THE BENEFITS AND THE IMPORTANCE OF FASTING
HH Pope Shenouda III
THE ACCEPTABLE SPIRITUAL FASTING:
But maybe some would ask the Lord, as it happened at the time of Isaiah the Prophet: “Why have we fasted and You have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls and You take no notice?” (Is 58:3). And the Lord would reply as He did to those and say to them: “Is it a fast that I have chosen?” (Is 58:5).
You must know, my brother, that not every fasting is acceptable before God. The Pharisee who used to fast twice a week, was not justified like the tax collector (Lk 18:12,14). The same with fasting that does not have repentance. Likewise the fasting of the sinners at the time of Jeremiah the Prophet, about whom the Lord said: “When they fast, I will not hear their cry:
and when they offer burnt offering, I will not accept them” (Jer 14:11,12). The same with the fasting of the hypocrites, who want to appear to men to be fasting (Mt 6:16-18).
Do not say then: I fasted but did not benefit spiritually!!
If this happens, may be your fasting was not done in a spiritual way or atmosphere. Or maybe you fast but at the same time live in sin!! Then we have to learn how to fast? And what is the true meaning of fasting? And how do we benefit spiritually from it?
Many are concerned about the formalities of fasting, or they understand it as just eating vegetarian food and they do not care about the spiritual side during fasting!! I say to those: the definition of fasting with regard to the body is abstaining from food for a certain period of time, followed by food that is free from animal fat.
Do you practice this abstinence from food and drink?
And do you reach a stage of hunger and you endure it?
This is the first exercise, I mean enduring hunger... It was said about the fasting of the Lord Jesus Christ that: “He was hungry” (Mt 4:2) and (Lk 4:2). And St Paul the Apostle said about his fasting with his fellow apostles: “In hunger and thirst, in fasting often” (2 Cor 11:27). And about the fasting of St Peter the Apostle, it was said: “Then he became very hungry and wanted to eat” (Acts 10:10). So, do you experience hunger in your fasting?
When you become hungry, you feel your weakness so you do not show off your strength but rely on God’s strength to support you. And when you become hungry and endure hunger, you acquire the virtue of endurance and self-control. Therefore do not eat whenever you feel hungry during fasting but persevere and endure. Take the blessing of feeling hungry, persevering and enduring it. Also when you experience hunger, you will feel the pain of the poor who have nothing to eat, so you will be sympathetic towards them and give unto them... This is what is meant by abstaining for a period of time during fasting.
Another advice is to abstain from whatever you desire...
Remember the saying of the Prophet Daniel about his fasting: “I ate no pleasant food, no meat or wine came into my mouth” (Dan 10:3)... I say that because many eat a lot of desirable vegetarian food and enjoy it. Therefore, they do not really feel that they are fasting, and then they do not benefit from their fasting, especially if there was a mother or a wife who is expert in cooking vegetarian food and makes it more appetizing than ordinary food.
Therefore, place before yourself two observations during your fast: the first is that you do not ask for specific types of food that you enjoy. The second is that if desirable food is placed before you, do not satisfy your desire and eat from it. Or else take a small amount and leave the rest and control yourself. Or mix the desirable with the undesirable, so that the desirable will not taste that good.
With that you advance in your fasting till you reach, not only the hunger of the body, but the ascetic body.
In this way, your body renounces all the enjoyment offered by food. The element of abstaining comes first. But when you train yourself and get used to it, then it would not be a great effort to stop yourself, because by that time, you would have renounced what you used to long for. This ability to restrain yourself from food and drink will grow and develop in you until you renounce many other pleasures, such as those of the senses, and the various desires of the body... At that time, your spiritual level will be elevated...
The element of restrain comes into many fields.
As you train to restrain yourself from eating and drinking, you will gradually restrain your tongue from bad talk and from any talk that is not constructive. You also restrain your mind from vain and wrong thoughts.
You restrain your heart from all sinful feelings, all desires and impure emotions. And so you will progress from the fasting of the mouth to the fasting of the tongue, the fasting of the thoughts, and the fasting of the heart.
Not only would your body be fasting, but your soul also...
Fasting becomes a mere expression of the inner purity that you have reached and a spiritual period that you have lived... The more you practice, the more you will be used to it and its virtues for you will become a way of life. I mean that what you spiritually gain during fasting, you do not lose when fasting is over, but it continues with you. It is true that your food has changed by the end of fasting, but the virtues that you acquired during fasting would not change...
Here you differentiate between breaking fast and lack of restraint.
Many control themselves during the fast, but when it is over and it is feast time, they lose all that they acquired, thinking that breaking a fast means loss of restraint and self control!! Therefore, the one who takes fasting as one of the spiritual means, keeps in his heart, his soul and his will all that he acquired during the fast, and the benefit continues with him. If fasting helped him to get rid of a bad habit or a specific habit, he does not go back to it even after he breaks his fast.
From the book - The Spiritual Means
By HH Pope Shenouda III