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Thoughts on Fasting and Temperance

by Archimandrite Sebastian Dabovich

Man, having received his present being, consisting of a visible body and an intellectual, immaterial soul, is a being complex. But the nature and worth of both the just-named parts are not of equal value. The body is made as an instrument that is moved by the order of a ruler; the soul is designed to govern and command it, as the superior of an inferior. The soul, receiving from the intellect and reason the means by which it makes distinctions, may, possessing such a quality of distinction, separate the truly beautiful from its common imitation; it may perceive God as the Creator and Designer, not only of that which is underneath our feet and received by our senses, but that, also, which is hidden from the eyes, and which the immaterial mind may contemplate, having the power of imagination at its command.

Practicing, as the godly one, in righteousness and virtue, it aspires unto divine wisdom, and, obeying its laws and commands, withdraws as much as possible from the desires of the flesh, comes nearer to God, and strives by all its strength to ally itself with the good. The particular and most importantobjectofthissacredphilosophyis temperance; as it is the mind, which is not disturbed, but free of all influences of pollution, arising from the stomach or other senses, that has a continual action and contemplates the heavenly, the things pertaining to its own sphere.

And so it behooves us, the lovers of all things pure, the lovers of the word of God, yea—even Christians, to love the present time, which our holy Church has set apart for a special opportunity of obtaining greater grace in the sight of God. We should hail with joy such an opportunity! The time I refer to is Great Lent. We should love this fast as the teacher of sobriety, the mother of virtue, the educator of the children of God, the guardian of the unruly, the quiet of the soul, the staff of life, the peace that is firm and serene. Its importance and strictness pacifies the passions, puts out the fire of anger and wrath, cools and quiets the agitation produced by overeating. And, as in summer time, when the sweltering heat of the sun hangs over the ground, the northern breeze proves a blessing to the sufferers, scattering the closeness by its pleasant coolness, so does likewise fasting, destroying the overabundance of heat in the body, which is caused by gluttony. Proving to be of so much benefit to the soul, Lent brings the body no less benefit. It refines the coarseness of matter, releases the body of part of its burden, lightens the blood vessels that are often ready to burst with an overflow of blood, and prevents them from becoming clogged, which may happen as easily as it occurs with a water pipe, that, when being forced to maintain the abundance of water pressed into it by a powerful machine, bursts from the pressure. And the head feels light and clear when the blood vessels do not nervously beat, and the brain does not become clouded by the spreading of evaporations. Abstinence gives the stomach ease, which relieves it from a forced condition of slavery, and from boiling like a boiler, working with a sickly effort to cook the food it contains. The eyes look clear and undimmed, without the haze that generally shadows the vision of a glutton. The activity of the limbs is stable, that of the hand firm; the breath is regular and even, and not burdened by pent-up organs. The speech of him who fasts is plain and distinct; the mind is pure, and then it is that the mind shows forth its true image of God, when, as if in an immaterial body, it quietly and undisturbedly exercises the functions belonging to it. The sleep is quiet and free from all apparitions. Not to extend unnecessarily, we may sum up by saying that fasting is the common peace of the soul and body. Such are the beneficent results of a temperate life; and such are the precepts of a Christian life. It is a law of the Holy Church, which prescribes that we should fast during the Lenten season.

Do you not know that angels are the constant watchers and guardians of those that fast, just as the demons, those very friends of greasy stuffs, those lovers of blood and companions of drunkards, are the associates of those that give themselves up to debauchery and orgies during such a holy time as Lent? The angels and saints, as also the evil spirits, ally themselves with those they love; they become related with that which is pleasing to them. Every day in our life God points out a lesson to us concerning the eternal life, but we very seldom heed it; in a word, we generally don't care! Oh, is this not terrible to think of? And yet no one man will deliberately, so to speak, attempt to slight the Almighty Creator, no one who is capable of using his understanding in the very least degree. But yet, beloved brethren, we do it! We, day after day, in our worldly habits unconsciously say: "I don't care!" Have we a right to do anything at all unconsciously, when He, in Whose hand the very breath of our life flutters as a very weak, little thing, when He, I say, bestowed upon us this conscience? Over and over again we dare to directly disobey God's commands. It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the Living God (Heb. 10:31). But the Lord of Hosts is long-suffering, and to repentant Christians He is the Father of Mercies. Yet it behooves us, Christians, to zealously watch every step we take, to be sure that we are walking in the path that our Holy Church not only pointed out, but, as it were, even cut out for us by the stream of martyrs' blood, by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit abiding in the sainted bishops of the universal Councils, the night labor of praying and fasting fathers, and a host of pure, self-sacrificing, obedient women, such as Mary, Thecla, Barbara, Macrina. The Church says that in the time of Lent we must fast, and we should not disobey, because our Holy Church is the Church of God, and she tells us what God Himself wills that we should do. If we have all the learning of the nineteenth century, it will appear as a blank before the simple words of the Church, spoken in the power of the Spirit of God. We cannot, and we have no right (for who gave us such a privilege?), to excuse ourselves. We are with good intention, in simplicity of heart, to obey the commandments of the Church, and not worry about adapting ourselves to the ways of the Church, for when we obey with our whole heart, with a strong desire to fulfill the holy commandments, then our Holy Mother Church adapts herself to the weakness of her faithful children.

But let us turn back to the lesson pointed out for us. We may every day learn a new lesson about the next life, which is of so much importance, that the examples in this life are inexhaustible. Look around and observe. In this instance look into the kingdom of animals and birds. See the clean dove hovering over places that are clean, over the grain field, gathering seed for its young. Now look at the unsatiated raven, flapping its heavy wings around the meat market. And so we must strive to love a temperate life, that we may be beloved by angels, and hate all unnecessary luxury, so as not to fall with it into communion with demons.

Let us return with our memory to the commencement of our race, and experience will testify to that which we sometimes make light of. The law of fasting would not be given to us, had not the law of the first abstinence been transgressed. The stomach would not be named as an evil-minded thing, had not the pretext for pleasure entailed after it such consequences of sin. There would be no need of the plow and the laboring oxen, the planting of seed, the watering shower, the mutual change of the seasons of the year, the winter binding in fetters and the summer opening up all things. In a word there would be no need of such periodically repeating toil, had not we, through the mistaken pleasure of our first parents, condemned ourselves to this round of labor. Yet we were on the way of leading another kind of life, in comparison with what we see now, and which we hope to regain once more, when we are liberated from this life of passion by the resurrection. Such is the mercy of God's condescension towards us, that we should be again restored to the former dignity, which we had enjoyed through His love to man, and which mercy we did not carefully keep. Fasting is a type of the future life, an imitation of the incorruptible existence. There are no feastings and sensual gratifications over there.

Do not flee from the difficulty of fasting, but set up hope against the trial, and you will obtain the desired abstinence from food. Repeat to yourself the words of the pious: "Fasting is bitter, but paradise is sweet; thirst is tormenting, but the spring, from which he who drinks will thirst never again, is at hand." The body is importunate, but the immaterial soul is much stronger—strength is dead, but nigh is the resurrection. Let us say to our much-craving stomach what the Lord said to the tempter: Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God (Luke 4:4). Fasting is not hunger, but a little abstinence from food, not an inevitable punishment, but a voluntary continence, not a servile necessity, but a free selection of the wise. Pray and you will be strengthened; call, and a prompt helper will come to your assistance.

From the Saint Herman Calendar 2008, pp. 3-4. Posted on 3/23/2008 with the blessing of Abbot Gerasim.