It’s kind of counterintuitive, fasting. Weaken yourself to gain mastery over yourself. Really? As you can see/read, I’m still not convinced, even after thirteen-plus years in the Orthodox Church. But Lent approacheth, and so I am faced again with what I actually believe and what I’m willing to step out in faith to do about it. Or: what I’m not sure I believe but am willing to try.
Abba John the Dwarf (one of the infamous Desert Fathers) says: “If a king wanted to take possession of his enemy’s city, he would begin by cutting off the water and the food and so his enemies, dying of hunger, would submit to him. It is the same with the passions of the flesh: if a man goes about fasting and hungry the enemies of his soul grow weak.”
It takes a leap, I mean, to really go after it. As anything worth doing always does. For me, it’s anger. My vice of vices. Not to say pride and lust and all other manner of transgressions don’t rear their ugly heads, but anger…the enemy of souls has my number.
I like the Desert Fathers. Yes, they are extreme, but they can be very funny, and their short, often pithy, sayings stick in my craw. I may not remember them word for word, but when a guy says he has spent fourteen years “asking God night and day to grant me victory over anger,” I am reminded that the most important struggles usually take the longest. I am also reminded that fasting without prayer just makes everything worse. I become more irritable, more angry. As St. Basil says, “You do not eat meat, but you devour your brother.”
Ask. The word ask implies prayer, implies seeking God’s presence, implies mercy. “Pray to God in his presence,” said Abba Nisterus, “for He is really present.” Separated from prayer, fasting can be harmful. Taken together, a more intense and living prayer might be possible.
Once St. Seraphim of Sarov was asked why the miracles of grace, so abundantly manifest in the past, were no longer apparent in his own day, and to this he replied: “Only one thing is lacking—a firm resolve.”
And another thing. You can’t really read the Desert Fathers without seriously considering the reality of demons and their ilk. Personally, I’d rather not. It’s a realm too often relegated to boogeymen and red-horned, tail-twitching slithery creatures (no Darth Maul, I’m not talking about you). It’s a realm reserved for the “zealots” and their kind. For the slightly deranged. But heck, I’m slightly deranged, so I might as well wade in. What comes from ourselves, what comes from without us? Abba Poeman says,
[The demons] do not fight against us at all as long as we are doing our own will. For our own wills become the demons, and it is these which attack us in order that we may fulfill them.
So much grey! The demons, our will; a desire for the good and what seems like an inevitable lukewarm decline. What’s a girl to do? “Only one thing is lacking—a firm resolve,” echoes back. A firm resolve can lead to awareness of my dependence upon God and the understanding that any progress, any repentance, is a gift. From The Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete:
I have no tears, no repentance, no compunction;
But as God do Thou Thyself, O Saviour, bestow them on me.