“Let us observe a fast acceptable and pleasing to the Lord. True fasting is to put away evil, to control the tongue, to forbear from anger, to abstain from lust, slander, falsehood and perjury. If we renounce these things, then is our fasting true and acceptable to God.”
The quote above is a hymn taken from the Lenten Triodion, Monday in the First Week of the Fast in Tone Three.
A number of disciplines are often associated with the spiritual life and we seem to isolate these, as if they are independent of our daily routines. In the Eastern Orthodox Tradition, one recalls the words of Jesus, who said that “prayer and fasting” are necessary to cast out demons. While we may not speak of demons in our contemporary world in the same way Jesus did, we still need to examine the negative aspects of life and see how these touch upon our everyday experiences. For life to have order, we need to look to the ancient practice of fasting and clearly understand what it means.
Too often, fasting is thought of as a simple diet associated with food restrictions, so the essence of this ascetical discipline is lost. This is true especially in our contemporary world of being able to find a “substitute” for those things not allowed according to the fasting rules. Without a spiritual orientation that is united with prayer, true fasting is meaningless and empty. When the sense of God is lost or diminished within us, the most critical understanding of fasting disappears. We recall that “man does not live by bread alone.” We are dependent on God, His mercy and His love.
The above hymn is a small portion taken from the Treatise on Fasting by Saint Basil the Great. It is chanted to remind the faithful that in fasting there is a deeper meaning. It brings to mind that the real character of fasting, as a spiritual discipline, is not about food or how much we eat. Rather, it is about how one is to live this as a practice of self-control and establish a command over our thoughts and acts, our desires, and even our spoken words.
The hymn guides the person in everyday life on two levels: the first of these deals with the individual, and the second of these is the other person. Spiritual life and the disciplines associated with it relate to both the self and the other person. One is summoned to control the tongue and distance oneself from a list of negative expressions. By renouncing a variety of emotions, sins, evils, and shortcomings, the person is emptied of these and then is made ready to replace them with a positive orientation.
Fasting is common to many religious traditions and is understood as a means of cleansing and preparation for coming into “communion” with the deity. Because we are led away from the negative thoughts and patterns that can pollute the inner person, we are able to cleanse the soul whereby a type of revelation and/or enlightenment may take place. The keeping of the tongue allows for silence to govern, so words and verbal expressions are no longer necessary. This is an illustration of the relationship between fasting and prayer as they relate to the spiritual disciplines of life.
The text is relevant because some begin the path of the spiritual life by concentrating on disciplines that are secondary tools in the ascetical aspects. While food, bowing, kneeling, prostrations and other physical expressions may assist in the struggle of spiritual growth, it is the mental, emotional, psychological and inner movements that are of greater value, especially when relating to “the other”. Spiritual life, even the monastic expressions, is best seen and understood within community, not in isolation.
Metropolitan Lulias wrote that this prayer ‘brings to mind that the real character of fasting, as a spiritual discipline, is not about food or how much we eat. Rather, it is about how one is to live this as a practice of self-control and establish a command over our thoughts and acts, our desires, and even our spoken words.’ Are there other ways a spiritual person establishes command over thoughts and acts in their daily life? Is this the essence of the spiritual life?