An old man said: “Ask God to give you heartfelt grief and humility…. Control your tongue and belly, and drink no wine.”
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 1.22
This old man says a bit more (in particular about lust, judging, and arguments), but I want to focus on the connection between fasting and grief in particular. In fact, grief is the most common—though not the only—occasion for fasting mentioned in the Bible. In particular, I have three, Lenten theses.
Thesis 1: Grief and fasting complement one another.
It is fairly well-known that one symptom or side-effect of grief is loss of appetite. If one happens to grieve during a time when one wishes to fast, the grief should make the fasting easier. Thus, grief complements fasting.
Conversely, one recommendation to help dissipate grief is that grieving persons make sure they eat anyway. Eating gives energy and, at the least, usually some small amount of pleasure. Thus, fasting complements grief by depriving it of this small comfort that could help dissipate it.
Thesis 2: Fasting and prayer complement one another.
This may be a bit self-evident to most ascetic folks—prayer and fasting are often coupled in the Bible and other Christian spiritual writings—but it is worthwhile to slow down and ask why.
Prayer, according to Met. St. Philaret of Moscow (see the previous post for a prayer inspired by a prayer written by him), is “the lifting of the mind and heart to God, manifested by devout words.” Prayer, we may then say, orients us toward the transcendent and immaterial (such as virtue and holiness and, of course, God).
Fasting is the abstention from material things, food most typically. Refraining from the source of our physical life opens us the source of our spiritual life: God and godliness.
Thus, fasting complements prayer by orienting us away from that which is material. Prayer complements fasting by orienting us toward that which is immaterial.
We may also add one corollary to this thesis: prayer and fasting are constitutive of repentance, literally “to turn”—away from sin and the temptations of the world and towards God.
Thesis 3: Prayer with grief and fasting promote joy.
According to Thesis 1, grief and fasting are complementary.
Joy, as distinct from pleasure, would be to the fathers that delight which has virtue and what is holy as its objects. Pleasure, to them, is more often pleasure in material things.
While the fathers made a similar distinction between grief and “godly sorrow,” I actually think any form of grief will do here, to some extent. If we grieve over something transient, fasting will help detach from the source of our grief and prayer will help attach us to that which is intransient (Thesis 2).
These three may continue to work together until all grief is swallowed up by joy. But as the sources of all forms of grief in this life are manifold, like the hydra sprouting two new heads for every one that is dispatched, we ought not to expect such all-consuming joy until the whole world is renewed. Then “God will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things”—all which was not anchored in the transcendent—“have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
Until then, we may benefit even now from the comingling of grief and joy through prayer and fasting. This, in any case, is what Fr. Schmemann’s phrase “bright sadness” has come to mean for me. Indeed, we have in this practice, our daily death and resurrection in asceticism, a foretaste of the resurrection of the cosmos at the end of all things. And such asceticism is the focus of Great Lent.
There is much to commend this “Lenten way of life,” if only one is willing to receive it.