Lent is a privileged time in the liturgical year, preparing us for the celebration of Easter. However, our whole life should be a journey of transformation until the time that we enter into the Heavenly Kingdom for our Eternal Easter.
Both the Fathers of the Church and eminent spiritual writers certainly give us a rich taste of what Lent is, as a time wherein we discover the importance and the power of fasting. St Athanasius tells us: Devils take great delight in fullness, and drunkenness and bodily comfort. Fasting possesses great power and it works glorious things. To fast is to banquet with angels. What a marvelous idea of thinking of fasting as fasting with the angels!
In the Father’s reflection, fasting is a multi-layered process which practically envelopes our whole person. Let us appreciate what St Tikhon of Zadonsk says: Let thy mind fast from vain thoughts; let thy memory fast from remembering evil; let thy will fast from evil desire; let thine eyes fast from bad sights: turn away thine eyes that thou mayest not see vanity; let thine ears fast from vile songs and slanderous whispers; let thy tongue fast from slander, condemnation, blasphemy, falsehood, deception, foul language and every idle and rotten word; let thy hands fast from killing and from stealing another’s goods; let thy legs fast from going to evil deeds: Turn away from evil, and do good.
Lack of fasting can impede us from entering deeply in our relationship with God. The great St Seraphim of Sarov, in his little treatise The Spiritual Instructions to Laymen and Monks, affirms: One should not think about the doings of God when one’s stomach is full; on a full stomach there can be no vision of the Divine mysteries.
In another treatise called Conversation on the Goal of the Christian Life, the same St. Seraphim of Sarov conveys to us the teaching that fasting, prayer and good deeds help us to attain the Holy Spirit. He says: Fasting, prayer, alms, and every other good Christian deed is good in itself, but the purpose of the Christian life consists not only in the fulfillment of one or another of them. The true purpose of our Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. But fasting, prayer, alms and every good deed done for the sake of Christ is a means to the attainment of the Holy Spirit. Note that only good deeds done for the sake of Christ bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Everything else that is not done for the sake of Christ, even if it is good, does not bring us a reward in the life to come, not does it bring the grace of God in this life. This is why our Lord Jesus Christ said, ‘Whoever gathereth not with me scattereth’ (Matt. 12:30).
For St Maximus the Confessor the Lenten journey helps us orient our actions to their unique right purpose, God’s glory. He tells us: Many human activities, good in themselves, are not good because of the motive for which they are done. For example, fasting, vigils, prayer, psalmody [the singing of hymns], acts of charity and hospitality are by nature good. But when performed for the sake of self-esteem [vainglory, self-glorification] they are not good. In everything we do, God searches out our purpose to see whether we do it for Him or for some other motive . . .quite clearly He bestows blessings only when something is done for the right purpose. For God’s judgment looks not at the actions, but at the purpose behind them.
In St Theophan the Recluse’s view, prayer and fasting banish away and protect us from the influence of the devil in our lives. He writes:
This kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.” [Matthew 17:14-23] If this kind goes out by the prayer and fasting of another person, then it is even less able to enter one who fasts and prays. What protection! Although there are a slew of demons and all the air is packed with them, they cannot do anything to one who is protected by prayer and fasting. Fasting is universal temperance, prayer is universal communication with God; the former defends from the outside, whereas the latter from within directs a fiery weapon against the enemies. The demons can sense a faster and man of prayer from a distance, and they run far away from him so as to avoid a painful blow. Is it feasible to think that where there is no fasting and prayer, there already is a demon? Yes, it is. The demons lodging in a person, do not always reveal their presence, but lurk there, stealthily teaching their host every evil and turning him away from every good thing; so this person is certain that he is doing everything on his own, but meanwhile he is only fulfilling the will of his enemy. Just commence prayer and fasting and the enemy will immediately depart, then wait on the side for an opportunity to somehow return again. And he truly will return, as soon as prayer and fasting are abandoned.
The true spirit of Lent is the one which makes us hunger for God by hungering for fastings and watchings to grow urgently in virtues. Again, St Macarius the Great tells us: The soul that really loves God and Christ, though it may do ten thousand righteousnesses, esteems itself as having wrought nothing, by reason of its insatiable aspiration after God. Though it should exhaust the body with fastings, with watchings, its attitude towards the virtues is as if it had not yet even begun to labour for them.
Fasting positively influences all our different areas of being human. St John of Kronstadt, in his writing My Life in Christ, writes: It is necessary for a Christian to fast, in order to clear his mind, to rouse and develop his feelings, and to stimulate his will to useful activity. These three human capabilities we darken and stifle above all by ‘surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life’ (Lk. 21:34).”
Finally, for St Gregory Palamas, as he tells us in The Homilies, Lent is the time in which we act contrarily to what Adam did. During this privileged time we are to prefer God’s commandment and counsel to receive eternal life. He says:
“… Adam chose the treason of the serpent, the originator of evil, in preference to God’s commandment and counsel, and broke the decreed fast. Instead of eternal life he received death and instead of the place of unsullied joy he received this sinful place full of passions and misfortunes, or rather, he was sentenced to Hades and nether darkness. Our nature would have stayed in the infernal regions below the lurking places of the serpent who initially beguiled it, had not Christ come. He started off by fasting (cf. Mk. 1:13) and in the end abolished the serpent’s tyranny, set us free and brought us back to life.”
May the Holy Spirit, through these Fathers of the Church and spiritual writers, together with many others, help us to mature in fasting, prayer and almsgiving! Amen!