by Patriarch Bartholomew
Together with prayer, fasting is a critical form of ascetic discipline in the spiritual life. Physical practices of abstinence assist in breaking forceful habits that accrue within and harden the heart over years and even over generations. However, like the phenomenon of monasticism, which we explored in the previous chapter, the aim of fasting is not to denigrate or destroy the body, which is always respected as “a temple of God” (l Cor. 3:16). Rather, it is to refine the whole person, to render the faculties more subtle and sensitive to the outside world as well as to “the inner kingdom.”
Fasting is another way of rejecting the split between heaven and earth. It is a way of recognizing the catastrophic results when reality is bifurcated by false spirituality. The early ascetics deeply valued fasting. So, too, do contemporary monastics. Indeed, even lay Orthodox Christians endeavour to meet the requirements of fasting, by abstaining from dairy and meat products almost half of the entire year. Perhaps this in itself is an unconscious effort to reconcile one half of the year with the other, secular time with the sacred time of eternity.
The whole notion of fasting or abstinence has lost its significance, or at least its positive connotation, over the centuries. Nowadays, it is used in a negative sense to imply the opposite of a healthy diet or balanced engagement with the world. Those who fast are eccentric or extreme in their protest against the world; they are not seen as expressing a sense of integration with the world. Yet the early Christian and monastic interpretation of the word could not be more different. In the early Church, fasting signified not allowing worldly values or selfcenteredness to distract us from what is most essential in our relationship with God, with others, and with the world.
Fasting implies a sense of freedom. Fasting is a way of not wanting, of wanting less, and of recognizing the wants of others. By abstaining from certain foods, we are not punishing ourselves but instead able to reserve proper value for all foods. Moreover, fasting implies alertness. By paying close attention to what we do, to the intake of food and the quantity of our possessions, we better appreciate the reality of suffering and the value of sharing. Fasting involves the process of absorbing pain and transforming it into renewed hope. It ultimately implies focusing on what really matters’ prioritizing what one values, and acquiring an attitude of responsiveness and responsibility.
Indeed, fasting underlines the dignity and value of everything and everyone. The spiritual senses are gradually and increasingly relined in such a way as to understand where one’s heart ought to be. Fasting begins as a form of detachment; however, when we learn what to let go of, we recognize what we should hold on to. Fasting is a way not of renouncing the world but of embracing the entire world, a way of looking at the world from another, a different, a mystical or sacramental perspective. It is an expression of love and compassion. The same discipline of fasting ought to characterize our words (in silence), our actions (in charity), and our relation ships (in purity). Sacrifice and service coincide in the spiritual life. Fasting leads to one goal: namely, the goal of encounter or mystery. The wise inhabitants of the early desert of Egypt understood this truth well:
Abba Poemen (d. 449) said: “If three people meet, of whom the first fully preserves interior peace, the second gives thanks to God in illness, and the third serves with a pure mind, these three are doing the same work.”
In this way, prayer and fasting are never separated in the spiritual life from work and action. Instead, they liberate us in order to serve others more freely. We are no longer burdened by necessity or conditioning, but are prepared for the surprise of divine grace. Furthermore, this discipline through prayer and fasting leads to an attitude of humility, where the focus shifts from placing oneself at the center of the world to becoming involved in the service of others. A person of prayer and fasting can never tolerate creating miserable poverty for the sake of accumulating exorbitant wealth. The moral crisis of our global economic injustice is deeply spiritual, signalling that something is terribly amiss in our relationship with God, people, and material things. Most of us-at least those of us who live in societies shaped by Western concerns-remain insulated from and ignorant of this injustice created by current global trade and investment regimes. Fasting sensitizes us to awareness and knowledge.
Fasting means walking the way of the humble, assuming the power of prayer, and regaining a sense of wonder. It is recognizing God in all people and in all things; and it is valuing all people and all things in the light of God. It is a critical alternative to our consumer lifestyle in Western society, which does not permit us to notice the impact and effect of our customs and actions. Thus the spiritual world-conditioned by prayer and fasting-is anything but disconnected from the “real” world; by the same token, the “real” world is informed by the spiritual world. We are no longer disengaged from the injustice in our world. Our vision grows wider, our interest is enlarged, and our action becomes far-reaching. We cease to narrow life to our petty concerns and instead accept our vocation to transform the entire world.
Fasting does not deny the world but affirms the entire material creation. It recalls the hunger of others in a symbolic effort to identify with-or at least bring to mind-the suffering of the world in order to yearn for healing. Through fasting, the act of eating becomes the mystery of sharing, the recollection that “it is not good for man to be alone upon this earth” (Gen. 2:18) and that “man shall not live by bread alone” (Matt. 4:4). To fast, then, is to fast with and for others; ultimately, the goal of such fasting is to promote and celebrate a sense of fairness in what we have received. As is the case with every ascetic discipline in the spiritual life, one never fasts alone in the Orthodox Church; we always fast together, and we fast at set times. Fasting is a solemn reminder that everything we do relates to either the well-being or the wounding of others.
Thus, through fasting, we acknowledge that “the earth is the Lord’s” (Ps.24:1) and not ours to own or exploit, to consume or control. It is always to be shared in communion with others and returned in thanks to God. Fasting is learning to give, and not simply to give up; it is learning to connect, and not to disconnect; it is breaking down barriers of ignorance and indifference with my neighbour and with my world. It is restoring the primal vision of the world, as God intended it, and discerning the beauty of the world, as God created it. It offers a sense of liberation from greed and compulsion. Indeed, it offers a powerful corrective to our culture of selfish want and careless waste.
Except from: “Encountering the Mystery” by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew
by Fr Roberto Ubertino & Fr Nicolaie Atitienei
A conversation has been going on in church circles since statistics revealed that in Orthodox churches throughout North America young people tend to leave the church around the age of 16. This has been also our experience here at St Silouan. There arose with this observation a feeling of grave concern in trying to understand this phenomena among those who are responsible for shepherding the community here on Broadview. While it is hard to address a North American problem, we can look closer to our home.
Over the years, I have tried to strike up a conversation with whoever would talk to me among the youth who left the church. What I have learned so far is that there is not just one reason. Frankly, no reason that would say to me, "Yes, the church failed this person and they had no choice but to leave." The reasons tend to be, for the most part, not well thought out, or more importantly what I would consider a free, personal decision. My sense is that for the most part, it's a circumstantial. The loss of faith is not so much a because of a crisis in that person's life but rather the consequence of a slow, imperceptible wearing-away and ultimately loss of the faith - something like being exposed to low-grade arsenic over a long period of time.
What is this slow, imperceptible loss of faith caused by? Patriarch Bartolomeos recently spoke about the "None" movement as being the most challenging of our time; especially among our young people. "None" refers to "none of the above," religions. It is a turning-away from all faiths without really taking the hard road of a committed atheistic life. It's a kind of soft atheism that still allows you the comfort of some kind of spirituality.
This soft atheism is much in vogue and almost everyone seems to be attracted in some way to it. Certainly, this slow erosion of true faith is nurtured in all the institutions our children are part of. We need to find a way to answer to the challenge that the "None" movement is. Part of the "None" phenomenon is that it teaches all of us that the church has nothing to say that is relevant to our life. For example, we have tried to have Bridges where reflection on common social problems were given a space for freedom of thought, freedom of information and freedom of expression, something that is becoming more and more rare for our youth to be exposed to - but with little success as far as interest within the parish demonstrates.
The other big factor in the erosion of faith is financial. Yes, we need money. The present social system is oppressive to most families and individuals. There is also more to this. We value money as a way to initiate our young people into adulthood, i.e., responsibility. Father Nicolaie reflecting on this commented "We value money in the way other more "primitive" societies had initiation rites". Getting your first job is the first step to becoming a man in our culture. Being an adult means, being independent. Some young people have confessed to me how they felt pressured at home to get a job when they turned 16. The reality is that today, in Canada, when a person gets a part-time job, it almost always will mean being absent from the Sunday liturgy. All parish events aimed at the youth become challenged by these other commitments. In particular, without the Sunday liturgy, their lives become easy prey to every kind of spiritual disease that is going around. Christianity is a faith that is meant to be lived in community. When we as parents encourage our children to make decisions about their lives that compromise this experience of regular church community life, we expose them to the inevitable reality that they will find themselves alone in what they believe.
This brings me to the last point. There is in our children a desire to be normal. As if normality was safe, sane and pleasurable. Yet, as the Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn reminds us, "the trouble with normal is it always gets worse." The reality is that our youth are suffering more than ever with depression and anxiety, and are plagued by the temptations of drug addiction and suicide at an alarming rate. Our so-called normality is actually scary. This is where we adult Orthodox practicing Christians need to ask ourselves: are we also not trying to be too normal? Are our values and priorities the same as everyone else's? Is our use of time, mind and money "normal"? We are not called to live in a religious ghetto, but neither are we bound and defined by the values of our present society, which is softly atheistic and radically non-religious. Christ has freed us from the need to be normal, and opened us up to the possibility to really know his Father, to love and be loved, and not just for a day but forever. Can we witness to our youth that money is not the same as being responsible? Can we not teach our children and youth that you can volunteer at the Mission and not be paid and still be a responsible person? Can they hear from us that there are other, more important values and realities that we as Christians are actually gifted to live. Not only to live for our own sake, but also for everyone else who is seeking to be so called "normal" and who ends up suffering beyond measure. So is there anything that we can offer of positive towards this challenge? YES!
We offer many varied opportunities to our youth to grow in the church.
The grace to experience liturgy within the context of a daily lived community life and mission in the world.
The opportunity at any age (younger the better) to come and serve the poor and learn first hand Orthodox mission life. We have three dedicated youth really focused on this ministry.
The training in our leadership program that begins this February.
Opportunity to live in community and away from home at Lorumel.
In the situation where financial necessity is a real concern we are committed to try to find paid work within our community for the youth who need it so they don't have to leave the church to find work in their teen age years.
Encouragement to consider diaconate, priesthood and lay missionary work as Sisters and Brothers of Mercy as a life choice.
Can we witness to our children our choices that manifest hope in the goodness of life, that take delight in the joy of the liturgy and in the presence of the Holy Spirit, in the community of the Church? Maybe we won't end up having lots of money, and maybe we will be called fools by the "normal" people, but we will give society the light and the flavor that it so desperately seeks and lacks.
Christ is baptized
In the Jordan!