Saturday, February 20, 2010


Some Thoughts on Fasting

Paul Evdokimov (1901-1970), an ecumenically-minded Orthodox theologian popular as well in Catholic and Protestant circles, wrote the following about asceticism. I think the passage is worth sharing. I've highlighted parts that I may want to comment on later, forgive me if that proves a distraction.

Asceticism has its variation, reflecting the specific age in which it is practiced, and adapted to its mentality. Our physical sensitivity has been modified by living conditions today, weighed down as we are by overwork and nervous strain. Though medical science protects and prolongs life, it also diminishes our resistance to pain and privations. Christian asceticism is never an end in itself; it is only a means or method to be put at the service of life, able to adapt itself to new exigencies.

In former days the asceticism of the desert fathers imposed extreme fasts and deprivations. Today's combat is different. No longer is a person required to add to his suffering; with the use of haircloth, chains, and scourges comes the risk of quite profitless bruising. Today's mortification is that which sets us free from reliance on "doping” -- high speed, noise, stimulants, drugs, alcohol in all its forms. Self-denial will consist in imposing quietude on oneself, a discipline of silence and calm, so that a person may recover the ability to call a halt for prayer and contemplation, even in the midst of the world's noise, on the train, in a crowd, in the city's public places; but above all, the ability to be sensitive to the presence of others, to every friend one encounters. Instead of self- inflicted penances, this kind of fasting will demand the glad renunciation of whatever is superfluous in order to share with the poor, and the maintenance of a cheerful, peaceful, and natural equanimity. Going beyond the psychosomatic asceticism of the middle ages, we now strive for the eschatological ascesis of the first centuries, that attitude of faith which made the whole of human life a joyous waiting for the parousia; not a chronological but a qualitative waiting, with the gaze fixed on the one thing necessary; for according to the Good News the time is short, and the Spirit and the Bride say, Come!

Thus asceticism becomes close attention to the call of the gospel, to the standards of the beatitudes; purity and humility of heart are sought after with a view to saving one's fellow-citizens and bringing them back to God. Our task in this weary world, driven on by rhythms of increasing speed, burdened with so many anxieties, is to rediscover and live out the doctrine of "spiritual childhood," the evangelical freshness and simplicity of the "little way" which leads us to sit at the same table with sinners, to bless and break bread together.

Loveless mortification can never lead to God. Saint Maximus says: "We shall be judged for the wrong we have done, but still more for the good we have neglected to do and for not loving our neighbor." Spiritual life today requires an asceticism that shields the soul from the world's pressures and calls for the overcoming of evil by the creation of good. This means it is never more than a means, a strategy. It is possible for a person to surround himself with an atmosphere of morbid fantasy, seeing nothing around him but sin and evil. But the ascesis of the gospel overcomes by excess, not of fear, but of overflowing love embracing the entire universe.

Saint Dorotheus gives us a lovely image of our way to salvation by means of a circle. God is the center and all human beings are on the circumference. The more they approach the center the nearer the radii of the circle will draw to each other. Saint Isaac said to his disciple: "Look, brother, here are your orders: let mercy always weigh heaviest on your scales until you experience in yourself that mercy which God feels for you and for the whole world."

-- Paul Evdokimov, Orthodoxy, 34-35, 41; cited in A Word in Season (Augustinian Press, 2001) Vol II, pp 159-160.

1 comment:

  1. Paul Evdokimov’s thoughts regarding asceticism were quite interesting. The evolution of asceticism has evolved, for sure, into something more humanistic—going from the more punitive mortifications for the sake of the self—to a relinquishing in order to give back—which benefits both the individual and his fellow man.

    As a society, we have developed a collective mindset of making life easier, attributed in large part to a steady progression of technological advancements that free us from the burden of just about everything and anything. And, with a society that has become increasingly more complex, we have become beset by anxiety, resulting in the search for whatever will unburden us and alleviate pain. It is no wonder, mortification is not something we readily embrace. But, as Paul Evdokimov points out, loveless mortification can never lead to God. It seems in our fasting, we often miss this important point, and giving up our favorite things equates to fulfilling some personal quota, with little sense of interior spiritual transformation. And after the Lenten season is over, we revert back to our former ways.

    I like his concept of “spiritual childhood” characterized by simplicity and ordinary acts of charity. It touches on the “little way” philosophy of Carmelite doctor, St. Therese. Small acts of kindness are something we can all do, irrespective of our means or station is life: letting someone go ahead of you on the supermarket line; giving the needed change to someone fumbling through their pockets on the bus; escorting someone to their destination who left their umbrella home on a rainy day. Ultimately, that is what transforms both giver and receiver. And, that kind of transformation is lasting, well after Lent’s conclusion.