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.
Excerpt from: “Encountering the Mystery” by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew
Forgiveness Sunday. Golden cloths and shimmering candle-light. People standing together, a few, then many; intimately, quietly. Many faces, many names, I know, some I do not. Silence and peace reign here, though turmoil and inner noise come in with us. Into the garden.
It's good to see Steve here standing behind the choir, in his spot. Not here in her spot is Baba: how can we walk into Lent without her? Will she find a way to come with us even now? Her seat is occupied by a Coptic priest whose presence brings beauty. Many young people stand here, many people of all ages. People walk in from time to time, some greeting others whom they know. We're here together, for our own reasons, perhaps some pure and some less pure, but it doesn't seem as though God is asking our reasons. It seems he is simply pleased to see us.
This in itself is rather remarkable; many of us don't expect anyone to be happy because we've walked into the room.
The priest sings, the deacon, the choir, chords fitting harmoniously into my consciousness and drawing out peace from me, peace I'd forgotten I have. As the choir sings, "My prayers rise like incense," the incense begins to rise, softly, sweetly. In the harshness of life, can such things be! They must.
The prayers sung by the choir, the longing and hope, fill my soul. "Let us cleanse our soul and cleanse our flesh! Let us abstain from every passion as we abstain from food!" Their voices help give meaning to eating and drinking, to bodies, a connection between soul and body. Do our little efforts, our little trials and failures and successes, matter? This vespers whispers Yes. How strengthening to enter into this time together, and to be taught and sustained by these ancient liturgical texts, this long long tradition of humans turning towards the inner desert.
As we sing, the melodies change, the colours change: gold and white turn to purple and deep red, the Lenten tones are heard once again, so beautiful. Last Pascha when we said good-bye to them it was with some sadness; why should there be sweetness in entering into Lent, the time when we turn and face Hell, the hells we have made for ourselves and others, the decay and corruption we live in but generally hide from? I could take the physical fast, perhaps, without the sweetness of the liturgy; but I couldn't take the spiritual struggle.
All too soon, the vespers ends and we go out of this blessed chapel into the blessed space of the refectory, where so many tears have been shed, so many meals served, so much work and labour and futility and real transformation! Shabby and prosaic, with the chairs stacked in the corners and the well-worn vinyl floor, but glorious too, shining. The Church, the real Church where God and his people meet, is tangible here.
We gather in a large circle four or five people deep. The priest asks his people's forgiveness for not carrying them well enough, for not always having time or patience for them even in prayer. He asks forgiveness on behalf of the Church, for times they have been hurt by it. Everybody gathered here then takes time to forgive and be forgiven by each other: each person exchanges words of forgiveness - human and divine - with every person in the room, if they wish. As they do, the choir sings the Paschal hymns.
For half an hour, all we hear are murmurings of forgiveness and hymns of resurrection. "Forgive me." "I forgive as God forgives." "God forgives you, and I forgive you." This, then, is the Kingdom? Forgiveness and mercy? They must be, for here on earth we so desperately need them, and so rarely acknowledge that we do. Our armour protects us even from knowing we are hurt or hurting. Here the armour isn't taken away, but becomes soft and supple, as the unspoken is spoken, and the heart for once takes first place. Forgiveness, mercy, and the Paschal hymns: Lent begins with echoes of Easter streaming through. Maybe that's why we can take courage to go into Lent, because it too reveals the resurrection, even the darkness shimmers with light, as the shadowy chapel does, and as (perhaps) our hearts do too.
It's good, good, to say and hear these words of forgiveness, this touch of the hand, with people known and unknown, little children to whom I bend down, tall men to whom I reach up, old and infirm who slowly, slowly take my hand and kiss my cheek, even unborn babies bringing their forgiveness to us who offer them such a broken world. Forgive us, little ones. Let us give you at least this heritage of mercy and forgiveness, and teach you to love it and carry it with you all your lives.
At last, all have given and received words of forgiveness, and the phrase "God forgives" has been echoed all round the church and in every ear over and over and over; perhaps we may start to hear it, one day. We come back to the cross and the choir begins, slowly, meaningfully: "Christ is risen from the dead..." the people pick up the words and tone, and the hearts now entering the desert go with this proclamation,"... trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life." We go to the cross knowing the Risen One is among us already; and knowing the cross is among us. We enter Lent with the song of victory on our lips. This moment makes me weep. I know, I know, that this is true. Long ago, I begged God: "show me this is true, make me to know this is true - that Christ is risen from the dead and death is trampled!" And he has shown me, and still so much of me forgets, doubts, wonders, seeks. How my soul absorbs the joined voices, here in this darkling plain, claiming the light.
First Monday in Lent. Great canon. I am sick. So no candle light and sweet songs for me, except in my heart.
Tuesday in Clean Week. Canon and Compline are beautiful, pure, intense, distilled. Begging for God's mercy, over and over, for all of us, for all our sins and sinfulness; I feel aware of human sinfulness, collectively and personally, and I feel the whole sweep of human history, as I generally do after the canon since that is what it's about. I wonder what I am doing for God or man, and what God or man are doing for me, too! Have I failed you, God, or have you failed me? What are those dreams of my heart and have I given up on them?
Wednesday of first week in Lent. The Presanctified, the first of this Lent, was... pure. St Silouan Parish has flowered in its Lenten liturgies. The choir prays together in their song, and the people pray together. I am struck anew with the improbability that this place should exist, that such beauty in the desert should have come to be. The desert has become more barren, the surrounding city and the global climate far starker than when St John's was first planted here two decades ago. And the chapel and its jewel of a liturgy have grown in beauty, with a glowing-red heart like a ruby.
"Holy Presanctified things are for the holy." Are we holy, then? Is there holiness enough after all, despite everything? Are you really just waiting for us to come home, loving us, enjoying our beauty, eager to have us with you? How could it be so? Is it like that with you, Lord, when you see us?
Walking into the chapel and letting the ruby-red flower take over is good, good. I long for bread and soup, and clear cold water, afterwards.
Friday in Clean Week. The first Akathist Hymn of this Great Lent. At first a sprinkling of people but as the Hymn progresses, they gather. The Mother of God. I hear her in the Hymn, so many images and terms for her. I see her surrounded by flowers, pink and white; they were arranged carefully by one of the women who come regularly to the Mission during the day, and early today she showed me proudly the fruit of her work. I look at the Theotokos, holding Jesus, and have a glimpse of why God became man and not woman - only woman could carry him and hold him - in this way the fullness of woman/man is accomplished in the Incarnation.
Amid this gentleness, I feel the pain and anguish of the world: the terrible violence and rupture growing like a blood-spill in the Middle East, the word "martyrdom" suddenly with new, present meaning rather than an ancient term as it has always been, the 21 Egyptians dying with the name Christ on their lips. The turmoil and upheaval here in our country - where people are clamouring for the "right to die," not the Charter-enshrined right to live - where hurt and hurting people, confusion and depression, seem everywhere. The torment we are in. And at the end of the service, we are told this: If you are worried about the world, if you are trying to figure it out, then come to Church - come to Christ. So simple.
I stay after prayer and do my best to heed this word, and simply come to Christ, and not tell him or plan or work anything out. I feel the turmoil within, too. But I am not alone. Silent figures are dotted around the chapel. Reader after reader sings the words of the Psalms, the ancient dialogue between the human heart in its present pain and God in his mercy. I sit with them and him for a long time.
This week has reminded me how the body and the soul need each other. The Church is always reminding us that the soul is the higher reality, but nonetheless they are stuck together, and if the Incarnation is real then that stuck-togetherness is God's intention and good for us and to be lived deeply, not discarded. The liturgies of Lent are so very tactile, so much of the flesh, from prostrations and fasting to incense and gentle-light-in-the-darkness. Because during Lent the body is persistently pressed, the soul flows (like those olives being pressed into oil, or grapes into wine). Somehow this first week of Lent has helped me realize my body is crying out in need of my soul, as a child cries for its mother. The soul cries for the body too but in a different way; I recall a funeral hymn lament of the soul's anguish, torn from the body at the moment of its death. So body cries out to soul, and both together are held in Christ. This is what the Church really does know how to do.