An unworthy Deacon, named for the brother of God: James, striving to "work out his salvation with fear and trembling" within the Tradition (paradosis) of the Eastern Orthodox Faith. It is a strange and marvelous journey, and I am accompanied by the fourfold fruit of my fecundity. My wife, the Matushka or Diaconissa Sophia, is my beloved partner in the pursuit of Theosis, and she ranks me in every way.
I’ve been reading through the introductory notes of “The Lenten Triodion” and there is a portion entitled “The True Nature of Fasting” which is well worth your time. Note is taken of the fact that so many today seemingly dismiss fasting and some explanations for this are offered:
“One reason for this decline in fasting is surely a heretical attitude towards human nature, a false ‘spiritualism’ which rejects or ignores the body, viewing man solely in terms of his reasoning brain. As a result, many contemporary Christians have lost a true vision of man as an integral unity of the visible and the invisible; they neglect the positive role played by the body in the spiritual life, forgetting St. Paul’s affirmation: ‘Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit…glorify God with your body’ (1 Cor. 6:19-20).”
There is no doubt that we have largely developed a belief in a false dichotomy between body and soul. It’s wholly become a part of our cultural consciousness to see the body as a sort of shell from which the soul “escapes” or is “set free” at death and I’ve often wondered how on earth this unchristian perception of reality evolved in a culture that has supposedly been largely influenced by Christianity? Some wonder if we are in the midst of a post-Christian society, but I’d argue that at least on this issue we were more persuaded by Gnostic dogma than Christian, whatever “post” we may be now.
Some I have heard/read argue that the Protestant emphasis on “faith alone” may have either influenced and/or itself been influenced by this flesh/mind or body/soul dichotomy and I would certainly not reject such an argument outright. I suspect one would be hard pressed to find any notion of bodily resurrection in a after-life based television or book plot, a song, or even many popular spiritual hymns, whereas the theme of a freed spirit as a finality abound. The point being: is it any wonder that fasting (or any other of the variety of physical acts of worship or pious customs one might involve oneself in such as prostrations, crossing oneself, use of holy water, or venerating icons and relics) has lost its much required (or so we are told) relevance?
If you think about it, I expect you can find many examples of where a skewed understanding of mankind’s natural unity of body and soul has lead to all manner of negations in both practice and beliefs. In my own past I can recall trying to wrap my head around the strange insistence of my denomination that I be physically dunked in water, as opposed (I suppose) to just rationalizing in my head that I had consented to be baptized into Christ and by virtue of my conception was in fact already “baptized.” A rather shallow explanation was offered regarding obedience to Scripture (we were told to do it…though we aren’t really sure why?!?!) and the opportunity for a public confession of faith.
But in a Christian worldview where God truly restores ALL things and in which the Holy Spirit is everywhere present and filling everything and where man’s normal state is a true and redeemed harmony between body and soul, something changes. Suddenly, what we do with our body matters as much as what we do with our mind. Suddenly a prostration is no different than rationalizing in my head that God is magnificent and I am humbled in His presence. Consider the reality here in terms of sin! Our Lord told us that if we look upon a woman with lust in our hearts we have in essence committed adultery with her, and while some may point to this and suggest it indicates a sort of pinnacle of our disposition existing in the mind/heart/soul, I would ask if one can fathom the possibility of physically committing adultery but avoiding sin by pondering something of a more lofty nature throughout the experience?
Additionally to those who would suggest that one can do something PHYSICALLY and not really MEAN anything by it, I would suggest that you can also just as easily THINK something and not really MEAN anything by it – I do it all the time. And come now, my friends, you are not going to get down onto your hands and knees and press your head into the carpet without at some point stopping and asking yourself: “What the heck am I doing?!?!” The same goes for fasting, inevitable any sane person will ask themselves: “Why the heck am I saying ‘no’ to bacon?”
What benefit or trappings of fasting? Ah where to begin…another post I guess.
I suppose, as you point out, perspective does determine how much priority one places on fasting. I don't remember it coming up all that much as I grew up in various Protestant Christian churches. . .it just wasn't on the radar. Whether it should be or not is probably a matter for another time.
I have noticed over the years that the various flavors of Christianity seem to pick up a handful of practices or beliefs and elevate them in importance as a way of remaining distinctly, er, vanilla, or chocolate, or whatever. 7th Day Adventists could be Baptists if not for their emphasis on Saturday as the "true" Sabbath. It is certainly a "defining" belief for them. I suppose the same is true with Catholic theologians and clergy with respect to the 1000+ year tiff with Orthodoxy. They've invested a millennium arguing and justifying their positions as "the" church.
I don't fast, but many at my parish do, and they always seem quick to make certain that everyone notices when they are suffering. I've wondered if they are so vocal because it makes them "feel" more Orthodox. Fasting is one of those practices that seems to define one as a being a really serious "Orthodox" person or not. If Rick Warren were to ever become Orthodox I'm sure fasting would become a bullet point and chapter in his new book, "The Orthodox-Driven Life." By the way, I read somewhere that some Catholic churches are quietly bringing back indulgences...maybe fasting will be next with them.