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The Nativity Fast and the Passions

November 17, 2012

In chapter 3 of Ancient Christian Wisdom, I refer to Saint John Climacus’s description of a passion: “‘that which persistently nestles in the soul for a long time, forming therein a habit, as it were, by the soul’s longstanding association with it, since the soul of its own free choice clings to it.’ Several important notions are contained in this passage.  First of all, passions are habitual modes of responding over time, which indicates that they are learned or, to be more precise, overlearned ways of reacting.  Second, since a person chooses to invest himself in the passions, they adhere to him in a profoundly individualized way.  As habitual, persistent, and individualistic modes of reacting, the passions tend to grow rigid and difficult to change if they are left unchecked.”

Most of us who’ve attempted any struggle with the passions know by experience this to be true.  This is precisely why even when people no longer want to be constrained by their bad habits and vices, they find themselves being dragged back down into the mire of the passions.  Such a state of being bound to the passions, body and soul, can leave people forlorn and desperate for a way out.  Sadly, some give up altogether on the struggle against the passions believing themselves to be mastered by them. That’s just the way things are, they suppose. The ancient fathers, however, do have a therapeutic prescription for those found to be in such a state. The fathers prescribe an increased effort at prayer and fasting that lands a direct blow at the two-fold nature of the passions including the soul’s clinging and the objects she clings to. We have discussed the power and the benefits of prayer and watchfulness in other posts. Fasting further alters one’s awareness and intensifies the power of prayer by altering one’s relation to creation in a fundamental way that opposes selfishness and strengthens gratitude.

Interestingly enough, today in Europe there is a renaissance in fasting therapy as a treatment for hypertension, chronic diseases, and for the simple aim of increasing clarity of mind. There is even scientific evidence that high-fat diets without fasting have even been linked with depression and cognitive decline. Of course, the secular pedigree traces back this modern medical practice to Hippocrates. Christians look back to the only Good Physician who said to his holy disciples, “this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.” Since we have just begun the holy season of the Nativity Fast, it is a good idea to re-acquaint ourselves with the ancient wisdom concerning this ascetical practice that happens to also be quite contemporary once again.  In the Gospel, Christ Himself assumed His followers adhered to fasting.  He said, “When you fast. . .”  Notice He didn’t say, “If you fast. . .”  St. Paisius Velichovsky reminded his followers of the great spiritual benefit found in fasting, “The heart cannot remain firm in purity, so as not to be defiled, if it will not be crushed by fasting. It is impossible also to preserve holiness without fasting, and the flesh will not submit to the spirit for spiritual activity, and prayer itself will not rise up and act because natural needs predominate. And the flesh will be compelled to become feverish. And from thoughts the heart is aroused and is defiled, and through this, grace departs, and the unclean spirits have boldness to rule over us as much as they wish.”

Fasting coupled with true repentance and much prayer loosens the bonds of the passions and the dark thoughts, for it establishes a choice at cross-roads that the non-faster did not even know existed. Every choice to fast is a choice to cling to God and each positive choice makes the next constructive choice that much easier. The spirit awakens in man and becomes the steward of the material, earthly plane of existence, rather than the slave to it. And so by the grace of God, the faster wrenches his soul from the clasp of the passions and begins to experience that glorious freedom of the sons and daughters of God.

As we begin this holy season, let us take to heart the words of St. Symeon the New Theologian, “But without fasting no one was ever able to achieve any of these virtues or any others, for fasting is the beginning and foundation of every spiritual activity. Whatever you will build on this foundation cannot collapse or be destroyed, because they are built on solid rock. But if you remove this foundation and substitute for it a full stomach and improper desires, they will be undermined like sand by evil thoughts, and the whole structure of virtues will be destroyed (cf. Mt. 7:26; Lk. 6:49). To prevent this from happening in our case, my brethren, let us gladly stand on the solid foundation of fasting. Let us stand firmly, let us stand willingly!”

Article on Fasting therapy:

Michalsen, A., Hoffmann, B., Moebus, S., Bäcker, M., Langhorst, J., & Dobos, G. J. (2005). Incorporation of Fasting Therapy in an Integrative Medicine Ward: Evaluation of Outcome, Safety, and Effects on Lifestyle Adherence in a Large Prospective Cohort Study. The Journal Of Alternative And Complementary Medicine, 11(4), 601-607.

Resource for  non fasting and depression/cognitive decline

Lavin, D. N., Joesting, J. J., Chiu, G. S., Moon, M. L., Meng, J., Dilger, R. N., & Freund, G. G. (2011). Fasting induces an anti-inflammatory effect on the neuroimmune system which a high-fat diet prevents. Obesity, 19(8), 1586-1594. doi:10.1038/oby.2011.73

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