Last week the 40 day Nativity Fast began. For those who are not familiar with fasting in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the fast begins on November 15 and runs through Christmas morning. During this fasting period one is to refrain from meat and dairy. Fish is allowed for the first couple of weeks. After that only vegetables, fruit and grains are eaten. Considering the time of year, this is a particularly difficult fasting period. Hence, it was appropriate that I read the following from Elder Ephraim shortly after the fast began.
Fasting is not just about abstention from food, but primarily strict abstinence of the senses. When the senses are fed by external things, they transmit a corresponding amount of poison to the nous and the heart, which kills the poor soul’s life in God.
Fasting, it seems is not really about food at all. It is about removing from us focus on external things and reorienting towards the internal and spiritual. Our senses open us up to the world around us. Our senses of taste, sight, smell, touch and hearing. And, it is through our senses that the poison of the world infects us. Food is essential for life, but what do we let it become? We let it and our stomach become our master. After each meal we begin to wonder, “What will I have for dinner?” We long and even lust after rich and luxurious foods because they are pleasing to smell, and taste. During the Holiday season, we give ourselves free license to indulge in whatever we desire. But, this preoccupation with that which is pleasing to us is not limited to our stomach.
Our eyes long to turn to frivolous and lurid entertainment. Our ears search for gossip, and the loud cacophony of music and incessant talk to fill our hours and minds. We long to touch what we cannot have. And, each of these things, when not held in proper balance, introduces the lust and poison of the passions into our heart.This is what fasting is about – reorienting our focus off of our physical senses and redirecting us toward the spiritual senses. We should fast not only from food but from that which we most desire to do. It is the gate to the freedom of the Spirit.