Book Notes: The Ways to the Heart. Chapter 7: Theological foundations of Fasting

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

In Chapter 7 entitled “Humiliate your soul through fasting”, Father Placide Deseille considers fasting in the Old and the New Testaments, and in the Tradition of the Church. And finally, he highlights the theological foundations of fasting.

So here are my notes and translation for the last part of this chapter.

In case you missed:

  1. Part 1: Fasting in the Old and the New Testaments
  2. Part 2: Fasting in the Tradition of the Church

And here is now the third and last part of the essay:


Fasting presupposes theosis: the deification of the whole person, itself based on the dogma of the Incarnation of the Word of God.
The Christian doctrine on fasting developed thanks to the reflections of the Church regarding the Incarnation, prompted by Christological heresies.

Christ assumed the whole human person, body and soul, and in Him, led them from death to life.
In each Christian, body and soul must together die to the “flesh”, that is, to the self-sufficiency of the creature who wants to reach through its own strength what it can only receive through a free gift from God.
So fasting is not a moral feat, nor a way of dominating our instincts through an act of our will. Rather, it is first of all the total expression of the creature humbling itself, the acknowledgement of its radical incapability. God grants the gift of His Spirit to whoever confesses their own weakness and refuses to rely on themselves. And the gift of the Spirit transfigures both body and soul.

Fasting can only be accomplished through the grace of the Holy Spirit. It is thus the sign of the beginning of theosis being at work in the human body, as in fasting, the body partially escapes the bonds of its condition through the presence of the Spirit of life in it.
Through fasting and other ascetic practices, passions are neither destroyed nor mastered through our will, but they are “converted”. Their strength and spontaneity are put in the service of the love of God. This is the meaning of apatheia, of purity of heart.
This transfiguration of our whole body is the condition of the real knowledge of God. It is a true experience of our communion with Him, and not just an intellectual concept.

However, for fasting and ascetic practices to fulfill their role efficiently, they must be practiced in a meaningful way. To juxtapose conventionally an intellectual meaning to a bodily practice will not work. Even less if it is done purely as obedience to canons (even though these have a real importance). The inner movement inspired by grace must embrace the body in a lively and spontaneous manner.

The ascetic practices must also be in proportion with what the person can do. That is why the Desert Fathers insisted on balance and discernment: keeping a balance between the requirements, the ability of the person, and the inner motion of the Holy Spirit allows for a truly personal commitment and for an increase in the ascetic practices if inspired by the Holy Spirit.
The criteria are the classical signs of discernment: what will bring more peace, meekness and less haste, rigidity, or harshness?

Finally, we cannot separate fasting from the other traditional practices of Christian asceticism and from the practice of charity. You cannot do one without the others. Each of them represents a different aspect of asceticism. All together, they exemplify an attitude of spiritual poverty, of refusing to rely only on one’s own strength symbolized by fasting.
Night prayer, on the other hand, better expresses the soul’s wakefulness and the eager awaiting of the Lord.
And as already highlighted by the Prophets, we must always accompany fasting with the actual practice of charity towards others. And the Fathers of the Church add that the money you are not using for food, you can give to the hungry:

Come, faithful ones, as we fast bodily, let us also fast in spirit. Let us undo every tie of injustice; let us break all stifling covenants with violence; let us burst every wrongful contract; let us give bread to the hungry and bring the poor and homeless into our houses, that we may receive from Christ His great mercy. (Stichera – 1st Wednesday of Great Lent)

Spiritual fasting tends to be forgotten by Christians in our modern Western world, including by some Orthodox. One of the main reasons is the false spirituality that makes us forget the unity of our human being and the need for bodily ascetic practices in order to foster a deep life of the heart, and to ensure the unification of our body, heart, and soul, in its journey towards God.

Fasting is more than a therapeutic recipe or a stance for nonviolence. The place it has occupied for centuries in the tradition of the Church and in the life of the saints, and its strong connection with Patristic anthropology and the theology of salvation, show how essential it is.


Any reflection on fasting?

One comment

Thanks for stopping by and sharing your input or questions. I'll answer asap and visit your site if you have one

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s