Editor: Please enjoy another guest post by Brazos Fellow Savannah Anne Carman.
My parents instilled a sense of propriety in my siblings and I. This sense of propriety manifested itself in family rules, such as not playing Christmas songs before Thanksgiving, as well as in my parents’ method of discipline. “Is this the place?” my mom or dad would ask when we were acting out. The reminder to remember “timing” formed a lasting disposition of respect: There is a time for giving and receiving, as during Christmas, but there is also a time for gratitude, and my parents wanted us to give each practice its due time. I was reminded of this when the Brazos Fellows recently finished our unit on Christianity and the Body. Our readings included sayings by the Desert Fathers and St. Basil the Great’s On Fasting and Feasts. Contrary to popular belief, the desert Fathers’ primarily concern was not sex, but rather food. They believed that the first sin was “ravenous greed,” and thus set to order their desires, and first and foremost their desire for food.
The Fathers believed that the body was the path to the heart (the hearth of desires) and that the soul, not the body, is disordered. They understood disciplining the body as a sure way of effecting positive change in the soul for the renewal of the heart. This is not to say that the ascetic life functions according to the mantra “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” Will-power is insufficient to effect a life of virtue and faithfulness to God. On the contrary, the Fathers believed that spiritual pride was the chief danger and so were quick to guide each other according to each individuals’ spiritual state. Re-ordering desires was not a one-size-fits-all. This view of fasting teaches us not to rely on our own insight but rather to submit to season. As St. Basil puts it, like a doctor administering medicine as a means of killing disease, fasting is a medicine to eradicate sin. We should be grateful for the instruction to fast as one should “be cheerful since the physician has given you sin-destroying medicine… [that] kills the sin that lurks deep within.” (55).
The Desert Fathers teach us that fasting isn’t just about keeping from sin, but that we are to fast from good things also. The terminology “abstinence” and “fasting” may confuse us unto thinking that things like food and sex are bad in some way. St. Basil instructs us otherwise, not to “define the good derived from fasting only in terms of abstaining from food. For true fasting is being a stranger to vice” (69). Our desires and passions get the best of us and, like impatient children who grab for what they want, we are too hasty and greedy for our own good. “Ravenous greed” may have driven Adam and Eve’s sin, but it was impatience that moved their hand. As St. Basil notes, “if Eve had fasted from the tree, we would not need this fasting now… It is because we did not fast that we were banished from paradise. So let us fast that we may return to it” (57). Patience is about propriety, submission to time, obedience—and obedience to Divine order in particular. We fast and feast to strengthen our self-control and temperance because we need to keep everything in its right place, in its time. After all, there is a time for everything, a season for every activity under heaven. Fasting strengthens our capacity to say no to evils and wait patiently for goods.
While the liturgical calendar serves as a guide to seasonal fasting and feasting, and spiritual directors provide instruction for individual renewal, hospitality is the exception to all the rules. According to the Fathers, the end of fasting is to reorder desires for two reasons: to humble ourselves and to cultivate charity towards our neighbor. Thus, fasting is to no avail if we will not break our fast to feast with the stranger. After all, if hospitality is attentiveness and unbounded generosity to the stranger, and if the stranger is Christ (Matthew 25:35), then it is wrong to “mourn as long as the bridegroom is with [us]” (Matthew 9:15). Fasting is only proper when the bridegroom (Christ and so also the stranger) is away.
All this seems well and good until one stops and notices that the desert Fathers didn’t seem to feast. On the contrary, they did feast, but not according to our modern conception of feasting. Instead, they regularly partook in the holy Eucharist, even if this meant next to nothing more, if not nothing at all, in the meantime. This raises a multitude of questions. Is such strict abstinence acceptable? Is it healthy? What is health? If the body and the soul are one, isn’t a bad relation with food just as detrimental and unhelpful to the body’s well-being as to the soul’s well-being? Does fasting require its counterpart of feasting?
These are difficult questions to answer. But some things are sure. If we are called to rightly order our loves, and if our capacity for attention is limited, then it stands to reason that we must give each thing attention in its time. Perhaps fasting and feasting come down to ordering our life according to seasons—not as a balancing act, or to meet a golden mean. Rather, as St. Basil writes, “when we think about all that the Lord has ordained, we should not let ourselves respond beyond the boundaries of moderation… you will never have a calm and storm-free life… Cast off, therefore, the burdens of the flesh and take on the joy of the soul… [directing] your spirit to the hope of eternal good…” (106). We are finite creatures and limited in our capacities, and we need to learn patience about the things we desire but don’t yet have. Thanks be to God for giving us the mercy and grace to walk in obedience through the power of Jesus Christ.
To close, a prayer by St. Basil at the end of his First Homily on Fasting:
The Lord has brought us to this period of time. May he grant that we, like competitors, display the steadiness and vigor of perseverance in these preliminary contests and so arrive at the appointed day of coronation. Let us now recollect the saving passion but in the age to come may we be rewarded for our actions throughout life by the righteous judgment of Christ himself, to whom be glory forever. Amen.