By Subdeacon Wasim Shehata
In this article, we will take a closer look at how the Church Fathers viewed fasting, and their advices on how one ought to fast. One may ask, why do we need to read the Church Fathers, we all have a Bible, right? Do we need people to tell us how to understand the Bible? The Church Fathers are important for several reasons. First, some of the Fathers were actually directly associated with the Apostles (e.g. Polycarp of Smyrnae), and others were their disciples.
“It is of great importance to take a closer look at how the Church Fathers viewed fasting throughout time, and furthermore, what lessons we can learn from their writings on fasting.” Fasting in the eyes of the Church Fathers
This discipleship is handed over through the generations. As Athanasius of Alexandria (373 AD) beautifully said: ‘’Orthodoxy is what Christ taught, the Apostles preached and the Fathers kept’’ . We can see an echo of Christs words in the teachings of the Fathers. Second, the Fathers did their utter best to protect the teachings of Christ, which means that the last thing they would do is to alter the Live-Giving words of Christ. Third, the Church Fathers greatly invested in their nous, the spiritual intellect.
This made them experts on the word of God, as they studied it for decades on a daily basis. The latter point could be compared to teachers; by studying a certain subject they became more and more familiar with this subject. This decade long investment into that subject made them experts on that subject. Therefore, it is of great importance to take a closer look at how the Church Fathers viewed fasting throughout time, and furthermore, what lessons we can learn from their writings on fasting.
“Orthodoxy is what Christ taught, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers kept” As Athanasius of Alexandria (373 AD) beautifully said | Fasting in the eyes of the Church Fathers
- Clement of Rome (1st century AD), one of the Apostolic Fathers, instructed the faithful to ‘’Let them, therefore, with fasting and with prayer make their adjurations, and not with the elegant and well-arranged and fitly-ordered words of learning, but as men who have received the gift of healing from God, confidently, to the glory of God. By your fastings and prayers and perpetual watching, together with your other good works, mortify the works of the flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit” [Clement of Rome. Two Epistles on Virginity, section 12].
Clement teaches us to combine our fasting with prayers and good works, in order to live more according to the Spirit and less according to the flesh. This is necessary as ‘’what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other’’ (Galatians 5:17). What does it mean to live according to the Spirit or flesh, is this to be taken literally? Tertullian of Carthage (220 AD) commented hereon saying: ‘’Let us fast, brethren and sisters, lest tomorrow perchance we die. Openly let us vindicate our disciplines.
Sure we are that “they who are in the flesh cannot please God; not, of course, those who are in the substance of the flesh, but in the care, the affection, the work, the will, of it” [Tertullian of Carthage. On Fasting, 17.]
- Shepherd of Hermas (2nd century AD), an anonymous document from the 2nd century, instructs the faithful saying: ‘’This fasting is very good, provided the commandments of the Lord be observed. First of all, be on your guard against every evil word, and every evil desire, and purify your heart from all the vanities of this world. If you guard against these things, your fasting will be perfect’’ [Shepherd of Hermas. Book 3, Similitude 5, chapter 3.].
This advice is an addition to the words of Clement, as one should not only ‘’let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear’’ (Ephesians 4:29), but ‘’death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits’’ (Proverbs 18:21).
Furthermore, ‘’those who desire life and desire to see good days, let them keep their tongues from evil and their lips from speaking deceit; let them turn away from evil and do good; let them seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil’’ (1 Peter 3:10-11).
John Chrysostom commented on this saying: ‘’Let the mouth also fast from disgraceful speeches and railings. For what does it profit if we abstain from fish and fowl and yet bite and devour our brothers and sisters? The evil speaker eats the flesh of his brother and bites the body of his neighbour’’
- Polycarp of Smyrna (2nd century AD) said: Wherefore let us forsake the vain doing of the many and their false teachings, and turn unto the word which was delivered unto us from the beginning, being sober unto prayer and constant in fastings, entreating the all-seeing God with supplications that He bring us not into temptation, according as the Lord said, The Spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak’’ [Polycarp of Smyrna. Epistle of Polycarp, chapter 7.].
Many people, unfortunately, have a wrong view of fasting. One of the false ideas about fasting that circulates is that fasting is unnecessary mental and physical torture, and that God does not want us to torture ourselves. God, indeed, does not want us to torture ourselves, however, fasting is far from self-torture.
Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria (2012 AD) explained this saying: ‘’Fasting, as some people speculate, is not a bodily torture, martyrdom, or a cross, but it is a way to elevate the body to reach the level of cooperation with the soul. When we fast, our intention is not to torture the body but to shun its behaviour. Thus, one who fasts becomes a spiritual and not a physical person. Fasting is an ascetic soul which takes the body with it as its partner in asceticism’’.
To be continued…
Delivered to you by COPTICNN™ | Coptic News Network on 2020-03-11 from Kudelstaart. Netherland.
Columnists: COPTICNN™ award-winning columnists are a fundamental pillar of our coverage. They range in their interests from orthodoxy, faith, politics, to world affairs, to business, to the arts, to the way we live. No matter the issue, they are always in the middle of our Christian discourse. They are trusted by our readers and followed by many Coptic Orthodox Christians worldwide. Influential, provocative, and engaging, our columnists provide insights and analysis that can’t be found elsewhere, making them a prime destination for WORLD readers.