Invariably in Great Lent I come across internet memes quoting the Fathers of the Church with phrases such as “Love is greater than fasting” or “True fasting is abstaining from sin.” And, of course, all of this is true! Who can argue with the the statement "love is greater than fasting”? For that matter, love is greater than every other virtue, including, according to St Paul, faith and hope. Does that mean faith and hope are not essential? Nope. Or does the fact that we should “fast” from sin during Great Lent make fasting somehow irrelevant? Of course not. There is no season for sin and therefore no season for abstaining from it: we should always “fast” from sin.
The problems with downplaying fasting in the ways I have mentioned are both logical and spiritual. Logically, it is a mistake because it ignores both the hierarchical nature and the ascetical formation of the virtues. Both of these are apparent in that famous image made popular by St John of Sinai, the ladder of divine ascent. The purpose of a ladder is for us to ascend, to climb, and that implies that there are some things higher than others. But you only get to the top of a ladder by climbing up the lower rungs. To say that love is greater than fasting is simply to say that fasting is a lower rung on the ladder than love. But if you think that you can get to the top rung of the ladder without climbing the lower rungs, well then, you are seriously mistaken. (The saints, by the way, have rather strong words for those who want to attain to the spiritual heights of sinlessness and love without first climbing the lower rungs of asceticism.)
Spiritually, then, the problem with downplaying fasting by emphasizing love or simply “fasting from sin” is that the path to love and to not sinning runs right through fasting. How do you arrive at love? How do you avoid sin? By fasting. We might not like that answer but it is one that our Lord, the Bible, the Fathers and all of the saints teach again and again, and from experience.
Now, of course, fasting is not the only way to love and to sinlessness; there are other rungs on the ladder of asceticism, too, such as showing mercy, humility, prayer, etc. But - and if you’ll pardon the metaphor in this fasting season - the different forms that our asceticism takes are not a buffet from which we choose according to our taste. That sort of “spirituality” fits well with our modern, western individualism but not so well with any spirituality really deserving of the name.
If we continue to function as if fasting and the Church’s ascetical practices are merely religious duties (a sort of modern, ethical heresy) then we will never really understand them and we will always be miserable in doing them, if we do them at all. Likewise, if we think of love merely as a feeling we have toward others (another sort of ethical heresy) rather than a sacrificial act of complete self-emptying (expressed perfectly in the Cross), we won’t truly love at all. Fasting and the other forms that asceticism takes bring us eventually to love precisely because they teach us to sacrifice our self-love for the sake of God and our neighbor. Which is why, of course, the Great Fast brings us to Holy Week and Pascha, where we see the One who fasted forty days in the wilderness triumph through the Cross and the resurrection. Fasting raises us up to love. If not, we’re doing it wrong.
With love in Christ,
“Give me a word!”
So let us acquire the disposition that we have been taught, not looking gloomy on the days [of fasting]…. Therefore run cheerfully to the gift of fasting. Fasting is an ancient gift, not one antiquated and obsolete, but ever fresh and at the height of its vitality.
-St Basil the Great