Imagine that to one side of you a musician is playing the violin, and on the other side, a worker is running a jackhammer. Do you hear the violin music? Or do you only see the bow scratching across the strings?
The violin music is the inspiration that is born in the soul when you think about God, the sounds of the spiritual world that move the soul to live a pure and chaste life, the reflections of paradisal beauty observable in nature that witness to the Heavenly Father. The jackhammer is the noise of the outside world and the clatter of our passions, which deafen the soul with their unbearable howling, depriving us for a time of spiritual hearing. All the outward vanity, hustle-bustle, impressions, worldly pleasures, and our own sinfulness do not allow us to hear the sounds of spiritual music, feel the paradisal harmony, and return to the Heavenly Father.
In order to stop the jackhammer of passions and free us of the noise of daily vanity, the Church offers Christians Lent—a special time when we have the opportunity to turn away from the outer noise, try to overcome our passions, and find harmony in our personal lives in communion with God.
People who have not fully entered the life of the Church will sometimes say that they do not fast because if they do, they will “fall apart”—their hemoglobin count will go down, they will get dizzy, and their bodies will weaken. That is, they look at the fast from the angle of its physiological benefit. It is understandable that from this point of view, it is easy to find an excuse for not fasting. Of course, some pastors cite other examples. These are quite viable situations when, for example, a person suffered from some illness that precluded fasting, but they took a blessing to fast anyway, and finally became absolutely healthy (it goes without saying that this sort of fast is not for everyone). Nevertheless, we would like to talk about something else. The fast is not a diet or temporary vegetarianism. The fast is first of all a spiritual activity by which we attempt to bring our soul and flesh into submission. Fasting teaches us to control our nature, rule over desires that arise, and through this, to achieve the most difficult victory—victory over our own selves.
We recall the Cossacks in Gogol’s novel, “Taras Bulba.” Although Sech, the Cossack camp, prayed in church and was ready to defend Orthodoxy to the last drop of blood, it did not want to hear about fasting and abstinence. As a result, the Cossacks’ inner spirit turned out to be weak, which became manifest in Bulba’s son’s betrayal and the Cossacks’ final defeat. St. Ignatius (Brianchininov) says, “O proud man! You dream so much and so highly of your mind—but it is in total and constant dependence upon your stomach.” Truly, about what will a person who is used to pampering his belly think during a time of hunger or meager nourishment? If we have not learned to rule over our bodies, we will be pathetically, slavish dependent upon it. This not only regards the stomach, but also man’s sexuality, in which the most disorderly desires can arise; and to our senses of hearing and sight, when we find it hard to tear ourselves away from popular music, television serials, and computer games. After all, satiety can be not only in food, but also videos, games, hanging around with friends, and even sleep. Can such a soul find harmony?
Lent is when we get the opportunity to achieve victory over our nature, to put our inner life in order. The Fast is a special, more sober, repentant disposition of soul, abstinence from worldly merriment, attentive preparation for confession, increasing our prayer rule. As the spring sun warms the earth and melts the snow, so the Fast warms the soul with spiritual warmth, taking away from it the ice of sins and vices. There have been many cases when people were able during the Fast to overcome their bad habits such as smoking, cursing, or drinking. Through the services, prayers, and personal effort, the Christian’s attachment to sensual pleasure is extinguished, and he ascends to the apprehension of spiritual truths. Therefore, after patiently going through the walk of the fast, regular attendance at the long services, sincere confession, and frequent Communion of the Holy Mysteries, the soul experiences ease, freedom, and consolation.
By fasting, the Christian limits his intake of animal products, and even the amount of food he eats. Why is this necessary? Our souls are in close contact with our bodies, and therefore the state of the body directly influences the state of the soul. If man’s soul reigned over the flesh when he was in Paradise, now the flesh rules over the soul. That means that we need to learn how to submit the flesh to the soul. “When the king prepares to take an enemy’s city,” explains St. John Kolov, “he first of all stops its supply of provisions. Then its citizens, pressed by hunger, submit to him. The same thing happens with fleshly desires: if a person will spend his life in fasting and hunger then improper desires will fade away.” It is known from ancient times that every form of food and drink has it own effect upon the organism. Food is able not only to support our activity, but also to obstruct it. We all know dishes and beverages that please and stimulate, or relax and weigh down the organism. When the stomach is full, the mind becomes lazy, and the heart grows coarse. Can one really purely and sincerely pray to God in such a state?
Satiety brings hardness, pomposity, and various passionate desires to the soul, while fasting humbles it. The feeling of hunger that fasting brings frees a person from self-satisfaction and self-opinion, reveals his infirmity, and makes him remember God more often. The prayer of one who fasts becomes especially strong, is pronounced not superficially but from the very soul, from the depth of the heart, directing and raising him to God. Vegetable foods have a lighter effect upon the organism and do not provoke the movement of natural lower, coarser passions. To express it graphically, a light vessel sails the sea more speedily, while one weighed down with extra cargo can sink into the depths of the sea.
Furthermore, fasting is not only physical abstinence. St. John Chrysostom adjures us, “Let not only the lips fast but also the sight, hearing, legs, arms, and all the members of our bodies. Let the arms fast, remaining innocent of theft and covetousness. Let the legs fast, ceasing to walk toward illicit acts. Let the eyes fast—sight is the food of the eyes. It would be foolish to refrain from food while the eyes devour what is forbidden. You do not eat meat? Do not devour sensuality with your eyes. Let your hearing also fast—the fast of the hearing is not listening to evil gossip and slander. Let the tongue fast from cursing and swearing, for what good is it for us to abstain from fowl and fish while we bite and devour our brothers? An evil gossiper devours the body of his brother, and tears at the flesh of his neighbor.” To put it more exactly, fasting is refraining from all that prevents us from being with God and binds our spiritual and moral yearnings to the earth. It is the fast that raises man’s nature to paradisal harmony, in which all our senses and bodily desires are in full submission to the soul.
Man’s body can be compared to a musical instrument, and the soul to the musician who should know how to play his instrument. If the musical instrument is damaged, or its strings are out of tune, the musician cannot play a harmonious melody. But if the musician himself is also insufficiently trained, his success is even less likely. The Christian fast is the education of the soul in spiritual skills, and the cure of the body from sinful passions, so that one’s natural humanity might serve God through a harmonious spiritual life.
This is why we have been given the fast—so that we could make our soul become like a wondrous violin that produces the beautiful music of spiritual life, and not turn into a jackhammer, always dully rumbling, tearing into the exhaust-fumed asphalt. May God grant that we all use the time of the fast to overcome those weaknesses and sins in ourselves that most obstruct our spiritual life, and that we may find that paradisal harmony, in which all the senses and desires of the body are in full submission to the soul.