Book Notes: The Ways to the Heart. Chapter 7: Fasting in the Tradition of the Church

Les Chemins du cœurLes Chemins du cœur :
l’enseignement spirituel des Pères de l’Église
= The Ways to the Heart:
The Spiritual Teaching of the Church Fathers
by Archimandrite Placide Deseille
Monastère Saint-Antoine-Le-Grand, 2012
188 pages

Click on the book cover and scroll down to read notes from previous chapters

Yesterday, we saw fasting in the Old and the New Testaments – notes from  chapter 7 of this book, a chapter entitled, “Humiliate your soul through fasting”.

Here is the next section:


  • In the Early Church
    – Didachè: connection between fasting and prayer, for instance when preparing for baptism, as fasting is the normal sign of metanoia, of conversion to the Gospel.
    The traditional Jewish fasting days were Monday and Thursday. The Church now asks Christians to fast on Wednesday and Friday, as a normal ascetic practice.
  • For the Fathers of the Church
    The situation starts changing in the 3rd century, and in the 4th, the Lenten Fast becomes universal and compulsory.
    The teaching of the Fathers on the fast develops and focuses on the following main themes:

    a) Fasting right before Pascha
    Before the 4th century, Christians fasted before Pascha Sunday, thus highlighting the connection between fast and Pascha. The length of this strict fast depended on the Churches, but started usually on Great Friday.
    At that time, fasting was not associated with a sorrowful remembering of the Passion of Christ, as His passion is the source of our salvation.
    Some Churches considered this fast as a form of intercession for those of the Jews who didn’t believe in Christ and contributed to His death by the Romans – as shown in Didascalia Apostolorum, written in the second half of the 3rd A component still present in the Stichera sung during the Pascha night.

    But this fast was mostly an intense preparation for the joy of the Resurrection and of the coming Sacrament of the Eucharist. We can understand the regular fast before receiving Communion in this light: fasting before receiving the Eucharist is a way of spiritually focusing on what is soon to take place. Physical hunger corresponds here to a spiritual awaiting, to an openness of our whole being to the upcoming joy –cf. Schmemann on Great Lent.

b) The Lenten Fast
Now, this is an ascetic fast, a method of spiritual therapeutics that requires a sustained effort during a rather long period. That is why this Fast is still observed on the Sundays of Lent, even if it’s then less strict.
During week days, for lay people, it basically consisted in having only one meal a day, taken after Vespers. And a very simple meal at that, mostly made of bread, vegetables cooked without oil, and dry fruit.
The tradition of the Presanctified Liturgy on Wednesday and Friday, seems to point out that in some monastic milieu, there were actually only two meals a week, on Wednesday and Friday evening.
“The negative nature of fasting is transformed into a positive strength through prayer, through the memory of God, and through spiritual awareness and focus”. Schmemann on Great Lent

                – Great Lent is a commemoration of Christ fasting for 40 days in the desert and of His combat against the tempter.
The Fathers of the Church saw in them a replica of Adam’s first temptation in the Garden of Eden, and the undoing of his fall.
Christ’s fast was like a parable of His redemptive work. Our participating in this fast is a way of communing in His mystery.

               – Great Lent is also a way of participating in the Cross of Christ.
We walk with Him to Jerusalem and to His Passion – the 3rd Sunday of Great Lent is the Sunday of the Cross.

               – Great Lent is also the expression of repentance and conversion, in the line of the baptismal metanoia. Pascha is our annual return to our own baptism, and Lent our preparation to this return –just like in the Early Church, Lent was mostly a time for catechumens to prepare for baptism.
This presupposes the sharp feeling of being exiled far from God, hence the usual use of the parable of the Prodigal Son in patristic and liturgical texts for Lent (3rd Triodion Sunday, for instance).

               – Because of the importance of fasting, the Church very early on required it in various forms in other parts of the year. The ascetic ideal of Early Christians actually implied a form of ascetic fast all year long – which we still practice in the Orthodox Church.
Hence the weekly fast on Wednesday and Friday. It was already prescribed by the Didachè (thus replacing the Jewish fasting days on Monday and Thursday), and quickly connected to the main moments of Christ’s Passion (the day He was betrayed and the day He was crucified).
Various Churches also started prescribing periods of fasting to prepare the faithful for major feasts: Advent and beginning of each season in the Latin Church; before the feasts of Saints Peter and Paul, before the Dormition of the Theotokos, and before the Nativity, in the Orthodox Church.
In the 7th century, Saint Isaac the Syrian highlighted the fast as the normal beginning for each spiritual combat, and as a powerful weapon.

The last part of this essay is available here: The Theological foundations of fasting 


Any reflection on fasting?


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