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On Fasting - H.H. Pope Shenouda III

A translation of an excerpt from a sermon delivered by His Holiness Pope Shenouda III.

Fasting does not concern the relationship between ourselves and food — when and what to eat — it is rather, before all else, the relationship between ourselves and God. So examine yourself to determine whether you experience it. St. Isaac the Syrian says: “He who deprives his mouth from food but does not deprive his tongue from idle words and his heart from lust, fasts in vain.” We should, therefore, in the period of fasting, consider how to walk in it spiritually, and not merely change the kind of food we eat to a vegan type. And if the body fasts, does the spirit also fast along with it or not?

In the bodily sense, fasting can be summarized in one phrase: self-control. Even if you eat vegan food, if you do not control yourself, you will not experience the value of fasting. Because there are many vegan foods that are quite enjoyable, and nowadays the people make flavorful vegan desserts. But fasting in the bodily sense is self-control. If you do not control yourself, you will not benefit from fasting. You will tire and deprive yourself, but finish without having benefitted. For this reason, if those who smoke cannot complete the Fast while having ceased the habit of smoking, then they have not benefitted.

There are then certain conditions of fasting that we must know. Fasting alone is not sufficient. It must be conjoined to certain things in order to constitute an acceptable fast. The first thing to which it must be related is repentance. Fasting must be accompanied by repentance. Do not think that one who fasts while drowning in sin is really fasting. This is an unaccepted fast. God desires a pure heart more than he does a hungry stomach, but the unity of the two is for the better. So sit with yourself in the period of the Fast and ask yourself: “What are the sins of which I must rid myself so that I may repent?”

Notice in the story of the Ninevites — who offered a diligent fast to the extent that they wore sackcloth, abstained from food, and humbled themselves before God — the Bible says: “When God saw that they had abandoned the evil in their hands,” He forgave them. He did not only consider the extreme asceticism with which they fasted, but He also looked to their abandonment of their sins and forgave their sins.

The second point is that fasting must be accompanied not only by repentance, but also by prayer. With fasting, you bring your body into subjection, but with prayer, you nourish the spirit. For this reason, you find the phrase “fasting and prayer” together repeated frequently in the Fraction that we pray [in the Great Lent] — fasting and prayer.

You may say, “we have been praying our whole lives, why should we specifically pray while fasting?” You indeed pray throughout your life, but during the time of fasting, the degree of your prayer should be elevated beyond your normal practice. Begin experiencing meek prayer, fervent prayer, deep prayer, prayer with understanding, and prayer in which you feel that there is a direct connection between yourself and God. For this reason, the word for “prayer” in the Arabic language (صــــــــلاة) is more expressive than its equivalent in other languages. “Prayer” [in English] means to entreat, but [“prayer” in Arabic] denotes a connection — between yourself and God. Do you feel in your prayers that such a connection exists? In your prayer, correct the quality and increase the quantity, and by this you will walk in a sound manner, because prayer during the Fast is of a higher caliber than other prayers.

Also among the things that accompany fasting is almsgiving, or feeding the poor. This is because the one who fasts and feels hunger experiences the pain of hunger and will therefore have compassion on those who are hungry. Without this, as one of the Fathers said, “if you do not have anything to give to those [who are hungry], fast and give them your own food.” And in Isaiah 58:6[-7] it says: “Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen . . . to feed the hungry, and to shelter the stranger in your own house,” meaning the acts of mercy that you perform during the Fast. [And] fasting is not that you preserve food; rather the food that you do preserve, you should give to the poor. And you should eat without desire, because we fast to avoid desire; what do we benefit then if we come to the Fast and eat with desire?

Train yourself that you do not request a particular type of food [during the Fast], and if you are offered a particular food that you like, as the Fathers say, “lift your hands from it while your desire for it remains.” That is, finish half of the plate and leave the rest instead of eating the whole plate and requesting another, or else you are eating what you desire. Daniel spoke of his fasting and said: “I, Daniel, was mourning three full weeks. I ate no pleasant food, no meat or wine came into my mouth, nor did I eat delectable food” (Daniel 10:2-3). Of course, if food were not appetizing, you would not eat at all. But you should eat with limitation.

Fasting, as we have said, must be accompanied by repentance and prayer and giving to the poor. It should also be accompanied by spiritual contemplation — reading from the Bible. The Lord Jesus Christ, in the time of His fasting, was likely meditating on chapter eight of the Book of Deuteronomy, because from it He responded to Satan saying, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” which was mentioned in this chapter.

Fasting must also be accompanied by training. Train yourself in many things, such as forsaking sin and certain tendencies, and acquiring virtues which will aid you to be saved, as you see fit, or else you will complete the Fast while remaining as you were.

Let me ask you — how many periods of fasting have you experienced throughout your life? Many fasts every year, and [you have lived] many years. What have you benefitted [from them]? You must train yourself and be strict and diligent with yourself, so that you may experience the results, to the nourishment of your spiritual life.

How many are our fasts, and not only the large and known fasts! For example, we fast before every one of the Mysteries of the Church. There is fasting before Baptism and the [anointing with] Myron, and also before communion, so that we may prepare ourselves for the grace that we receive from God. We receive grace from the Mystery, so we must prepare ourselves for it through fasting. But for Confession, we do not require fasting, because we eagerly await the coming of a person to confession, even if he had eaten an entire lamb! What is important is that he comes and confesses and repents. And in Marriage, for the sake of the weakness of the people, they are not required to fast, but long ago, they would be married after the Morning Raising of Incense and would be fasting and would receive communion, and for the following three days they would live in virginity, and afterward they would live their normal married life. So they would begin their married life with fasting also. This was in the old days, when the people were godly. Regarding the Priesthood, they would also be fasting: the person being ordained fasts, and the one ordaining him also fasts. And in Baptism, the woman who brings her child to be baptized must also be fasting, as must the priest who will baptize the child. So, it is not only the large fasts; there are other smaller fasts along the way that we fast so that we may be worthy of the grace associated with them.

Without the spiritual state that belongs to fasting, our fasts will never be acceptable. There are many fasts that are not accepted, as there are also prayers that are not accepted. One example of the unacceptable fast is [that of] the Pharisee who entered the Temple and spoke to God saying: “God, I thank You that I am not like other men . . . unjust, kidnappers, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess” (Luke 18:11). And he did not leave justified, even though he considered himself better than the other. An unacceptable fast. Another unaccepted fast is that of the [more than forty] people who vowed to fast and not eat anything until they killed the Apostle Paul (See Acts 23:12-14). Their fasting profited them nothing, they did not succeed in killing him, and I know not what became of their vow.

We thank God, who granted us fasting out of His desire to revive and awaken us, instructing us to be keen to enter into a period of distinct spirituality, with the condition that the virtues gained by fasting are not then lost on the day of the Feast at the breaking of the Fast. Do not come on the day of the Feast and say with Solomon, “Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure” (Ecclesiastes 2:10). What did you benefit then? You are then like the prince of [poets] Ahmad Shawqī, who during his fast did not drink wine but afterward said: “Bring, O steward, the desired one which longs for the one who desires her.” We should rather acquire virtues so that they remain with us and become a way of life.

I wanted to share with you these words about fasting before the Fast concludes, so that during the coming days of the Fast, you may correct what you previously did not do, and may God be with you.


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