The Connection between abstinence and understanding. 4th Week of Great Lent – TUESDAY

Illumined in our souls through abstinence, let us venerate the saving cross upon which Christ was nailed, and let us cry aloud to it: Hail the delight and sure help of those that fast; Hail, destroyer of the passions, adversary of the devils; Hail blessed wood! (Matins Sessional Hymn, Tone 8, from the Triodion, Tuesday in the 4th week of Great Lent)


Why do we fast? If a person fasts because it is a rule, he does not understand, is not “illumined”. We fast precisely because of the human condition, which needs fasting in order to be “illumined”. This is a biological/spiritual “law”, as binding upon the human body and soul as, for instance, the law that if one drinks a liter of alcohol they will not be able to reason well, or if more calories are ingested than are used in activity, a person will become fat.


There is a connection between the body and soul; each affects the other. We do not understand how this interaction occurs, but we know from experience various ways that each affects the other.


Our Lord told us that “This kind is not cast out but by prayer and fasting” (Mat 17:21). He was using the occasion of the exorcism He had just performed to compare our passions to demons and teach us a principle weapon we must use to expel them. This understanding has been present in the church from the beginning but one will not find it understood well outside of Orthodoxy, or even by most in the church.


Since fasting for too many is a “rule”, and they do not understand its purpose, like most rules that are not understood, it is not well followed and loses its power to effect change. People foolishly argue whether strict fasting is for monks or not, and all kinds of minutia, when they should be pursuing abstinence in order to gain understanding.


Adam and Eve fell from understanding because they were not abstinent. All kinds of gluttony – for food, drink, pleasure, power, prestige, money, entertainments and everything else – darkens our understanding. The things we desire are not (usually) forbidden in principle, but our desiring them in excess measure is a type of impurity, and only the pure can know God, because they have become like him.


“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Beatitudes)


Why do you fast? If it is for any other reason than to illumine the dark parts of your soul, you fast weakly, without power and proper purpose.


If you do not understand this connection between fasting and understanding, you must explore it first with faith, and you will learn. “Come and see” said Philip to Nathaniel, and this advice applies equally well to all spiritual and ascetic endeavors.


Half hearted measures are unlikely to help you. Neither is sometimes fasting and sometimes not, or making up your own rules about fasting. Do not do this alone. Your confessor should know about your fasting. If your confessor does not fast[1], or belittles fasting, then find a new confessor! A confessor will help a person to fast according to their abilities. A person who does not follow the letter of the fasting “rules” but tries to follow them in spirit will spiritually ascend.


Abstinence is hard. It is directly opposed to our self-centeredness, our wayward desires. This is precisely why it is so powerful and so necessary.


Some time ago I read an article that made me very sad. A person who was new to Orthodox had trouble with fasting. particularly irritability and an obsession with and confusion about the rules. Not receiving sound counsel, this person, in the darkness of his understanding reasoned that “over emphasizing” fasting was the cause of his problems, and finding a church that was more “relaxed” (his words) about fasting. he thought he found a better way. The only thing that we ALWAYS “over-emphasize” is our own desires, and this ALWAYS darkens our understanding.


The only solution for indulgence is abstinence, with proper measure and resolute purpose. In so doing, with God’s great help, we will be “Illumined in our souls through abstinence.”



Post Script.


This simple hymn, sung only ONE day in the entire church year, is illustrative of the vast wealth that is on our services. If one listens carefully, all of our theology, and with it, our practices and the reason for them, are fully explained. Theology is beautiful, precise and pristine. When it is sung, it penetrates the soul. It is good to read service texts, but even better to stand in long services and listen to them. Even if in a three hour service there is only enough attention and lucidity to understand, even for a brief moment, one of our hymns, the time is well spent. Attempting to stand in the services and pray is a kind of abstinence too, and it bestows rich rewards upon the expectant hearer. As in all things, spiritual, this must be experienced to be understood.






The most important reference on fasting for an Orthodox Christian is a confessor who fasts.



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


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[1] Of course, there are proper reasons to eat “non-fasting” food during a fast season, but they only involve the needs of the body, and should not involve the gluttony of the soul. A person may eat non-fasting food for medical reasons, but in every case, the “spirit of the fast” can be followed, and the person is then “fasting”. A confessor who does not understand and practice fasting is incompetent and spiritually dangerous.

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