Prayer and Fasting in the Orthodox Church


During the last few days I have had many discussions on the topic about fasting. So in order to help you through Lent, below is a guide.

There are spiritual, symbolic, and even practical reasons for fasting. In the fall from Paradise man became possessed of a carnal nature: he adopted carnal practices. Through fasting, the Orthodox Christians attempt to recapture Paradise in their lives by refraining from those carnal practices. In general, fasting means adhering to a vegan diet, thus abstaining from meat, fish, eggs, dairy, and other animal products.

This rule of fasting is not intended to be a “straight-jacket” nor a pharisaical pride for anyone who keeps the letter of the Church’s law. It is rather the rule, the standard, against which each is to measure his own practice, and towards which one must always strive, according to one’s strength and circumstances. Whenever, for sickness or any other reason, one falls short of the rule, he applies to himself the spiritual medicine of self-reproach and strives to enter more fully into the spirit and discipline of fasting, which is indeed of great spiritual benefit to those who sincerely strive to follow it.

The purpose of fasting is not to “give up” things, nor to do something “sacrificial.” The purpose of fasting is to learn discipline, to gain control of those things that are indeed within our control but that we so often allow to control us. We fast in order to gain control, to discipline ourselves, to gain control of those things that we have allowed to get out of control. Giving up candy—unless one is controlled by candy—is not fasting. It is giving up candy, or it is done with the idea that we fast in order to suffer. But we do not fast in order to suffer. We fast in order to get a grip on our lives and to regain control of those things that have gotten out of control.

Fasting also partners with prayer, almsgiving and confession, readying the whole person like an athlete, body, mind, and soul, for an upcoming feast, similar to the way in which we would hope to be properly prepared for the Second Coming. For this reason, during fasting seasons, no marriages should take place. Another important part of any fasting period is going to Confession.

Married couples

Married couples are expected to abstain from sexual relations throughout the Church’s four fasting seasons, as well as on the weekly Wednesday and Friday fasts. (This aspect of the fasting rule is probably even more widely ignored, and more difficult for many, than those relating to food. In recognition of this, some sources advocate a more modest, minimal rule: couples should abstain from sexual relations before receiving Holy Communion and throughout Holy Week.)

Exceptions

The Church has always exempted small children, the sick, the very old, and pregnant and nursing mothers from strict fasting. While people in these groups should not seriously restrict the amount that they eat, no harm will come from doing without some foods on two days out of the week — simply eat enough of the permitted foods. Exceptions to the fast based on medical necessity (as with diabetes) are always allowed.

The Christians inherited the tradition of fasting from the Jews. Jesus, too, gave examples of fasting to his disciples, most notably preceding his forty days in the desert when he was tempted by the devil (Matt 4:1-11).

The Fasting Rule of the Orthodox Church please visit http://www.abbamoses.com/fasting.html

St Symeon the New Theologian:

Let each one of us keep in mind the benefit of fasting… For this healer of our souls is effective, in the case of one to quieten the fevers and impulses of the flesh, in another to assuage bad temper, in yet another to drive away sleep, in another to stir up zeal, and in yet another to restore purity of mind and to set him free from evil thoughts. In one it will control his unbridled tongue and, as it were by a bit, restrain it by the fear of God and prevent it from uttering idle and corrupt words. In another it will invisibly guard his eyes and fix them on high instead of allowing them to roam hither and thither, and thus cause him to look on himself and teach him to be mindful of his own faults and shortcomings. Fasting gradually disperses and drives away spiritual darkness and the veil of sin that lies on the soul, just as the sun dispels the mist. Fasting enables us spiritually to see that spiritual air in which Christ, the Sun who knows no setting, does not rise, but shines without ceasing. Fasting, aided by vigil, penetrates and softens hardness of heart. where once were the vapors of drunkenness it causes fountains of compunction to spring forth. I beseech you, brethren, let each of us strive that this may happen in us! Once this happens we shall readily, with God’s help, cleave through the whole sea of passions and pass through the waves of the temptations inflicted by the cruel tyrant, and so come to anchor in the port of impassibility.

My brethren, it is not possible for these things to come about in one day or one week! They will take much time, labor, and pain, in accordance with each man’s attitude and willingness, according to the measure of faith and one’s contempt for the objects of sight and thought. In addition, it is also in accordance with the fervor of his ceaseless penitence and its constant working in the secret chamber of his heart that this is accomplished more quickly or more slowly by the gift and grace of God. But without fasting no one was ever able to achieve any of these virtues or any others, for fasting is the beginning and foundation of every spiritual activity.

— Symeon the New Theologian: the Discourses, pub. Paulist Press. pp. 168-169.

– Fr Demetrio Romeo

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