Saturday, April 24, 2021

Letters to My Children - Letter 10: Learning to Follow Fasting Guidelines

I hope you are benefiting from these letters. There is another practice that you should begin if you become serious in developing an Orthodox mind in order to come closer to a union with God. This is fasting. I can imagine that you are thinking, “Oh no! Not fasting! Nobody does this anymore.” The reason you and many others resist this practice is precisely why it is so important. Remember, this is not something new, but a tradition that precedes the time of Christ. This is a practice aimed at controlling your self-will. When you understand the nature of your salvation and what is required, you realize that it is essential to become obedient to God’s. Therefore it is essential, mandatory, to learn to control the passions that seem to drive your current life style. This requires a disciplined will. The passion of hunger is one of the most basic passions you have. Being able to deny your desire to eat whatever you want, whenever you want, helps you learn to exert your will in a way that leads to developing the ability to control all your passions. Eventually you must learn to merge your will with God’s will. Isn’t it true that  we we live mostly only according to our own will? Discover this and you will find a path to life in Christ.

I know when you were growing up as children, I am ashamed to say, that we did not fast as a family. For me this was a practice I only accepted after I chose to focus on becoming united with Christ. When I began a regular practice of fasting, I struggled. I wanted to make up my own rules and allow many exceptions. But very quickly I realized that for the path I had chosen I needed to commit to the way taught by the ancient church. I then sought out the official guidelines on fasting. (They are called guidelines because a rule orientation is not part of the Orthodox way. I chose to stop making up my own plan and make the Church guidelines my rule. I have pretty much followed this since then. It’s really not difficult. In the beginning you will discover that you may have some pretty intense desires attached to food. You may have some preconceived ideas about what is necessary for your body. 

As Mom and I began this regular practice, all of our church-related activities became more regular. Because we were required to struggle with our desire for certain kinds of food during a fast, our inability to live up to the commandments also became clearer. It was an important step in our spiritual growth.

Fasting is a discipline to help you master all of the passions, not eliminate them, but bring them under control. This involves more than controlling excessive eating. It aims at helping control things like lust, anger, selfishness, and many others. One of our most basic desires is the desire to eat. This is both good and bad. We need to eat to nourish the body, but overeating, or eating the wrong things, destroys the body. Often our desire is for what we like. We may even spend excessive amounts to get the food we like. Or, we may make a fuss when the food is not what we want, causing stress and extra work for those who are preparing it for us. So it’s not just about choosing what is nutritious. As we limit our choice in foods during the fast, it is also like making a sacrifice. We become more conscious of the blessing of good food and life given us by God.

To become like Christ it is essential that we learn to use our will to control our passions. When they take over, we are totally self-centered and unable to think of God or the needs of others. It’s all about ME. So fasting is considered essential if we are going to be able to live a Christ-centered life. When we give effort to this, Christ will help us through His grace. 

Fasting is not intended to harm your body. This discipline will actually lead you to a healthier diet. It’s not proper to do it for this reason, but many will resist because they fear it will harm their health. There is flexibility for adjustments to the guidelines if you have an underlying condition like diabetes or are on some kind of medicine that requires you to eat something special. To make these deviations we should not make these choices on our own, but should discuss them with our spiritual father first, and then chose to deviate.

Here are the fundamental guidelines. We fast every Wednesday and Friday, and also during specific periods in the liturgical calendar, like Great Lent when we focus on repentance and our preparation to celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior.

When Wednesday or Friday comes along how are we to fast? The guidelines say we do not eat any meat or dairy products and avoid the use of olive oil and any alcoholic drink. There is an exception for boneless bottom-feeding sea creatures like shrimp. The church calendar has on it the specific guidelines for each day. Also the daily email I suggested earlier that you can receive from the Archdiocese will tell you the guideline for that day. I found that once I chose to follow these guidelines, I was drawn closer to following a life in Christ. My desire and ability to control other passions increased. It’s not really a burden, but it can be difficult in this age where we are so used to demanding “my will be done now.” As you discover this conflict you will begin to discover one of the greatest things that separates us from God, our self-will.

Some spiritual fathers will suggest you start slowly, like only avoid meat in the beginning. I am not sure about this approach. The discipline necessary to control a passion is only learned when you choose to be obedient to the guideline and struggle with your food desires. You may not be totally successful in the beginning, but this struggle has much benefit. 

Remember Christ’s burden is light. He is loving and merciful. If you try but make mistakes, he will understand. He will appreciate what you are trying to master.

Begin now. You will be amazed at what you will learn and how you will benefit. 

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