Jesus said, “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 received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not been seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18)
When people think of the word “Lent”, the word “fasting” is one of the first things that comes to mind. The cornerstone of Lent is not fasting, but repentance and growing in our faith. Fasting is a tool that is used to assist in spiritual growth. Fasting is also mis-characterized as a form of deprivation, rather than a spiritual discipline. And because fasting is so misunderstood, it is many times done incorrectly.
In the Orthodox world, we use the word “passions” to describe tendencies that each person has that lead us to sin. Each of us has a “passion” for anger, lust, power, greed, ego, etc. We do not get through life without wrestling with each of these, sometimes on a daily basis. The most basic “passion” is hunger. While we can go a day without a lustful thought or an angry thought, we can’t go more than a few hours without a hungry thought. So, if we can tame our passion for eating, we can hopefully tame our other passions. If we can discipline ourselves to go without certain kinds of food, we can hopefully discipline ourselves so that we can go without certain kinds of behavior that are spiritually destructive. Thus, fasting is not about giving up something only to get it back. Fasting is about getting control of our passions, maintaining control over them, and ultimately giving control of ourselves to God.
It is the Orthodox Tradition to fast from food products that contain blood. So, we fast from meat, fish, dairy products, oil and wine. (Oil and wine, up until the last couple of centuries, were stored in skins of animals. This is why we can eat grapes and olives but can’t have wine or olive oil. If the fasting “rules” were ever to be reviewed and updated, the prohibition on oil and wine would have to be examined.) We can eat shell-fish because they do not contain blood. Christ shed His blood for us, so we do not consume any “blood” or “animal” products. And it is the Tradition of the church to fast for the entirety of Great Lent and Holy Week. The week after the Publican and the Pharisee is fast free, as is the week after Pascha and Pentecost (and Christmas). The week before Great Lent, we are only required to fast from meat, not dairy products. And outside of Lent, it is Tradition to fast every Wednesday (in honor of the betrayal of Christ) and Friday (in honor of His Crucifixion). There is a forty day fast that precedes the Feast of the Nativity (November 15-December 24), a fourteen day fast that precedes the Feast of the Dormition (August 1-14), and the Holy Apostles Fast (which begins the day after All Saints Day and lasts through June 28.
If you’ve never fasted before, I would not recommend doing a strict fast. Try fasting from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays of Lent (and then throughout the year), then next year try fasting Wednesdays and Fridays plus all of the first week of Lent and all of Holy Week. And then work up from that.
Below is a guide of some levels of fasting:
Level one—Fast from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays and during Holy Week
Level two—Fast from meat and fish on Wednesdays and Fridays and during Holy Week
Level three—Fast from meat the entirety of Lent and Holy Week
Level four—Fast from meat and fish the entirety of Lent and Holy Week
Level five—-Level four and eliminate dairy products during Holy Week
Level six—Level four and eliminate dairy products on Wednesdays and Fridays and during Holy Week.
Level seven—Level four plus eliminate dairy products during all of Lent and Holy Week
Level eight—Level seven plus eliminate oil and wine during Holy Week
Level nine—The strict fast—no meat, fish, dairy products, wine or oil during the entirety of Great Lent
**Fish is allowed on March 25 (Annunciation), Saturday of Lazarus and Palm Sunday; oil and wine are allowed on Saturdays and Sundays, except for Holy Saturday.
After a few years at one level, challenge yourself to go up a level.
More important, however, than fasting from food, is fasting from the behaviors that are spiritually destructive. We need to fast from things that get us in trouble—perhaps the television, alcohol, inappropriate materials on the computer and in movies, foul language, etc. Fasting also does not mean “looking” deprived, complaining about what you can’t eat, or making a show of your fasting. In fact, if you are fasting and you are invited to someone’s home for dinner and they serve meat, eat the meat, don’t make a big deal out of your fasting. Also, do not pass judgment on others who are not fasting to the degree you are. Saint Paul reminds us in Romans 14:3-4: “Let not him who eats despise him who abstains, and let not him who abstains pass judgment on him who eats; for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own Master that he stands or falls.” For as Christ tells us, our fasting is seen by our “Father who is in secret,” and He will reward us for our efforts.
Again, Lent is not a season of deprivation, nor should we “give up” something only to get it back once Lent is over. Lent is about repentance, and making small and permanent changes to bring us closer to the Lord, changes that will last long after Lent is over. This is the purpose of the Lenten journey. Fasting is an aid to help us in this.
The time has come–the start of our spiritual contests, the victory over demons, the full armor of self-control, the angels’ dignity, the confidence before God. Thereby did Moses become conversant with the Creator, and heard the invisible voice. Lord, through fasting make us worthy to worship Your Passion and Holy Resurrection, as You love humanity. (Doxastikon of Orthros, Cheesefare Sunday, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Give some thought to your fasting plan for Lent today!
+Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis, St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church, Tampa, FL
|“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:5-6)|
|Many times when I ask people why do they go to church, the answer is “I go to church to pray.” That’s a good answer. We should pray when we are in church. Sadly, for some people, this is the ONLY place where they are praying. And this is not what God intended.
Take your relationship with your parents, or spouse, or children, or siblings. What kind of a relationship will you have if you only speak to them occasionally. In my home, there is my wife and son. If I only spoke to them once a week, we would certainly have a very dysfunctional home. The home is functional and our relationship strong because we communicate. In a family, you have to communicate more than once a week. You should communicate daily, even throughout the day. Sometimes communication consists of a short message, and other times it’s a long conversation. But communication is frequent-that’s how one keeps a relationship strong, whether with God or with another person. You have to pray outside the context of Sunday worship.
So, where then should prayer occur? There is a tradition in the Orthodox world of having a prayer corner at home. Some people will take one wall, or one corner of a room and place many icons there. A small table might hold a Bible or prayer book. The prayer corner becomes a place of retreat, where one can go and pray. A recent movie called “War Room” was about the same concept. A woman took a closet in her house and that became her “war room,” the room where she fought all of her problems in prayer. There were no icons but the concept was the same, a sacred space in which to pray. In Orthodox circles, we call this place the “Kat’ oikon ekklesia,” the “Church of the Home.”
In my office at church, I have icons on one wall, like a little chapel, and many times when I pray in my office, especially with other people, we go to that wall of the office to pray. Why? Can we just pray from the conference table? Certainly we can. But having a prayer corner reminds us, first and foremost, that we are not alone in our prayers. When we pray, the angels and the saints are praying with us. They are interceding to God for us. The prayer corner is a powerful reminder that we are not alone in our lives, alone in our struggles. The prayer corner can also help us focus-the icons give us holy images on which to focus our thoughts. I find that praying in front of an icon, whether in the altar or at home or in the office helps to minimize distractions.
Having said that, the prayer corner should not be a hindrance to prayer. And the prayer corner most certainly does not pray by itself. There are many people who have beautiful prayer corners but never stand in them, and never pray.
The most important thing you need to know about prayer is simply that YOU NEED TO PRAY. Icons and prayer corners are nice things, but you need to pray, having icons are tools that helps you pray, but they don’t pray in place of you. Make sure that you pray.
Some people wear prayer ropes-these are the black bracelets with 33 knots on them (representing the 33 years of Christ’s earthly ministry) and people use them to say the Jesus Prayer, offering the prayer many times and moving your finger up one knot each time. Prayer ropes, like prayer corners, are helpful tools in prayer. But just wearing a prayer rope does not make you prayerful. And not wearing one is not a hindrance to prayer either.
One caveat about having a prayer corner or wearing a prayer rope is that our behavior must be in line with the presence of these things. While we shouldn’t waive a fist in anger any time, doing so while wearing a prayer rope around your wrist is problematic, because it identifies you as an angry Christian. When you have a prayer corner in your house, be careful what you are doing in the room where you have the icons. Do those activities line up with the presence of holy images in the corner?
The positive thing about having a prayer corner or wearing a prayer rope is that it is a visual reminder to be more careful in your practice of Christianity.
Prayer corners or prayer ropes are not necessary requirements to pray. You can pray in a car, while walking, or on a couch. PRAY!
Answer me when I call, O God of my right! You have given me room when I was in distress. Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer. O men, how long shall my honor suffer shame? How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies? But know that the Lord has set apart the godly for Himself; the Lord hears when I call to Him. Be angry, but sin not; commune with your own hearts on your beds and be silent. Offer right sacrifices and put your trust in the Lord. There are many who say “O that we might see some good! Lift up the light of Your countenance upon us, o Lord!” You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound. In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for You, O Lord, make me dwell in safety. Psalm 4
Have a blessed day!
+Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis, St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church, Tampa, FL
At Your Baptism in the Jordan, O Lord, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest. For the Father’s voice bore You witness by calling You His Beloved Son, and the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the truth of the Father’s word. O Christ our God, You have appeared to us and enlightened the world. Glory to You!
Please join us for the Liturgy of the Lord’s Nativity on Christmas Eve at 7:00 p.m.
When Hearts Become Flame: An Eastern Approach to the Dia-Logos of Pastoral Counseling (Second Edition)
by Dn. Stephen Muse, author of Being Bread
(Revised, 2nd Edition) Whatever else he or she does, the pastoral counselor, same as the priest at the Divine Altar, enters into a call and response relationship, invoking God’s presence and seeking to be receptive to God’s activity unfolding in the here and now. The intention of pastoral counseling must be to offer Christ to the other (and receive Him) while serving at the altar of the human heart.
When Hearts Become Flame reflects on the question, “What makes counseling pastoral?”. This question is in light of the integration of all three aspects of our human nature in dialogue with others, occurring in such a way that Christ appears in ‘between’ bringing healing and transformation. It is not enough to be emotionally warm, theoretically correct and methodologically skillful. Pastoral care and counseling involve an integrated mindful presence existentially engaged in dialogue with the other with the same vulnerability and alertness that one brings to God in prayer. Inner discernment and ascetical struggle along with existential engagement with and for others in working for a just and humane world are equally important in response to God’s love given for all.
ISBN: 978-0-9905029-7-5 Paperback, 317 pp., 6×9, $19.95