After noting the loss of consciousness of fasting in the modern West – or its transformation into a secularized “dieting” – Father Gabriel (Bunge) continues this second chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition on “Places and Times” by noting that prayer and fasting have been seen as intimately connected from time immemorial, as is attested to by numerous passages of Scripture.
At first glance the Christian practice of fasting might seem difficult to reconcile with Christ’s word and example. Despite fasting for forty days and nights in the desert, Jesus had a reputation for being a “glutton and a drunkard” (Mt 11:19) and his disciples’ lack of fasting was contrasted to the practice of John’s disciples (Lk 5:53).
Christ did not reject fasting any more than he rejected prayer. In both cases, nevertheless, he was concerned with guarding his disciples against every sort of hypocrisy and vain display of their own “piety”.
And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward.
But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
It is with fasting just as it is with prayer: The disciples of Jesus also fast, naturally, but they do it solely for God’s sake, not in order to be seen and praised. The same goes for almsgiving and ultimately for the practice of all the virtues. The Fathers, who were noted for the severity of their fasts, took that very much to heart. It is especially true of fasting that one should “seal up the good odor of one’s [ascetical] efforts with silence.” (89)
Moreover, Christ had a particular reason for disregarding the customary fasts of His day, namely, the presence of the “Bridegroom” (Mt 9:15). He also used the symbolism of the common meal as a way to indicate the presence of the Kingdom and announce the good news of reconciliation. This privileging of the common meal was something that the Desert Fathers took to heart teaching that the commandment of hospitality overrides the rules of fasting. In addition, because fasting belonged to the penitential practices of the Church, it was not to be observed on those days “on which Christians call to mind the return of Christ the ‘Bridegroom’”.
From Saturday evening, the vigil of the Lord’s day, until the following evening, one does not bend the knee among the Egyptians, and it is the same during the entire time of Pentecost [between Easter and Pentecost], and in this season the rule of fasting is not observed, either.[Cassian] (92)
Fasting has a relative value, but its importance lies in humbling the soul.
Hence the spiritual meaning of fasting is, first of all, to make the soul humble. “Indeed, nothing humbles the soul as does fasting,” [Evagrius] since it causes the soul to experience in a fundamental way its complete dependence on God.
The obstacles to this humility of heart are our manifold “passions”, those “sicknesses of the soul” that do not allow it to behave “naturally”, that is, according to the purpose for which it was created. Now fasting is an excellent means of “covering over” these passions, as Evagrius says in an allegorical interpretation of a psalm verse.
Fasting is a covering for the soul, which conceals its passions, that is, shameful desires and irrational anger. Therefore he who does not fast exposes himself indecently,
like Noah when he was drunk, to whom Evagrius is alluding here. This means that the purpose of bodily fasting is to cleanse the soul of its shameful vices and to instil a humble attitude. Without this “purity of heart”, even the thought of “true prayer” would be sacrilege.
Whoever is [still] caught up in sins and outbursts of anger and dares to reach out shamelessly after the knowledge of divine things or even to enter [the place] of immaterial prayer, let him expect to hear the Apostle’s reproach, according to which it is not safe for him “to pray with head uncovered”. Indeed, such a soul, he says, “should have an ‘authority’ on her head, because of the angels,” by wrapping herself fittingly in shame and humility. (93)
In addition to this, fasting has a practical significance in that it enables one to watch in prayer, as opposed to a full stomach which is inclined to sleep. Fasting prepares the mind for the contemplation of the divine mysteries.
Father Gabriel concludes:
Although fasting is therefore just as indispensable as watching to anyone who wants to “pray in truth”, still, like everything in the spiritual life, it must take place “at the appropriate times and in moderation”. In this respect each person will have his own suitable measure, according to his strength, his age, the circumstances of his life, and so on.
For what is immoderate and untimely is of short duration. Something that lasts only a short time, though, is more likely harmful than useful. [Evagrius] (94-95)