By Fr. Mark Perkins
In our previous post on the emergence of well-branded and extreme forms of Lenten fasting, we critiqued the idea of giving up vice as part of a “fast”:
“It is an all too common trope that people use Lent to give up on vices that they should never take up again. The impulse is wonderful, of course, because it is a flight from sin, and in some way we should all ‘fast from sin.’ However, the traditional fast within the Church does not focus our attention on sin itself. We would argue that that practice only increases one’s obsession with the sin! Fasting, on the other hand, turns our attention from sin and focuses our attention on the positive aspects of our spiritual life such as self-control and prayer. Through those, of course, we gain control over sin through an ever deepening repentance.”
An acquaintance suggested that “fasting from sin” is in fact an element of patristic theology and pointed me towards two resources: one an essay by an Orthodox theologian and the other an official document of the “Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church.” As we noted before, we fast physically in order to strengthen our will and also to break our habits of dependence, which in turn enables us to resist temptation, and thus it is allegorically appropriate to speak of spiritually fasting from evil. We should, however, recognize that such language is fraught and should not be decontextualized.
St. Basil does refer to “fasting from… negative things,” but it is clearly allegorical language and in the context of how physical fasting helps us spiritually. In all the other patristic quotations from the essays linked above, the language shifts from "fasting" to something else when the focus is on evil:
We "fast spiritually" when we "loose every knot of iniquity... tear up every unrighteous bond."
A true fast is "set against evil."
We observe the fast by "separating ourselves from every bodily passion.”
We "loosen every connection with injustice."
"True fasting is flight from evils..."
In other words, the fathers are generally quite careful to avoid language of “fasting from evil.”
I suspect this has something to do with the weakness of the allegory. If I fast from unkind words during Lent, do I feast on them during Easter? Of course, no one thinks that, but it’s an obvious implication of fasting language. A “fast” is by definition temporary. Granted, allegories break down — the whole point of an allegory is to identify a likeness between things that are ultimately different! It is silly to blame an allegory for being an allegory. Nevertheless we must handle allegories with care and with context.
If we wish to speak of “fasting from evil” — for which there is indeed patristic precedence — we should be clear about the limits of the allegory, and that it is an allegory. Our “spiritual fast” never undoes or cancels out our physical fast. The fathers quoted above never exhort us to engage in a purely spiritual fast. Instead, they explain how to fast well and what constitutes an acceptable fast — just as Psalm 51:16 (“thou desirest not sacrifice”) is not a rejection of sacrifice itself but, as verse 19 clarifies, is about the manner of sacrifice that is pleasing to God. Unfortunately, some Protestants (and the occasional pope) do end up falsely "spiritualizing" Lent, dismissing or even denigrating the bodily disciplines of fasting. (“Since the point is spiritual growth, then we should just skip the actual fast and pray harder!”) But because we are not merely souls who have bodies but rather body-soul unities, the benefits of bodily fasting cannot be gotten by any other means.
And at a more basic level, as we noted previously, the Church fasts from things that are good and valuable. The physical things the Church teaches us to fast are themselves good. We fast for a period before feasting. Whenever we begin to think of Lent primarily as a time when we avoid bad things, we have gone awry.
Hence, we think it unwise to speak of “fasting from evil,” full stop. If we wish to follow the (somewhat rare) patristic precedent of using that language, then we should likewise follow the precedent of only doing so in ways that are clearly allegorical and carefully contextualized within the bodily disciplines enjoined by Lent.
Fr. Mark Perkins is Assistant Editor of Earth & Altar. He is also Assistant Curate at All Saints Anglican Church, Charlottesville and a full-time history teacher.