The Twenty-Fifth Day of Great Lent. “. . . BUT BY PRAYER AND FASTING” (Part III)
[Fasting] should be practiced on two levels: first, as ascetical fast; and second, as total fast. The ascetical fast consists of a drastic reduction of food so that the permanent state of a certain hunger might be lived as a reminder of God and a constant effort to keep our mind on Him. Everyone who has practiced it—be it only a little—knows that this ascetical fast rather than weakening us makes us light, concentrated, sober, joyful, pure.
One receives food as a real gift of God. One is constantly directed at that inner world which inexplicably becomes a kind of food in its own right. The exact amount of food to be received in this ascetical fasting, its rhythm and its quality, need not be discussed here; they depend on our individual capacities, the external conditions of our lives. But the principle is clear: it is a state of half-hunger whose “negative” nature is at all times transformed by prayer, memory, attention, and concentration into a positive power.
As to the total fast, it is of necessity to be limited in duration and coordinated with the Eucharist. In our present condition of life, its best form is the day before the evening celebration of the Presanctified Liturgy. Whether we fast on that day from early morning or from noon, the main point here is to live through that day as a day of expectation, hope, hunger for God Himself. It is a spiritual concentration on that which comes, on the gift to be received, and for the sake of which one gives up all other gifts.
After all this is said, one must still remember that however limited our fasting, if it is true fasting it will lead to temptation, weakness, doubt, and irritation. In other terms, it will be a real fight and probably we shall fail many times. But the very discovery of Christian life as fight and effort is the essential aspect of fasting. A faith which has not overcome doubts and temptation is seldom a real faith. No progress in Christian life is possible, alas, without the bitter experience of failures.
Too many people start fasting with enthusiasm and give up after the first failure. I would say that it is at this first failure that the real test comes. If after having failed and surrendered to our appetites and passions we start all over again and do not give up no matter how many times we fail, sooner or later our fasting will bear its spiritual fruits. Between holiness and disenchanted cynicism lies the great and divine virtue of patience—patience, first of all with ourselves. There is no short-cut to holiness; for every step we have to pay the full price. Thus it is better and safer to begin at a minimum—just slightly above our natural possibilities— and to increase our effort little by little, than to try jumping too high at the beginning and to break a few bones when falling back to earth.
In summary: from a symbolic and nominal fast—the fast as obligation and custom—we must return to the real fast. Let it be limited and humble but consistent and serious. Let us honestly face our spiritual and physical capacity and act accordingly—remembering however that there is no fast without challenging that capacity, without introducing into our life a divine proof that things impossible with men are possible with God.
~Adapted from Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent