The 19th century Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously quipped in his novel The Brothers Karamazov, that “Without God, everything is permitted.” It stands to reason then, that the reciprocal of this statement might be that “With God, some things are not permitted”. If any of my readers ponder this for a few moments, you may see the idea of concience beginning to take root, and some elements of law.
Perhaps God’s greatest gift to mankind is that he gave us our free will. We are free to choose to follow God’s law and commandments, or to ignore them. We are free to choose the path that our lives will follow. We are free to choose how we will interact with our fellow Man and with God Himself. We might remember that Satan began his existence as a high placed and trusted angel, but he exercised his own free will by challenging God and forever removed himself from God’s grace. God cast Satan out of heaven and into the abyss of Hell over which he now rules.
Your writer was born and baptized a Roman Catholic and attended Catholic school for several years in my youth. I can recall the Lenten season arriving, and being asked by the sisters to “give up something” for Lent. What they were really talking about was the approaching Lenten fast which was considered an annual obligation. What I don’t recall is any logical explantion as to why the fast was necessary or desirable. Why did I need to give up candy or meat? Why did I need to “give up” anything? I do remember that I was told I should offer something up as a sacrifice to Jesus, but I really didn’t make any connection to Jesus or spirituality until many decades later when, after a long period away from any church, I became an Orthodox Christian.
A lightbulb went off over my head when I read a brief interview with Archbishop Benjamin, Archbishop of San Francisco and the West in the Orthodox Church in America. His Grace provided a very clear answer.
Christianity is fundamentally an ascetic religion. Fasting is a gift that the Church gives us to grow in our spirituality. It’s purpose is to serve as a reminder. It’s not about what we give up, it’s all about what we gain through fasting. It’s all that simple, really.
But to remind us of what, you might say? Jesus? Perhaps, yes. But the answer is really this, limits!
Remember what I wrote about limits. Christianity reminds us that we need to exercise our self-control. Without self control we become undisciplined and grow distant from God as we exercise our free will in negative ways. We may feel unwilling to say our morning and evening prayers. We might not honor our obligations to our parents, our spouses, and our friends and neighbors. We might not remember to behave ethically and morally in our working and private lives. We may live inconsiderately and overindulgently giving scant thought to God or to man, but only to our own pleasures.
Asceticism, practiced as a spiritual discipline, allows a person to attain a high state of spritual or moral discipline by practicing degrees of self-denial, austerity, or abstinence.
Fasting is the tool that the Church gives us to enrich our spiritual lives. The Christian World is half a year away from the fasting of Great Lent, but for the Orthodox churches next week begins a two week period of fasting called the Dormition Fast. With the Dormition Fast (August 14-28, this year) the Church calls on us to emulate the Mother of God, who before her translation to the Heavens was continually engaged in fasting and prayer.
Outside of monasteries, in many contemporary Orthodox parishes, the fasting rules are often unclear or widely ignored, so here is a link to them.
Here is the link to the full interview with His Grace, Archbishop Benjamin: