I once heard a fascinating interview on NPR with writer Marie Mutsuki Mockett about her journey to Japan to grieve the death of her father. While there she met a Buddhist priest and had a conversation with him about her frustrations with meditation. She describes it like this:
I told him about my meditation training. And
I told him how irritated I was to have to sit
there for three hours...because I had thought
that if I wanted to understand anything
about Buddhism…I was supposed to read
sutras and texts and, you know, think — like
what I did in college. And he said, "Oh, you
Westerners.... You always want to know why
you have to do something before you do it."
And he said, "In Japan, we make you do
something, and then you learn ‘why'
afterward. Sometimes, you just need to do
something and learn the lesson later."
The words of this Buddhist priest struck me, an Orthodox priest, because I have had many similar conversations over the years with Orthodox Christians in America, particularly when it comes to the matter of fasting. Fasting is a universal practice in the history of the Church going back into the Old Testament. In fact, the first commandment God gave to Adam was about fasting, “You shall not eat....” Read the scriptures, the fathers, and the saints and you will see fasting universally - always and everywhere - taught as an essential practice for anyone who wants to be a Christian and live a spiritual life.
And yet despite this universal teaching we so often approach fasting in a way similar to the way the writer mentioned above approached meditation: frustrated, argumentative, and wanting it explained to us before we will do it. Imagine for a moment a 6th grader interrogating Michael Jordan, demanding to know why he needs to practice dribbling. Or a beginning cellist demanding to know from Yo Yo Ma why she needs to rehearse. One would think, considering the addressee, the answer is obvious: you don’t become a Michael Jordan or a Yo Yo Ma without a lot of practice. And yet we look at the saints and fathers and, yes, even our Lord, and ask why we should fast. The reality is precisely as the Buddhist priest said, “you do something, and then you learn 'why' afterward.”
It is not, by the way, simply that the “why” of fasting should not be taught prior to practicing it; the point is that it cannot be taught without practicing it. Anything that we would learn about fasting prior to doing it would simply be an intellectual notion, an opinion, what we might call “knowledge about” rather than “knowledge of”. And while knowledge about fasting might have some usefulness in getting us started, it has very little power to free us from sinful passions, transform our desires, or create within us a hunger for the Kingdom of God. All of that can only come from knowledge of fasting gained by - you guessed it -actually fasting.
As we begin the Great Fast we could read any number of books and articles and websites about fasting, its purpose, meaning, history, etc. These have their place. But the thing that is most needed is for us simply to fast the way the Church teaches us, with prayer and almsgiving, in humility and repentance. This kind of fast, rather than being a negative expression of something that we are not doing - not eating meat, not drinking milk, etc. -becomes a positive demonstration of the power of Christ and of His Cross within us, a power made perfect in weakness. As St Theophan the Recluse says, “Fasting appears gloomy until one steps into its arena. But begin and you will see what light it brings after darkness, what freedom from bonds, what release after a burdensome life.” May this be our experience in this season of the Great Fast.
With love in Christ,
“Give me a word!”
Fasting is the champion of every virtue, the beginning of the struggle, the crown of the abstinent, the beauty of virginity and sanctity, the resplendence of chastity, the commencement of the path of Christianity, the mother of prayer, the well-spring of sobriety and prudence, the teacher of stillness, and the precursor of all good works. Just as the enjoyment of light is coupled with healthy eyes, so desire for prayer accompanies fasting that is practiced with discernment.
-St Isaac the Syrian