Fasting-A Spiritual Exercise


Fasting in the Orthodox Church

The practice of fasting is a most ancient one.  We find it in the Old Testament, e.g., when Moses fasted for forty days before he ascended onto Mount Sinai in order to receive the Ten Commandments, and in many other cases.  Fasting was sanctioned by our Lord Jesus Christ, Himself, when He fasted for forty days in the desert, before he embarked on His earthly ministry.  He began His fight against the devil (Matthew 4:2) with a strict form of fasting accompanied by prayer.

The ultimate goal of fasting is to help us keep the commandments of God.  It is a form of spiritual training or askesis, which helps us acquire spiritual discipline.  Fasting helps us detach ourselves from the earthly pleasures of the flesh.  It helps us discipline our fleshly desires and all of our passions.  By managing to control what goes into our mouth and stomach we train ourselves to be able to control what comes out of our mouth and heart.  Through fasting we also become able to control our eyes and avoid looking at things which will aggravate our passions further.  Fasting enables us to control our anger and above all, our pride.

According to St. John Chrysostom, fasting is the food of the soul.  In the same way as material food nourishes the body, so also, fasting strengthens the soul and makes its wings lighter and able to move upward more easily; it lifts her above this world and helps her communicate with the heavenly, after having freed her from her attachment to the pleasures and lusts of life.

Fasting, however, should always be accompanied (i) Repentance for our sins, (ii) Prayer, (iii) Reading of the Bible and other spiritual books and (iv) Almsgiving.  Especially those who are unable to fast in a strict manner because of physical, medical or other problems, should give more of themselves to spiritual edification through prayer, reading of the Scriptures, or listening to spiritual talks, while they also give more of their earthly goods to those in need.  In these things they cannot present the excuse that the infirmity of the body is an obstacle, as it may be in fasting.  Furthermore, everyone should make peace with their enemies.  Let no hatred remain in our hearts.  Our fasting will be in vain if we are not in peace with those around you.

Teach also your children to fast every Wednesday and Friday, as well as during the regular fasting periods.  It is the best spiritual discipline that they will ever get.  If they learn to fast early in their lives, fasting will not seem such a big burden for them later.  The greatest benefit, however, is that by practicing this spiritual discipline (always accompanied by prayer, and reading of spiritual books and almsgiving), they will be strengthened by God’s grace and they will be prepared to face the temptations of the teenage years and adulthood.  They will be able to say NO to the drug culture, the premarital sexual adventures, and all the other temptations of our society.  This spiritual discipline will help your children remain close to God and within the fold of the Church for the rest of their lives.
According to the Holy Canons of the Orthodox Church, all Orthodox Christians should fast:
(i)     on every Wednesday, in commemoration of the betrayal of Christ, and every Friday, in remembrance of His Passion and Crucifixion
(ii)    during the forty days before Christmas (Advent)
(iii)   during the period of Great Lent and Holy Week
(iv)   during the period between the Feast of All Saints and the feast of The Holy Apostles Peter and Paul
(v)    during the first two weeks of August, which precede the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos (on August 15)
(vi)   on the day of the commemoration of the beheading of St. John the Baptist (August 29)
(vii)  on the feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross (September 14)
(viii)  on the Eve of the Baptism of Christ (January 5).

There is no fasting at all (even on Wednesdays and Fridays) during:
(i)    the period between Christmas and January 5
(ii)   the week following the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee
(iii)  the week following the Sunday of Holy Pascha (Renewal Week), and
(iv)  the week after Pentecost.

Fasting means abstinence from all foods that come from animals, e.g., meats, dairy products, fish e.t.c. and from oil.  One should only eat bread, vegetables and legumes (beans).  During the fasting periods, oil and wine are allowed on Saturdays and Sundays as also on certain major feasts.  Fish is allowed on the feast of the Annunciation (March 25) and the feast of the Transfiguration (August 6).  Fasting means that not only the above foods should be avoided when we fast, but we should also limit the amount of food we consume at every meal.

It is advisable for those who are not used to fasting, or are doing it for the first time, to speak to their spiritual father (father confessor) about it, so that he may advise them as to how they should go about doing it.  It may be spiritually detrimental for beginners to impose on themselves the strictest form of fasting.  One should begin to fast lightly and develop their fasting with time to the ultimate possible level for themselves.

Click here to download a PDF document of “The Fasts of the Orthodox Church”.