How do I fast?

Fasting is the second ascetic practice you should begin as part of the Orthodox way of life. Of course if you do not have sufficient faith to participate in the regular worship services or to participate in the sacraments or time for daily prayer, fasting will not be of much help to you. Fasting is a practice that was also shown to us by Jesus as well as the prophets of the Old Testament. Jesus fasted for 40 days and we are told “he ate nothing.” The Prophet David fasted “I ate no delicacies, no meat or wine, no did I anoint myself.“ (Daniel 10:3) Ester instructed Mordicai, “ Go, gather all the jews... and hold a fast on my behalf and neither eat nor drink for three days, night and day. I and my maids will also fast as you do.” (Ester 4:16) Paul engaged in a three day absolute fast following the encounter with the living Christ (Acts 9:9). Moses and Elijah fasted for forty days. (Deut 9:9, 1Kings 19:8)

Jesus also asked us to fast. He said that we can overcome the devil only through “prayer and fasting”. (Matt 17:21) In Matt 6:16 Jesus says “When you fast.…” He assumes that you will fast and gives instruction on how to do it properly. The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them , and then they will fast. (Matt 9:15)

Fasting is an important discipline. To be effective it must center on God. As we fast we discover the things that control us. David writes, “I humbled my soul with fasting (Ps 69:10).” Fasting reminds us that it is not food that sustains us, but God. It also helps us develop the discipline that is necessary for our spiritual growth.

The Church in her wisdom has provided for us fasting periods. These are times through out the year where we can focus on our spiritual life and double our efforts in prayer and worship.

On the outward level fasting involves physical abstinence from food and drink, and without such exterior abstinence a full and true fast cannot be kept; yet the rules about eating and drinking must never be treated as an end in themselves, for ascetic fasting always has an inward and unseen purpose. Man is a unity of body and soul, 'a living creature fashioned from natures visible and invisible' , in the words of the Triodion; and our ascetic fasting should therefore involve both these natures at once. The tendency to over-emphasize external rules about food in a legalistic way, and the opposite tendency to scorn these rules as outdated and unnecessary, should be deplored as a betrayal of true Orthodoxy. In both cases the proper balance between the outward and the inward has been impaired.

The primary aim of fasting is to make us conscious of our dependence upon God. If practiced seriously, the Lenten abstinence from food - particularly in the opening days - involves a considerable measure of real hunger, and also a feeling of tiredness and physical exhaustion. The purpose of this is to lead us in turn to a sense of inward brokenness and contrition; to bring us,to the point where we appreciate the full force of Christ's statement, “Without Me you can do nothing”. If we always take our fill of food and drink, we easily grow over-confident in our own abilities, acquiring a false sense of autonomy and self-sufficiency. We think we can provide for ourselves all we need for life. The observance of a physical fast undermines this sinful complacency. It strips us from us the superficially pleasing assurance of the Pharisee - who fasted, it is true, but prayed proudly, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. “- Lenten abstinence gives us the saving self dissatisfaction of the Publican who “beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!” (Luke 18: 10-13).

Such is the function of the hunger and the tiredness: to make us 'poor in spirit' like the Publican, aware of our helplessness and of our dependence on God's aid.

Fasting is not a mere matter of diet. It is moral as well as physical. In the words of St. John Chrysostom, it means “abstinence not only from food but from sins”. “The fast”, he insists, “should be kept not by the mouth alone but also by the eye, the ear, the feet, the hands and all the members of the body”: the eye must abstain from impure sights, the ear from malicious gossip, the hands from acts of injustice. It is useless to fast from food, protests St. Basil, and yet to indulge in cruel criticism and slander: “You do not eat meat, but you devour your brother”.

The same point is made in the Triodion, especially during the first week of Lent:

As we fast from food, let us abstain also from every passion.
Let us observe a fast acceptable and pleasing to the Lord. 
True fasting is to put away all 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.
Let us keep the Fast not only by refraining from food, 
But by becoming strangers to all the bodily passions.

The inner significance of fasting is best summed up in the triad: prayer, fasting, almsgiving. Divorced from prayer and from the reception of the holy sacraments, unaccompanied by acts of compassion, our fasting becomes like that of the Pharasees or even demonic. It leads, not to contrition and joyfulness, but to pride, inward tension and irritability. The link between prayer and fasting is rightly indicated by Father Alexander Elchaninov. A critic of fasting says to him: “Our work suffers and we become irritable. . . . I have never seen servants [in pre-revolutionary Russia] so bad tempered as during the last days of Holy Week. Clearly, fasting has a very bad effect on the nerves.” To this Father Alexander replies: “You are quite right. . . . If it is not accompanied by prayer and an increased spiritual life, it merely leads to a heightened state of irritability. It is natural that servants who took their fasting seriously and who were forced to work hard during Lent, while not being allowed to go to church, were angry and irritable.”

Abstinence does not imply a rejection of God's creation. As St. Paul insists, “Nothing is unclean in itself” (Rom. 14: 14). All that God has made is “very good” (Gen. 1: 31): to fast is not to deny this intrinsic goodness but to reaffirm it. “To the pure all things are pure” (Titus 1:15), and so at the Messianic banquet in the Kingdom of heaven there will be no need for fasting and ascetic self-denial. But, living as we do in a fallen world, and suffering as we do from the consequences of sin, both original and personal, we are not pure; and so we have need of fasting. Evil resides not in created things as such, but in our attitude towards them, that is, in our will. The purpose of fasting, then, is not to repudiate the divine creation but to cleanse our will. During the fast we deny our bodily impulses - for example, our spontaneous appetite for food and drink - not because these impulses are in themselves evil, but because they have been disordered by sin and require to be purified through self-discipline. In this way, asceticism is a fight not against but for the body; the aim of fasting is to purge the body from alien defilement and to render it spiritual. By rejecting what is sinful in our will, we do not destroy the God-created body but restore it to its true balance and freedom. In Father Sergei Bulgakov's phrase, we kill the flesh in order to acquire a body.

But making the body spiritual, we do not thereby dematerialize it, depriving it of its character as a physical entity. The 'spiritual' is not to be equated with the non-material, neither is the 'fleshly' or carnal to be equated with the bodily. In St. Paul's usage, 'flesh' denotes the totality of man, soul and body together, in so far as he is fallen and separated from God; and in the same way 'spirit' denotes the totality of man, soul and body together, in so far as he is redeemed and divinized by grace. Thus the soul as well as the body can become carnal and fleshly, and the body as well as the soul can become spiritual. When St. Paul enumerates the 'works of the flesh' (Gal. 5: 19-21), he includes such things as sedition, heresy and envy, which involve the soul much more than the body. In making our body spiritual, then, the Lenten fast does not suppress the physical aspect of our human nature, but makes our materiality once more as God intended it to be.

There is the weekly fast of every Wednesday and Friday. There is the Day before Christmas and Theophany. We also fast on the feast days of the Exaltation of the Cross (Sep 14) and the Beheading of John the Baptist (Aug 29). Then there are five fasting periods. These are Great Lent, Holy Week, Fast of the Apostles, Fast of the Dormition of the Theotokos (August 1-14), Fast of Nativity of Christ (November 15-December 24). In modern usage a strict observance of this fast commences after December 12. (The celebration of the Marriage Service which is generally prohibited during fasting periods is permitted between November 15 and December 12).

There are also fast free periods. These are periods of great celebration. They are as follows:

  • Nativity to the Eve of Theophany.
  • Week following the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee.
  • Bright Week — the week after Pascha.
  • Trinity Week — the week after Pentecost, ending with All Saints Sunday.

There are also different degrees of fasting that have been passed down to us . Remember these are not laws or rules that we are to blindly follow but re proven practices that can help us come closer to God. Orthodoxy is not legalistic or rule oriented. The rules guidelines that have been established for us are there for our spiritual benefit. We have to use them with the appropriate attitude to receive the benefit. In this matter be sure to follow the guidance of your spiritual father. We must beware of putting to much attention on the physical aspects before we have matured in our inner work as this can lead us to thinking that we do all the work and forget that is the grace of God that we are trying to come in union with and to follow. We can instead become proud of our physical achievements and lose our contact with God because of our sinfulness. Fasting is not a contest but it is an important self-discipline that will help us come closer to God when practiced with the proper attitude.