Saint Ignatius Briantchaninov
Reprinted from Orthodox Life -Vol.2 Number 2 – March/April 1951
The head or chief of the virtues is prayer; their foundation is fasting.
Fasting is constant moderation in food with prudent discernment in its use.
Proud man! You think so much and so highly of your mind, while all the time it is in complete and constant dependence on your stomach.
The law of fasting, though outwardly a law for the stomach, is essentially a law for the mind.
The mind, that sovereign ruler in man, if it wishes to enter into its rights of autocracy and retain them, must first submit to the law of fasting. Only then will it be constantly alert and bright; only then can it rule over the desires of the heart and body. Only with constant vigilance and temperance can the mind learn the commandments of the Gospel and follow them. The foundation of the virtues is fasting.
Newly-made man when placed in paradise was given a single commandment, a commandment concerning fasting. Of course, only one commandment was given because that was sufficient to have kept primitive man in his innocence.
The commandment did not speak of the quantity of food, but only prohibited a kind or quality. Let those who recognize a fast in quantity of food only and not in quality be silent. By devoting themselves to a practical study of fasting, they will see the significance of the quality of the food.
So important was the law of fasting declared by God to man in paradise that with the commandment was pronounced a threat of punishment for breaking it. The punishment consisted in the striking of men with eternal death.
And now a sinful death continues to strike the breakers of the holy commandment of fasting. He who does not observe moderation and due discernment in food cannot preserve virginity or chastity, cannot control anger, yields to sloth, despondency, and sorrow, becomes a slave of vainglory and an abode of pride which gets into a man through his carnal state, which is caused most of all by luxurious and nourishing food.
The commandment to fast was renewed or confirmed by the Gospel. “Take heed to yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with excessive eating and drinking,” said the Lord. Overeating and drinking impart corpulence or grossness not only to the body but to the mind and heart as well; that is, they reduce a person to a carnal state of soul and body.
Fasting, on the contrary, leads a Christian to a spiritual state. A person who is purified by fasting is humble in spirit, chaste. modest, silent, refined in the feelings of his heart and mind, light in body, fit for spiritual labors and contemplation, apt to receive divine grace.
The carnal man is completely immersed in sinful pleasures. He is sensual in body, in heart, and in mind. He is incapable not only of spiritual joy and of receiving divine grace but even of spiritual occupations. He is nailed to the earth, wallowing in materiality, spiritually dead while alive.
“Woe to you who are full now, for you shall hunger!” (Lk. 6, 25). Such is the message of the Word of God to breakers of the commandment of holy fasting. How will you nourish yourself in eternity when you have learnt here only to glut yourself with material foods and material pleasures which do not exist in heaven? What will you feed on in eternity when you have not tasted one of the good things of heaven? How can you eat and enjoy the good things of heaven when you have acquired no taste or sympathy for them, in fact, have only acquired aversion for them?
The daily bread of Christians is Christ. Uncloying repletion with this bread is the saving satiety and delight to which all Christians are invited. Be insatiably filled with the Word of God; be insatiably filled with the doing of Christ’s commandments; be insatiably filled with the table “prepared against those who trouble you,” and be inebriated “with the strong chalice” (Ps. 22, 5).
“Where are we to begin,” says St. Macarius the Great, “we who have never engaged in searching our hearts? Let us stand outside and knock with prayer and fasting, as the Lord commanded; ‘Knock and it will be opened to you’ ” (Matt. 7. 7).
This work which is proposed to us by one of the greatest teachers of monasticism was a work of the Holy Apostles. From the midst of it they were granted to hear the Spirit’s messages. “While they were serving the Lord and fasting,” says the writer of their acts, “the Holy Spirit said: Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them. Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13, 2). From the midst of their effort in which fasting was combined with prayer, the Spirit’s command concerning the call of the Gentiles to Christianity was heard.
Wonderful union of fasting with prayer! Prayer is powerless unless it is based on fasting, and fasting is fruitless unless prayer is built upon it.
Fasting frees a person from fleshly passions, while prayer wrestles with the passions of the soul, and, having conquered them, it penetrates and permeates the person’s whole constitution, and purifies it. Into the purified spiritual temple it introduces God.
He who sows his land without working it wastes his seed and instead of wheat reaps thorns. So too if we sow seeds of prayer without refining our flesh, instead of righteousness we shall produce sin. Our prayer will be ruined and robbed by various thoughts and fantasies, it will be defiled by sensual feelings. Our flesh came from the earth and unless it is cultivated like the earth it can never produce the fruit of righteousness.
On the other hand, if anyone works his land with great care and at great expense but leaves it unsown, it will be covered with a thick crop of weeds. So if the body is refined by fasting but the soul is not cultivated by prayer, reading, and humility, then fasting becomes the parent of numerous weeds – passions of the soul: pride, vainglory, scorn.
What is the passion of gluttony and drunkenness? Having lost regularity (that is, a sense of what is right and lawful), the natural craving for food and drink demands a much greater quantity and more varied quality than is needed for the maintenance of life and the bodily powers and becomes a passion. Excessive food acts on the bodily powers in a way that is the reverse of its natural purpose; it acts harmfully, weakening and destroying them.
The craving for food is satisfied by a simple table and by refraining from excess and delight in food. First, excess and delight must be abandoned; in this way, the desire for food is refined and reduced to order. But when desire becomes normal, it is satisfied with simple food.
On the other hand, when the craving for food is satisfied with excess and delight it is coarsened. To arouse it we resort to a variety of tasty foods and drinks. At first, our desire seems satisfied; then it becomes capricious, and finally, it turns into a morbid passion constantly seeking repletion and pleasure and never satisfied.
Having resolved to consecrate ourselves to the service of God, let us make fasting the foundation of our effort. The essential quality of every foundation should be an unshakable firmness; otherwise, it will be impossible to construct a building on it, however solid the building itself may be. So let us never on any account, on any pretext whatever, allow ourselves to break our fast by overeating, and especially by drunkenness.
The use of food once a day not to repletion is regarded by the Holy Fathers as the best fast. Such a fast does not weaken the body by prolonged abstinence or overload it with excessive food but keeps it fit for soul-saving activity. Such a fast presents no glaring peculiarity, and therefore the person fasting has no cause for boasting, to which people are so prone on account of virtue itself, especially when it stands out sharply.
Those engaged in physical labors or who are so weak in body that they cannot content themselves with the use of food once a day should eat twice. Fasting is for man, not man for fasting. But however often food is used, whether frequently or infrequently, satiety is strictly forbidden; it makes a person unfit for spiritual labours and opens the door to other carnal passions.
Immoderate fasting – that is, prolonged excessive abstinence from food – is not approved by the Holy Fathers. From inordinate fasting and the exhaustion which results from it, a person becomes unfit for spiritual labours, frequently turns to gluttony, and often falls into the passion of boasting and pride.
Very important is the quality of food. The forbidden fruit of Paradise, although it was beautiful in appearance and tasted delicious, had a fatal effect on the soul. It imparted to it a knowledge of good and evil, and thereby ruined the innocence in which our first parents were created. And now food continues to have a powerful effect on the soul, which is particularly noticeable in the use of wine. This effect of food is due to its diverse action on the flesh and blood, and to the fact that the vapors and gases produced by it rise from the stomach into the brain and affect the mind. For this reason, all intoxicating drinks are forbidden to the ascetic, since they deprive the mind of soberness and vigilance, and so of victory in the war of thought. The defeated mind, especially when it has been defeated by sensual thoughts in which it has taken pleasure, is deprived of spiritual grace. What was acquired by many protracted labours is lost in a few hours, in a few minutes.
“A monk should not use wine at all,” said Saint Poemen the Great. This rule ought to be followed by every pious Christian who wishes to preserve his chastity and virginity. The Holy Fathers followed this rule, and if they did use wine, it was extremely seldom and with the greatest moderation. Heating foods should be banished from the table of the abstinent since they arouse bodily passions. Such are pepper, ginger, and other spices.
The most natural food is that which was assigned to man by the Creator immediately after his creation – food of the vegetable kingdom. God said to our first parents: “Behold I have given you every seed-bearing plant, the sowing seed which is on the whole earth; and every tree which has within it the fruit of seminal seed shall be to you for food” (Gen. 1, 29). It was only after the flood that the use of meat was allowed (Gen. 9, 3).
Vegetable food is the best for an ascetic. It is less heating for the blood and less fattening for the flesh. The vapors and gases it produces and which rise to the brain affect it less. Finally, it is the most wholesome because it produces less mucus in the stomach. For these reasons, when vegetable food is used, it is particularly easy to preserve purity and mental alertness, and the power of the mind over the whole man; also the passions act more feebly, and the person is more capable of engaging in the labours of piety.
Fish foods, especially those prepared from large sea fish, are of quite another kind. They act more perceptibly on the brain, fatten the body, heat the blood, and fill the stomach with harmful mucus, especially when they are frequently or constantly used.
These effects are incomparably more violent in the case of meat. It has an extremely fattening effect on the flesh, it causes a special corpulency, and heats the blood. The vapors and gases it produces are very oppressive to the brain. For this reason, it is not used at all by monks. It is the prerogative of people living in the world who are always engaged in hard physical labor. But even for them, the constant use of meat is harmful.
“What!” at this point would-be wiseacres exclaim, “Meat is allowed man by God, and do you forbid its use?” To this, we reply in the words of the Apostle, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful for me, but not all things edify” (1 Cor. 10, 23). We decline from the use of meat not because we regard it as unclean but because it produces a special corpulence in our whole constitution and hinders spiritual progress.
Holy Church, by her wise rules and regulations, has allowed Christians living in the world to use meat. Yet she does not allow its constant use but has divided the year into seasons of meat-eating and seasons of abstinence from meat in which the Christian is detached from his meat-eating. This fruit of the fasts can be discovered by experience by everyone who keeps them.
For those living the monastic life the use of meat is forbidden. In its place, the use of milk foods and eggs is permitted during the seasons of meat-eating. At certain times and on certain days the use of fish is permitted them. But mostly they can use only vegetable food.
Vegetable food is used almost exclusively by the most zealous ascetics and exponents of piety, especially those who have felt within them the movement of the Spirit of God, on account of the convenience mentioned above and the cheapness of this food. For drink, they use only water and avoid not only heating and intoxicating beverages but even nourishing ones like all the drinks made from bread.
The rules of fasting are appointed by the Church with the object of helping her children and to supply direction for the whole of Christian society. At the same time, it is prescribed for everyone to examine himself with the help of an experienced and discerning spiritual father and not to. impose upon himself a fast which is beyond his strength. We repeat – fasting is for man, and not man for fasting. Food given for the support of the body should not be used to destroy it.
“If you control your stomach,” said Saint Basil the Great, “you will mount to Paradise; but if you do not control it, you will be a victim of death.” Hereby the name Paradise should be understood as a state of grace and prayer and by death a passionate condition. A state of grace during our life on earth serves as a pledge of our eternal beatitude in the heavenly Eden. A fall into the power of sin and into a state of spiritual deadness serves as a pledge of our fall into the abyss of hell for eternal torment.