In a book that forever changed my perspective on fasting, the late Pope Shenouda III defined the physical aspect of fasting, which can be distilled as follows:
“Fasting is abstinence from food for a period [during which you feel a sufficient extent of hunger], followed by eating food [which you limit in three ways: kind, quality, and quantity].”
I thought of writing this post because, in speaking with an adult Coptic friend of mine he confided that he had never heard of fasting in this way ever before, which reminded me of the fact that for many of us in the Orthodox Church, fasting is simply a change in our diets, and we do everything we can to make it as enjoyable as possible, including ignoring (or making excuses for) ingredients that make a particular food we crave “non-fasting.”
If you were to break down the definition of fasting, you would see the following components:
Abstaining from food so that you feel hunger for an extended period of time.
The Element of Hunger:
This one was the most novel to me when I read about it in Pope Shenouda’s book on fasting. I had never thought of its significance before, but it is absolutely fundamental, or otherwise one’s fast is useless.
Hunger caused by fasting simulates our desire to sin, and learning not to give in to hunger is meant to train our bodies and minds to learn not to give in to sinful impulses. Without feeling hunger during a fasting period, you are not training yourself adequately to refrain from sin, and thus fasting will often feel that it is not providing any real benefit.
Pope Shenouda teaches:
Many abstain from food, then eat without feeling or enduring hunger. They are without patience to profit from fasting spiritually.
His Holiness also points out biblical examples of hunger during fasting. The one that struck me the most was the fact that St. Matthew deemed it important to mention that Christ was hungry after He fasted: “afterward He was hungry” (Matthew 4:2). Also, you find St. Paul pointing out that he and his apostolic companions’ service included “hunger and thirst” and “fastings often” (2 Corinthians 11:27).
Fasting acquires its perfection in toleration of hunger. Therefore Pope Shenouda tells us:
Do not escape from the feeling of hunger through idle talk, wasting of time or sleep, which you may resort to in order to overcome the period of hunger without feeling it. By escaping from hunger you forfeit its blessings, spiritual benefits, and the virtue of endurance and control over the body.
Our aim is to benefit from hunger and not escape from it.
Have you ever noticed that when you pray while hungry you feel more benefit than when praying when full? His Holiness Pope Shenouda tells us the same:
In fact, a hungry person longs for prayer, while he who is full often forgets. That is why most faithful people pray before eating.
How long to abstain from food?
In sum, one should be under the guidance of one’s father confessor to determine how long one should abstain from food and gain the benefit of feeling hungry. Your father confessor should assess three factors: spirituality, age, and state of health. The key point to gain here is that your father confessor should make this assessment, not you. His Holiness Pope Shenouda warns:
Excessive periods of fasting may become detrimental to the body and possibly to the soul as it falsely instills the notion of false glory. On the other hand, some may become lax and lose the benefits of fasting. It is best to seek the guidance of your Father confessor on this matter.
When you do eat, you must also limit the KIND, QUANTITY, and QUALITY of the food you partake of.
It is useful to remember what the prophet Daniel said about his fast: “I ate no pleasant food” (Daniel 10:3). Even after one breaks the fast, you must continue to “fast” in the sense of inhibiting yourself from eating pleasant food in great quantities. Thus, a person should limit the kind, quantity, and quality of food one eats when they break their fast.
Obviously, we are to eat food that does not contain any dairy or meat products (with the exception of seafood on certain fasts; note that this exception was instituted to accommodate the weakness of the people).
Do not seek that which you crave most, but rather what you crave least.
Pope Shenouda provides practical pointers on this:
If you fast but still give your body what it craves for, then in truth you had not fasted. Thus, distance yourself from things that you crave so that you may overcome your body and subject it to your will.
Do not seek special food or ask for it to be prepared in the manner that you like. If an item is placed before you which you have not ordered but which you like, do not eat much of it
If you are eating out and you have a selection of items to choose from, you may be craving a number of those items; seek that which you crave less than the others. Or maybe you have a number of restaurants you can choose from; seek the one that you desire least. Or think of being at a friend’s house and an array of food is laid out before you: choose a few of the least desired items and refrain from eating the rest.
Pope Shenouda reminds us also of another means of eating food of lesser quality: alter its taste in a way that makes it less enjoyable to some extent. He tells us:
I would like to remind you of our saintly fathers who said, “If food you crave is placed before you, spoil it a little then eat it.”
This one is probably the hardest of all to maintain, but it is one we should all aim for, as Pope Shenouda explains:
Do not eat all that is offered to you…. As one of the fathers said: “Conclude your meal while you still crave it.”
Pope Shenouda analogizes over-eating after fasting as being like a person who builds a house and then demolishes it, only to rebuild it from scratch again.
Think about it: imagine you do all the right things:
- abstain from food and feel hungry for a while
- limit the kind of food you eat to that which is permitted in the fast
- limit the quality of food by spoiling it a little and choosing things you crave least
- THEN, after all the benefit you may have acquired from learning such self control, you eradicate all of that by eating so much food that you cannot even move from how stuffed you feel.
Of course, all of the above is just focused on the physical aspect of fasting, There is obviously the spiritual component of fasting, which you can read more about in His Holiness’s book on the Spirituality of Fasting.
May God bless your spiritual endeavors, and may your fasting be a MEANS by which you train yourself to refrain from sin and replace sinful impulses with spiritual virtues, rather than simply a GOAL which provides no additional benefit to your life.
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