By an Anonymous Writer
As a child, I remember that there were always 4 answers to the questions asked by my teachers in church. These answers were: Jesus, read the Bible, pray, and fast. In this section, I am going to speak about the importance of Fasting, and how it is that fasting can be used to practice true Nepsis.
Nepsis is about purifying the mind – making sure that there is nothing that is in the heart that would stop our prayers from being acceptable to God. Sadly, we make mistakes, and sometimes, we are caught off guard. There are then some evil thoughts which we have in our mind. We need to take these thoughts out. Christ already gives us the answer to this problem, as he said, “This kind does not come out by anything except by prayer and fasting” (Matt 17:21).
It is odd here, that Christ makes it a point to include fasting. One can easily understand how prayers casts demons out. But in what way does fasting cast out the devil? For this question to be answered, we must go back to what Christ means when he says, “Fasting.” God says, “Is this not the fast which I have ordained? That you loose the chains of injustice, and to untie the cords of the yoke? That you free the oppressed, and that you free every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6) Clearly, the reason that fasting helps to free the mind of evil thoughts is because a true fast is the act of becoming free.
The things which you possess that you cannot let go of are not things which you possess, but are things which possess you. In essence, it is not that these thoughts are trapped within your heart, and you wish to release them, but rather, that you are fettered by these thoughts, and that you wish for them to release you. Fasting is the act of being released from these thoughts, and so, releasing them from within you.
There is an important factor to fasting, which is abstinence from food. Often, I hear many saying to me, “It is not about the food.” I argue that while it may not be all about the food, it is still an important factor. If you can control such a basic desire as the desire for food, what you are doing is training your heart to be independent of the body, such that the desires of the body are not the only concern of the heart. The heart, able to overcome the most basic need for food, is able to overcome all those needs which come secondary to it, such as sexual lust, pride, anger, etc.
Fasting is about releasing the Spirit from the body. It allows for the spirit to be uplifted from its confinement to the body. St. Isaac the Syrian says, “First, loose yourself from all external bonds, and then you may strive to bind your heart to God, because unification with God is preceded by loosing from matter.” (St. Isaac the Syrian, Homilie 4, in The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian) In other words, the first step to Theosis (unity with God) is Kenosis (emptying the self.) To empty the self, one has to be free from materialism. Food is the base of materialism. Apart from air and water, this is no “material” which we humans hanker after greater than food. If we control this desire, we strengthen our souls, and we can begin to detach ourselves from all other material wants.
Once the mind is free from materialism, it enters into a spiritual realm. This is a realm in which the heart stands in the presence of God. Completely awestruck by witnessing his awesome glory, it cannot be distracted. If it cannot be distracted from gazing upon God, it cannot sin.
To summarize, fasting sets the heart free from the thoughts that assail it. It elevates man above materialism, and brings him into a spiritual realm. Once in this spiritual realm, the heart is able to experience God so clearly. In the awesome and engulfing presence of God, the soul does not dare turn left nor right to notice the devil’s temptation. After all, who, having diamonds in his hands, would throw them aside, and rush to carry dung?!
Sayings of the Fathers on Fasting:
“There can be no knowledge of the mysteries of God on a full stomach.” – St. Isaac the Syrian
“When a man begins to fast, he straightway yearns in his mind to enter into converse with God.” – St. Isaac the Syrian
“What weapon is more powerful and gives more boldness to the threat in times of battle against the spirit of wickedness than hunger endured for Christ’s sake? He who has armed himself with the weapon of fasting is afire with zeal at all times.” – St. Isaac the Syrian
“Whenever you are at a well-laden table, remember death and remember you judgement, and even then you will only manage to restrain your self a little.” – St. John Climacus
“And so for nearly 20 years he [Antony] continued training himself in solitude, never going forth, and seen but seldom by any. After this, when many were eager and wishful to imitate his discipline, and his acquaintances came and began to cast down and wrench off the door by force, Antony, as from a shrine, came forth initiated in the mysteries and filled with the Spirit of God. Then for the first time, he was seen outside the fort by those who came to see him. And they, when they saw him, wondered at the sight, for he had the same habit of body as before, and was neither fat, like a man without exercise, nor lean from fasting and striving with the demons, but he was just the same as they had known him before his retirement.” – St. Athanasius in Vita Anotnii
“Fasting is the champion of every virtue, the beginning of the struggle, the crown of the abstinent, the beauty of virginity and sanctity, the resplendence of chastity, the commencement of the path of Christianity, the mother if prayer, the will-spring of sobriety and prudence, the teacher of stillness, and the precursor of all good works.” – St. Isaac the Syrian
“The table of a man who continually perseveres in prayer is sweeter than the scent of musk and the fragrance of perfumes, and the lover of God yearns for this as a priceless treasure.” – St. Isaac the Syrian