Recently, my confessor enabled me to see the root of the long litany of sins I was laying before him: self-reliance, as opposed to trust in God. When I signed up to write a blog post to mark the beginning of the Great Fast, I had planned to write about the theological context of Lenten fasting as observed in the Eastern Church. But as I have prayed with the self-reliance so deeply rooted in my heart, I find that none of what I had intended to write now seems important. It was all neatly and logically arranged in my head (on which I often depend too heavily in my self-reliance), but it didn’t reach my heart—and repentance must come from the heart. In light of the revelation of my self-reliance, my heart is moved by an awareness of my own poverty, by all the ways I try to fill myself or act from my own partial or flawed understanding. I resist Jesus’ call to humbly consent to the experience of being needy and inadequate, waiting in trustful expectation in the midst of my own emptiness and inability. It is precisely in this place of poverty that I find the hope that is at the heart of Lenten fasting.
In Great Lent: Journey to Pascha, Fr. Alexander Schmemann describes the interior posture of a Christian entering this holy season of repentance: “I stand before God, before the glory and the beauty of His Kingdom. I realize that I belong to it, that I have no other home, no other joy, no other goal; I also realize that I am exiled from it into the darkness and sadness of sin.” This is my awareness also. And my hope—our hope—comes from the promise of our Faith, that we will not merely (merely!) share in Christ’s Resurrection, but that we will also become one with Him through theosis, totally united to God Himself in the spousal union for which we yearn in our exile. But how do we become one with Jesus? How are we to be healed so that we can once again live as citizens of our True Country? Healing and redemption come through the Paschal Mystery—the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. “If we have died with Him, we shall also live with Him” (2 Tim 2:11). Where do we need to die so that we can be raised to new life?
For most of us, that answer involves, to some degree, our relationship with food. The fundamental lie hiding in our often unhealthy relationship to food—and in all sin, really—is that I know what will make me happy far better than God does; that I, creature that I am, know more than my Creator. Schmemann defines fasting as “the refusal to accept the desires and urges of our fallen nature as normal, the effort to free ourselves from the dictatorship of flesh over the spirit.” Fasting is about submission to our creaturely inadequacy, acknowledging that we need God more than we need all other things for which we are reaching (even good things that are His gifts).
Living at the monastery begs the question: What is the point of the monastic life? What is the merit of a life in which we are perpetually tired, surrender the freedom to satisfy our preferences, and even sacrifice our ability to love people in the ways both they and we desire? St. Augustine explains, “You are a vessel; but as yet you are full. Pour out what you have, so that you may receive what you do not have….” T. S. Eliot adds, “In order to possess what you do not possess / You must go by the way of dispossession.” As monastics, we freely and joyfully accept deprivation so that we may receive Jesus into the emptiness of our aching, waiting hearts.
For all Christians, not just monastics, fasting serves a similar purpose: It creates space in which we touch our poverty, our utter insufficiency, and thereby open ourselves to the necessity of relying on God to fill our hearts and satisfy our needs. Fasting must not become something that we do, part of an ego-satisfying plan of asceticism by which we plan to take heaven by storm. Rather, it is a very effective means of becoming small and creating space for God to draw us closer to His Heart.
To be fruitful, fasting must be closely accompanied by prayer. In our prayer, we bring to Jesus our raging desires and pour out to Him our distress at not having what we crave. And it is precisely through the wound of our insufficiency that He enters into us, revealing the lies we have believed (such as the lie that eating that chocolate is going to ease this loneliness in my heart, or that a particular person’s affirmation is the source of my identity). In the silence of the Lenten desert, we listen in expectation for the Voice of Love.
Fasting is not about legalistic perfection, but about letting go of ourselves in order to make room for God. “For He has, in the last resort, nothing to give us but Himself;” says C. S. Lewis, “and He can give that only insofar as our self-affirming will retires and makes room for Him in our souls….What matters, what Heaven desires and Hell fears, is precisely that further step, out of our depth, out of our own control.” This Lent, join the Great Fast; take that further step, out of your own control (which is an illusion anyway) and discover with St. Paul that when you are weak, then you are strong (2 Cor 12:10).