Reasons to fast

by Father Dale A. Johnson

There are many theological and medical reasons for a healthy person to fast but a new notion in contemporary thought has arisen that gives further weight to fasting. With the growing population of the world and the increasing degradation to the environment, scientists, politicians, and sociologists are coming to a consensus on how to measure the “carbon footprint” for each person. A carbon footprint is the amount of energy a person consumes that produces the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Many contend that release of carbon dioxide contributes to global warming. For example, when you eat a pound of chicken instead of eating a non-meat source of protein, it requires 4 pounds of grain to produce that one pound of chicken. By eating grains directly that often have up to 22 percent protein, one can reduce their carbon footprint substantially and help save the environment. The three pounds of grain saved by not eating a pound of chicken saves 10 fossil fuel calories for every calorie in the three pounds of grain that would have been fed to the chicken.

Livestock is one of the most carbon-dioxide intensive foods you can eat because the amount of gas and energy expended (and carbon dioxide released in the atmosphere) is very high in order to truck livestock from farm, to slaughterhouse, to package house, to supermarket (and wherever else along the way. Thirty percent of our carbon footprint is directly related to the eating of meat. Dairy products produce 1.4 pounds of carbon dioxide for every pound of milk. Cheese produces 14 pounds of carbon for every pound of cheese. Overall dairy products represents about 5% of our carbon footprint. As to eggs it takes about the same about of grain to produce a dozen eggs as it does to produce a pound of beef or pork. Eggs represent about 5% of an average American’s carbon footprint.

A vegan diet can reduce the carbon footprint of the average person in the developed world about 40%.

The average person on the planet emits 4 tons of carbon dioxide annually through the foods, transportation and products the consume annually. Americans consume 20 tons per person mainly because the average pound of food has traveled 1500 miles. People who buy locally grown foods are standing on a smaller carbon footprint.

As stewards of God’s creation we are obligated to find ways to reduce global warming, and protect the environment. A direct and fundamental way we can do this is to “eat vegan” at various times during the year. While the western world has lost this sense of obligation to fast, it is still a strong practice in the Orthodox world.

The Great Fast is a regression to a vegan state that imitates the original state of Paradise. Adam and Even were created to only consume vegetables. After they sinned they were allowed meat. Fasting is a return to Paradise, a state to which we were created, a state to which we ascend on the ladder of faith.

Fasting was a pre-Christian practice. In the time of the Prophet Isaiah fasting was a social act to transform the soul and create a heart of compassion in community :
"Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, Here I am. Isaiah 58:6-9

Fasting creates in us healing and righteousness and access to God.

Saint Ephrem in the 4th century wrote about the virtues we receive in fasting.

He revealed for us the strength hidden in fasting…

Fasting secretly purifies the soul ….

Clarity of Thought
Instead of the clarifying wine, let us clarify our thought so that we will be able to see the Clear One…..

Escape from Greed
This is the fast through which greed escapes ……
This is the instructive fast, it teaches the athlete the ways of the contest. …..

O Lord let us rejoice in our fast
As he rejoiced, my brothers, in his own fast.

Ephrem warns us about the dangers of fasting:

Let us not fast from bread and think thoughts
In which the hidden poison of death is hidden. …
Take away your deceits from your fasts, remove mockery from your praise….
For the Blind People run, on a fast day with pride and wandering …
Though there is a fast in their mouth, yet an idol is in the heart;
Prayer is on their lips, but divination in their heart
Their stomach is devoid of bread, but full of lies;
Though they wash their hands all day,
Hidden blood still screams against them.

Fasting without faith is neither a fast nor is faith without fasting a true faith.

Fasting is abstaining from evil

St. John Chrysostom (345-407) taught many times that fasting is not merely the abstention from certain foods, but mainly an abstention from evil doings.

Chrysostom warns against hypocritical fasting: “It is possible for one who fasts not to be rewarded for his fasting. How? When indeed we abstain from foods, but do not abstain from iniquities; when we do not eat meat, but gnaw to pieces the homes of the poor; when we do not become drunkards with wine, but we become drunkards with evil pleasures; when we abstain all the day, but all the night we spend in unchastened shows. Then what is the benefit of abstention from foods, when on the one hand you deprive your body of a selected food, but on the other offer yourself unlawful food?”

Chrysostum also wrote: Do you fast? Prove it by doing good works. If you see someone in need, take pity on them. If you see a friend being honored, don't get jealous of him or her. For a true fast, you cannot fast only with your mouth. You must fast with your eyes, your ears, your feet, your hands, and all parts of your body.

You fast with your hands by keeping them pure from doing greedy things. You fast with your feet by not going to see forbidden shows or plays. You fast with your eyes by not letting them look upon impure pictures. Because if this is forbidden or unlawful, it mars your fast and threatens the safety of your soul. But if you look at things which are lawful and safe you increase your fast, for what you see with your eyes influences your conduct. It would be very stupid to eliminate or give up meat and other foods because of the fast but feed with your eyes upon other things which are forbidden.

You don't eat meat, you say? But you allow yourself to listen to lewd things. You must fast with your ears, too. Another way of fasting with your ears is not to listen to those who speak evil or untrue things about others. "Thou shalt not receive an idle report. " This is especially true of rumors, gossip, untruths which are spoken to harm another.

Besides fasting with your mouth by not eating certain foods, your mouth should also fast from foul language or telling lies about others. For what good is it if you don't eat meat or poultry, and yet you bite and devour your fellow man?

Jesus instructs us to fast when he says: And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bride chamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast. Matthew 9:15

Jesus also provided us a personal examples when he combined fasting and prayer in His earthly life. At the beginning of His ministry, immediately after His Baptism, He retreated into the wilderness where we read:

And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward hungry.

He instructs the Apostles in the case of the epileptic boy whose demon the Apostles could not cast out?

This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting. Matthew 17:21

The Lord gave further instructions for fasting in the Sermon on the Mount: But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face; That you appear not unto men to fast, but unto your Father which is in secret. Matthew. 6:17-18

The Apostles themselves kept the Lord’s example on fasting. we read:As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away. - Acts 13:2,3

Orthodox Christians fast every week on the days of Wednesdays and Fridays that dates back to Apostolic times. The first century document called “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” instructs the faithful: Your fasts must not be identical with those of the hypocrites. They fast on Mondays and Thursdays; but you should fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. Didache 8:1

The fasting referred to here was not simply an abstention from meat or dairy products

- it was a complete abstention from both food and drink until sundown.

Socrates Scholasticus demonstrates the wide variety of fasting that was observed in the Early Church during the Great Fast: Some wholly abstain from things that have life: others feed on fish only of all living creatures: many together with fish, eat fowl also, saying that according to Moses, these were likewise made out of the waters. Some abstain from eggs, and all kinds of fruits: others partake of dry bread only; still others eat not even this: while others having fasted till the ninth hour, afterwards take any sort of food without distinction. And among various nations there are other usages, for which innumerable reasons are assigned. Since however no one can produce a written command as an authority, it is evident that the apostles left each one to his own free will in the matter, to the end that each might perform what is good not by constraint or necessity. Such is the difference in the churches on the subject of fasts.

Abstaining from meat for monks was a sign of self-denial. As Abba Evagrios writes:
When the soul lusts for various foods, let us confine it to bread and water, to make it grateful for even a thin slice of bread.

Another reason why the monks followed a diet of bread and vegetables was to be in solidarity with the poor. Most people in the Roman Empire ate bread and vegetables. Meat was a luxury only the special occasions or for the wealthy. Therefore, in solidarity with the poor, monks abstained from meat year-round.

Fasting was also seen as a tool to combat the passions and to open the door to the renewal of the Holy Spirit.

One day St. Epiphanios sent someone to Abba Hilarion with this request, “Come and let us see each other before we depart the body.” When he came they rejoiced in each other’s company. During their meal they were brought a fowl; Epiphanios took it and gave it to Hilarion. Then the old man said to him, “Since I took the habit I have not eaten meat that has been killed.” The bishop answered, “Since I took the habit I have not allowed anyone to go to sleep with a complaint against me and I have not gone to rest with a complaint against anyone.” Hilarion replied, “Forgive me, your way of life is higher than mine.”

Others who saw fasting as a spiritual practice were: Abba Daniel of Sketis: he wrote: 'In proportion as the body grows fat, so does the soul wither away.'

According to St. Gregory the Sinaite there are three degrees in eating: temperance, sufficiency, and satiety. Temperance is when someone wants to eat some more food but abstains, rising from the table still somewhat hungry. Sufficiency is when someone eats what is needed and sufficient for normal nourishment. Satiety is when someone eats more than enough and is more than satisfied. Now if you cannot keep the first two degrees and you proceed to the third, then, at least, do not become a glutton, remembering the words of the Lord: "Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger" (Luke 6:25).

“Remember also that rich man who ate in this present life sumptuously every day, but who was deprived of the desired bosom of Abraham in the next life, simply because of this sumptuous eating. Remember how he longed to refresh his tongue with a drop of water. St. Basil not only did not forgive the young people who ate to satiety but also those who ate until satisfied; he preferred that all eat temperately. He said, "Nothing subdues and controls the body as does the practice of temperance. It is this temperance that serves as a control to those youthful passions and desires."

St. Gregory the Theologian has also noted in his poetry: "No satiety has brought forth prudent behavior; for it is in the nature of fire to consume matter. And a filled stomach expels refined thoughts; it is the tendency of opposites to oppose each other."

Obviously, many Orthodox do not keep the traditional rule. If you adopt it, beware of pride, and pay no attention to anyone's fast but your own. As one monastic put it, we must "keep our eyes on our own plates."

We are always advised to fast according to your strength, and you may find from experience that you need to modify the fasting rule to fit your own strength and situation. Saint Ephrem's Hymns on FastingAn Annotated Translation and Concordance Gary A. Anderson, Sidney Griffith, and Robin Darling Young

From Chamberas, Peter A. (trans.), "Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain: A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel," (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), pp. 109 - 113


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