by Vladimir Ivlenko
One of the main aims of a Christian life is union with God; to know God and not simply to know of God. Initially, Adam and Eve had this union with God. When Adam and Eve fell and did not repent they severed themselves from this pure and holy union in which they were created and instead became subject to corruption and evil, How did Adam and Eve sin and cause this immense burden to fall upon all the generations of man? Was it not by disobeying God and eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? Hence, even in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were commanded by God to fast, toabstain. They could eat anything they desired except from this one tree (Gen. 2:16, 17). We have inherited this original sin of Adam and now our bodies are subject to corruption and our souls to defilement.
How can we return to the blissful state that Adam and Eve enjoyed before they fell? God has shown a way through Redemption, by giving us commandments, a way of life, and most of all His Son, Jesus Christ, Who has become our Guide and Saviour (John 14:6). If we follow these commandments and Christ's way, then not only will we be eternally saved in the dreadful Judgement Day, but even here and now, it is possible for us to unite with God and dwell in a state of spiritual bliss (John 14:25). But we will never know this joyful state unless we earnestly and sincerely strive to fulfill all of God's commandments.
One of the most powerful weapons that God has given us to overcome our fallen physical and spiritual states, is fasting. When we search the Scriptures we find that fasting was practiced by all who reached lofty spiritual states--prophets, apostles, righteous men, etc. These people became great not from birth, but by obeying God's commandments, one of which was abstinence. Most of all, Christ Himself not only instructed us to fast (Matt. 17:21; Mark 2:20) but fasted Himself (Matt. 4:2) and set us an example to imitate (I Cor. 11:1; Eph. 5:l). Why is fasting so beneficial? Let us examine this question from both the physical and the spiritual aspects.
To most of us who live a very lowly spiritual existence, the physica1 benefits of fasting are far easier to understand and experience. Medical science has proven that if our bodies abstain from certain foods and from excess food, we can enjoy better health; we feel more active and alert; our eyes become clearer, we sleep better, our digestive system functions more effectively, physical tasks become easier, etc. It has been shown that vegetarians live far healthier and longer lives. We have all heard about the benefits of various diets which are "low in cholesterol'', "high in fiber", "meat free", etc.
By total abstinence from all food for several days, some diseases have been cured for which modern medicine could do nothing. By fasting, our physical bodies aim at becoming more and more like Adam and Eve's before they fell. Remember, Adam and Eve ate no meat, fish or dairy products in the Garden of Eden, only vegetarian foods.
The most important benefits of fasting, however, are spiritual. Here it is difficult to generalize because each p e r s o n, when fasting will be granted a different experience depending on God’s grace and the requirements of the person's spirit. In all cases though, the spiritual benefits of fasting lead to God-pleasing virtues and contribute enormously to our salvation. Here are some examples of the spiritual benefits of fasting that we may all experience through God's grace if we earnestly and sincerely try to fast:
1. We become more conscious of our sins thus leading us to confession, repentance and a desire to reform. Even past forgotten and unrepentant sins may be recalled.
2. We become more tolerant, less argumentative, more inclined to forgive others and not seek revenge or envy.
3. We become more steadfast in fighting and resisting passions like gluttony, drunkenness, lust, covetousness, etc. The Holy Fathers teach that gluttony is the prime cause of all sinful passions and hence fasting is the most direct weapon against it.
4. Slothfulness and listlessness are overcome and we are prompted and helped to pray more fervently, to stand longer in church, to be more attentive.
5. Compassion develops and we become more loving and generous to our neighbors, wanting to do good and help them. We become more sensitive to the needs of others and care less about our own pride and vanity.
6. We become more perceptive to the frightfully fallen and debauched state of the world. This leads us even more to seek our own salvation and to pray for the salvation of others.
These are all virtues which bring us closer and closer to union with God and closer to the spiritual state that Adam and Eve had before they fell. Unless we earnestly strive to fast, we will never experience the mysterious and joyful way in which God's grace works in us, no matter how virtuous we may think we are.
But fasting alone is not enough. This we can see in the many present-day sects and so-called religions, where very strict fasts are sometimes practiced. Why then do not the followers of these sects receive the same benefits and God's grace that we Orthodox can obtain? The answer lies in prayer. Fasting must be combined with prayer: prayer to the one true God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Consubstantial and Undivided Trinity.
God gave us only one Church, one belief and one religion and this Truth has been preserved undefiled and unshattered throughout the centuries in Orthodoxy (Matt. I6:18), Christ taught us both to pray and to fast since this is the only way by which the demons-evil and sin--may be expelled (Matt. 17:14 21) and by which we may come to know God and obtain eternal salvation (John 6:40). If we try to pray without fasting, our prayers will be weak, without progress, without the fervor, concentration and contrition that is so pleasing to God. If we try to fast without proper prayer, we will become proud, vainglorious, thinking that we are better than others (Luke 18:9-14), despising, even nervous and irritable. Either way our last state will be worse than the first and our spiritual development will be greatly hindered. Prayer and fasting mutually benefit one another. Fasting enhances prayer and prayer strengthens us in fasting. Fasting implies not only abstinence from certain types and quantities of foods, but abstinence from all sinful inclinations, action s and thoughts. Just as prayer helps fasting, so fasting in food greatly increases our ability to abstain from sin.
Here is an abridged Orthodox rule of fasting which, with prayer, we should all be striving to follow: no meat, fish, dairy products, alcoholic drinks during the Great Lent, Christmas Lent, Apostles' Fast, Dormition Fast, Wednesdays and Fridays. On certain days during the above fasts, some relaxation is permitted. For those who have never fasted, it may be easier to begin gradually. For example, start by abstaining from meat only, then from dairy products as well, and subsequently from fish, etc. until with prayer and God's help, one will be able to easily preserve the entire rule.
When we consider how many different foods are available today compared to the times of our forefathers, we truly have no excuse not to fast. Instead, we should look · forward to periods of fasting as periods in outlives when we can, through God's grace, store up for ourselves imperishable treasures in Heaven (Matt. 6:20) and come closer to the original, undefiled state of men.
What simpler way has God given us to obtain eternal salvation and a peaceful life here on earth than by prayer and fasting?
St. Xenia Press Melbourne. Australia
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