I stand a much greater chance of becoming more adept at the much more challenging, higher goal of controlling the passions.  Without control of the passions, I cannot achieve a pure heart.  Without a pure heart, I cannot see God. 

  2. I don't remember who said this: "Let us fast willingly, so that we'll not have to fast necessarily…".
    I think we even do not know, and cannot suspect, how useful fasting is, even the mere abstinence from food (which for me is far from being a minor restriction – I mean certain kinds of food that are required for my organism), so for me this abstinence is not only the matter of preferences or food abuse). But the effect of it we may see, for example, right before the Lent starts – as I see bad dreams, become frustrated often, I have bad thoughts…I think this as well is the evidence of how demons are afraid of the Fast, how they try to influence a person to divert us from the salvific course of the Fast. When we restrict ourselves in something for the sake of our salvation, when we do at least a minor thing for God, we cast a challenge to the dark forces, and they are irritated & try to chagrin us in many ways.
    It may seem that there is nothing special in our small limitations, that these are just a routine "adventure", some process that we should accept as many other children of the Church, that it was once set up by spiritual people & we then should follow the tradition…But we can be convinced that it is not so…just when we  break the fast. Just in something seemingly very minor. What a pain! We feel huge pangs of remorse. We cannot forget it for a long time. I have been in the Church for quite a time already, but I still very vividly remember when I did it. It still burns me. I feel guilty. As I could do it, and did not. I felt as if I am thrown away so far…As we often in our lives can appreciate something only when we lose it.
    If we want, we will always find out the reasons to break the fast – in gastonomical or any other way. But it'll take us time & many prayers to return even to the state where we were before it. Saint Elders said that when a monk leaves his cell, he will not return to it in the state he was before he left it. So it is the same when we decline from our way in any way. Even a small deviation from our route, a small step aside – and we'll spend much time to find the way back.
    Some people seek ways, some people seek reasons.
    I pray God for being among those who seek ways. A way of salvation.

Leave a Reply