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The Spirituality of Fasting, book by H. H. Pope Shenouda III
16- Period of Abstinence
A period of abstinence is essential, since we would simply be vegetarians if we ate without observing it from the beginning of the day. The word fasting means abstinence or cessation. It is therefore necessary to refrain from eating for a certain period of time.
The length of abstinence varies from one person to another. The following outlines some of the reasons for this:
1 People differ in their spirituality. A beginner for example, cannot abstain for a long time when compared with the well trained or the spiritually mature who can abstain for a long time. An anchorite is able to fast for days in the same manner of our fathers the monks, the hermits, and the anchorites.
2 Those who fast differ in age. The ability of a child or a boy to fast differs from that of a young or grown-up man, and is also differs for the elderly.
3 Those who fast also differ in their state of health. A strong person may endure more than the physically weak. Moreover, the sick may require special treatment, and may be exempt from abstinence in accordance with their ailment and the treatment required.
4 Those who fast also differ in the type of work they do.
Some work requires great physical effort, while others work in an office environment sitting down at their desks for a number of hours. The first differs from the latter in their endurance to abstain from food.
5 Fasting requires a gradual progression. One should fast by gradually increasing the length of abstinence over the period of the fast. The spiritual fathers usually recommend this useful method.
There is however a minimum time of abstinence, which varies depending on the fast. The minimal fast period for Lent should be higher than for the rest of the fasts and the minimum during the Passion Week is higher than that of Lent. Some are able to fast from Maundy Thursday up to the Easter Mass and others on the day preceding Christmas or Epiphany. As for the weak, their endurance is limited.
Despite all this, we need to set the following important rule:
The period of abstinence should be under the guidance of your Father confessor. Excessive periods of fasting may become detrimental to the body and possibly to the soul as it falsely instils the notion of false glory. On the other hand, some may become lax and lose the benefits of fasting. It is best to seek the guidance of your Father confessor on this matter.
However from the Church’s point of view, on the period of abstinence, we would like to pose the following question:
Is there any association between abstinence from eating and the ninth hour?
There is in fact some connection, for in the Church rite of the ninth hour prayers, we observe the selection of the Bible chapter, which deals with blessing of food after a period of hunger. (Luke 9:10-17).
In the ninth hour prayer, we remember the death of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross. Why then is this passage? It appears that abstinence was communally practiced until the ninth hour and thus this passage was suitably placed to allow people to pray then eat their food, and we have discussed this issue before here on st-takla.org in other pages. Since days of fasting cover the major portion of the year. This bible chapter has remained for all year long to remind us of fasting, even during the days when there is no abstinence to allow us to maintain our daily prayers and remember God's blessing of food before we eat.
The ninth hour of the day actually coincides with three o'clock in the afternoon since the first hour of the day corresponds to six o'clock in the morning.
In any case, there is no need to elaborate further on this point since the period of abstinence differs from one person to another. The period of abstinence is left up to the Father confessor and to the spiritual condition of the person fasting.
What is important is the spiritual aspect of the period of abstinence. It is far more important to discuss the method by which man may benefit spiritually from his abstinence than on the formalities and laws that govern the period of abstinence. A person may not benefit spiritually if they follow a non-spiritual method, even if he abstains from food until the ninth hour or even sunset.
What is, therefore, the spiritual way?
1 The period of abstinence must be one of renunciation and asceticism caring not for the body. You should therefore not think about when and what you will eat while abstaining from food, nor find pleasure in preparing what you will eat. On the contrary, the period of abstinence should be a time when you elevate yourself totally above the levels of eating, materialism, and food.
2 After the period of abstinence, do not eat greedily, for he who abstains from food, then eats what he covets, or chooses certain foods that he enjoys, has not subdued his body, humiliated it, nor rid it of its lusts. This indicates that he has not benefited spiritually from the period of abstinence, a time of renunciation and asceticism if he greedily eats what he lusts for. Look at what the Prophet Daniel said about his fast: “I ate no pleasant food.” (Dan 10:3).
It is like he who demolishes what he has built... all in vain! Fasting is not to build then demolish, and build again only to demolish, without the desire for growth!
3 Do not wait in anticipation for the end of the abstinence period as to what you will eat.
Do not hasten to eat when the time comes. Try if you can to resist even for a few minutes and wait. When it is time to eat, say to yourself: Let us pray for a while, then eat, or let us read a book and contemplate for some time, then eat.
Do not pounce on food. Let renunciation that you harboured during abstinence continue to be with you after you have eaten, for this is spiritually beneficial and you will be rewarded.
Let the spirit not the hour guide you.
Elevate yourself above food, material things and the body in-order to move forward to the depth of abstinence.
As for the period and time of abstinence, it would be beneficial if it led you to the feeling of hunger.
Let us here talk to you about the element of hunger in fasting:
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