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The Spirituality of Fasting, book by H. H. Pope Shenouda III
27- What is the Relationship between God and your Fast?
What does God gain from your fast? What have you received from God? What were you able to sacrifice to God in your fast, and what blessings did He give you? Was your fast a sacred time in your life during which you experienced a spiritual revival allowing you to taste and observe how good God is? Did you experience a change in your behave in accordance with the soul and not with the flesh?
Fasting is not substituting one food for another, and is not abstaining from food for a certain period. All these are just means, but they do not constitute the essence of fasting of to free and exalt the soul from its bodily needs and above the influence of materialism. The soul and the body move in unity in loving God to enjoy His company. This is what is meant by a sacred fast, i.e. one devoted entirely to God.
You must devote three things: your heart, thoughts, and will in order to consecrate you fast to God.
You should not be overly occupied with food and drink. Rather, your abstention trains you to have a strong will over what you eat and drink. When you succeed in controlling what you eat, your will submits itself to God in all things and your desires will be nothing but what God wants.
This is the wisdom behind fasting. Controlling our desire for food extends itself to controlling our conduct, which displeases God. It is not sufficient to abstain from or eat vegetarian food while at the same time unable to control certain sins! You should strive to submit your will to God in all that you do, saying to Him, "Let it not be my will but yours."
Therefore, find out where your will departs from God’s and concentrate on those areas in particular in order to present to God a virtuous willpower that will please Him.
Your training while fasting will stay with you after it, and it will be unlikely that you commit those sins again which you were able to control and shun while fasting. If you are unable, then what have you gained from your fast?
Make sure that fasting changes something in you.
Do not let a change of food be the only thing different you do in a fast. Let the fast be change towards a better life, a chance to remove the defects and weaknesses you feel exist in your relationship with God and people. What benefit otherwise would you have, if you subdued yourself during the fifty five days of Lent only to come out of it exactly as you had been before, without increasing your fellowship and communication with God?!
Think about the number of fasts that have passed by while you are still as you are, without change.
How many fasts have you kept up till now since you came to know God? How many years since you have passed observed the different fasts as well as the weekly Wednesdays and Fridays fasts?
If you had managed to overcome just one weak point for every fast you observed which reconciles you to God, you will have succeeded in tasting the sweetness of His will and the depth of your relationship with Him!
Do not pause at the formalities of fasting but delve into its depths.
Fasting is neither a mere set of formalities nor an ordinance or rite. Rather, it is a blessing given to us by God and organised by the Church for our spiritual benefit, to enlighten and train our souls of the idealism that we should follow for: “Holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.” (Heb 12:14).
Fasting, therefore, is a sacred, idealistic, and extraordinary act. It requires a special spiritual planning to match its holiness. When a fast begins, we feel that we have entered a time of exultation and started extraordinary days of self training in living a life of perfection. Therefore, these days should not pass as other days do, for they constitute a new phase in our relationship with God - a phase that we go through with new feelings and spirit.
It is true that all the days of our life should be sacred. However, fasting days are more so than others. If we conduct ourselves well during these days, we shall attain the holiness for the rest of our life. It is a time when we devote ourselves, as much as we can, to God and deepen our relationship with Him.
Have you heard of the fast that exorcises evil spirits?
About these devils the Lord said: “This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting." (Matt 17:21). What power is in these fasts that even the devils cannot stand but are exorcised? Is it mere abstention from food? Of course not, and we have discussed this issue before here on st-takla.org in other pages. Rather, it is the strong relationship that binds the person who fasts with God and which the Devil cannot stand. It is the harmony between man and God, of love and spiritual relationship with God, which the Devil is deprived of. As soon as the Devil sees it, he grows weary and flees.
It is through fasting, that the man’s heart clings to God which the devil cannot withstand, and escapes.
Does your heart cling to God while fasting?
Do you give Him your heart as you do with your will? Do you feel His love while you are fasting? Does this love clearly show in your prayers and contemplation while fasting? Have you ever forgotten about your food and drink, for the sake of His love?
Is it as if you say to your body while fasting: ‘"I have no time for you now. If you have or have not eaten it does not concern me. "Everything under the sky has its own time" and this is not your time. I am preoccupied with the spiritual work with God. Come join us if you want to have some substance in this fast. As for food, there is no room for it now. My food now is every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God."’
His feelings are the same as those of Saint John, saying: “I was in the Spirit on the Lord's Day” (Revelation 1:10).
There is no doubt that days of fasting belong to the Lord. Therefore, are you "in the spirit" during your fast? Have you utterly forgotten about your bodily needs, with all its desires and opted to live in the spirit during the fasting period? You are not indebted to your body except for the necessities without which it cannot survive. It is as if you were saying with the apostle Paul: “Whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—“ (2 Cor 12:3).
Does God occupy your thoughts while you fast?
During the divine Mass the priest cries out saying: "where are your hearts?" and the congregation answers: "They are with the Lord." Likewise, I want to ask you the same question when you fast: "Where are your minds?" Can you answer, saying: "They are with the Lord?" is not a fast a sacred period devoted to God, and one during which thoughts must be occupied with God alone? Examine yourself, and determine if your thoughts wander during the fast.
Do worldly concerns fill your thoughts during a fast?
In the whirlwind of labour, news, and in conversation with others, you do not find time to give God your thoughts!
You may fast till sunset but your thoughts are not with God and your mind exhausted, roaming and conforming to the world! You may spend a lot of time in idle chat and trivial things and your thoughts are away from God. You may only remember Him only when you sit down to break your fast. Then, you pray before eating and mention to God the fact that you have been fasting. Is this the kind of spiritual fast that sets your conscience at ease?! Remember the words of the Prophet David: “I have set the Lord always before me. “ (Ps 16:8).
He is there before me in every thing I do and in every word I say. He sees everything. I also set Him before me because He is my aim away from which I do not want to venture. He is before me and because of Him alone I fast. My fast is not to distract me from Him, but to have Him always before me.
If on regular days you remember all the time God before you, then how much more so should you be when fasting, a time devoted and consecrated to God?
If God is not in your thoughts, then you are not fasting.
A day of fasting which passes by without remembering God, should be crossed out of your fast, for it cannot be as included under the title: “Declare a holy fast.” (Joel 1:14,2:15)...
Some may ask, how can I do this while living in the world and having many responsibilities that I must think about?
Keep a balance in accordance with three rules:
1. Do not let your responsibilities dominate in such a way as to take all your thoughts and not leave a place for God. Set limits to your responsibilities and allow the Lord His share.
2. Depart from any thought that does not please God, for such a thought does not coincide with the sacred scope of your life. As the Apostle Paul says: “Bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.” (2 Cor 10:5) Therefore, do not defile your fast with wrong thoughts, for any thoughts which please Christ should be kept while those which displease Him should be driven away.
3. Let God share in your thoughts and in your goals, and say:
It is for God's sake that I am pondering this topic.
It is good that you think about your responsibilities, but do not let them be separate from God’s. It is God who has given them to you, and you think about them for His sake. Therefore, your thoughts about them should not be separate from God. It is for God that you think about the affairs of your business, about your lessons and studies, about your service, and about your family responsibilities, on the condition that your thoughts do not take you away from God who is the origin and the foundation of everything, and we have discussed this issue before here on st-takla.org in other pages. Think about your responsibilities while saying to God:
Join in the work of Your faithful.
A student, for instance, may study while fasting and have God join him. He studies while God grants him the power to understand and to remember the information learnt in memory. This student says to God: "O Lord, I cannot understand all this by myself. You stay with me and make me understand and I shall thank you for it. I study, O Lord, neither for the sake of knowledge nor for my future, but for You so that all may know that Your children are successful, that they are faithful in all the deeds they undertake, and that the Lord is with them and assists them. Thus people give praise "
You say to God: It is for You that I eat, and for You that I fast.
It is for You that I eat to gain strength to stand up and pray, to sit up late and contemplate. To use for the service of Your children, and for others to know that Your children are faithful in their responsibilities.
I fast so that my soul comes to You, unhindered by my body. In this way, God will be with you in everything you do.
You also partake with Jesus Christ who fasted.
Join Him in fasting to the extent that your weak nature can stand. He fasted for you, therefore at least fast for yourself. He who rejected the wordily food, and you too partake with him in rejecting the perishing food. He, who is nourished by the love and companionship of His Father, likewise do the same. He, who gained victory over the devil whilst fasting, plead with Him to guide you to victory.
Fasting in this way, becomes nourishment for your spirit.
The most hazardous thing that exhausts those who fast is that neither the body nor the soul is nourished. Fasting becomes a period of deprivation and torture. This is not the intention of a spiritual fast. Moreover, deprivation of the body only, gives fasting a negative image while leaving out the positive nourishment of the soul.
Nourishment of the soul is: prayer, meditation, reading the Holy Bible, spiritual readings such as the sayings of Fathers and biographies of Saints, hymns and psalms, spiritual meetings and prostration etc.
Nourishment of the soul also includes spiritual feelings, God's love and all matters relating to eternity.
The soul that is nourished is able to support the body.
This is clearly seen during Passion Week when asceticism becomes intense, with long periods of abstinence. Nevertheless, the body endures without becoming tired because the soul is nourished by the memories of Christ's suffering by on Passion Week. Bible readings, hymns, and rites all focus the mind on Passion Week and the suffering of our Lord.
There are times when a person may be so absorbed by the satisfaction and pleasure of what he reads that he may forget about his craving for food so that he can proceed with his readings. The soul becomes nourished to the extent that it sustains the body, which does not feel any hunger.
Therefore, give the soul its nourishment during a fast and rest assured that nourishment of the soul gives the body the strength it needs to endure the fast. Moreover, fasting of the body empower the soul, for the spiritual action is intermingled with the bodily and mental asceticism. Prayers and masses during a fast are more profound during fasts for they emanate from a body, which has submitted to the soul. Your prayer becomes powerful since they emanate from a heart abstained from materialistic things and a soul abstained from the worldly lusts. Such as the vespers and midnight prayers performed with a light body abstaining from food.
During the fasts, our Fathers concerned themselves with the work of the soul. But what about their food?
Even while eating, they were also interested in nourishing their souls.
They used to take it in turn while they ate, to read aloud a Saint's biography or “Sayings of the Fathers”. This helped withdraw their minds away from food and materialistic issues, and at the same time be nourished spiritually while they ate their food. They avoided being fully occupied with the body and became accustomed to the discipline of the soul over every bodily act.
The commandments oblige us to fast, but our Fathers did not fast because of them.
They fasted for the love and not for obedience to the commandment.
Obedience is for the novice, but love is for the mature and the perfect.
Our fathers fasted, not to fulfil a commandment, an imposition, or a rite, but for the spiritual pleasure in which they found spiritual satisfaction and comfort for their souls and bodies.
Our fathers did not stop fasting at the limits of obedience to the commandment, but they delved into its spirituality.
The spirituality of the commandment requires us to fast for our own good. Otherwise, God would not have ordered it.
In addition to what we have said, we shall, God willing, explain this matter in detail in the following chapter titled "The virtues that accompany fasting".
However, for now we shall talk about Lent, as the holiest fast of the year.
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