Great Lent is upon us—a time of special prayers and ascetic labors. Many of us are entering it with the desire to strictly observe the Church rule and acquire particular spiritual benefit. There are people who have only just come into the faith, the newly baptized or those who were baptized long ago but are only now beginning to come to church. What advice can we give to a person who is getting ready to fast properly for the first time in his life and to pass through the time of Great Lent with austerity? What does he need to be cautious about and to what should he pay particular attention? These are the questions we asked several brothers of Sretensky Monastery, Moscow.
The most important thing is repentance before God
Hieromonk Luke (Aule):
—I would at first ask that person how long he has been going to church and what he has learned during that time, what patristic works he has read, how familiar he is with Holy Scripture, the Gospels. And proceeding from this, I would give him some instructions related to spending Great Lent.
I would advise one who more or less knows something to obtain some patristic work where he can read about our fasts and learn concretely what he needs to apply the most attention, energy, and strivings during the fast. I would advise him to learn in detail about all the weeks of Great Lent, and the variations in strictness of physical fasts. He should learn about the feasts and special church services connected with the fast. He should familiarize himself a little with the structure of Lent.
To those who are keeping the fast for the first time, I would recommend the following: It’s not necessary to try to strictly do everything, trying only to strictly observe the letter of the fast. We have to remember that the main spiritual content of the fast is repentance, what the person brings to God in his thoughts, his mind. That is important.
The fast serves to weaken the activity of the passions in our bodies. The body is humbled, and so the activity of the passions is weakened, and one can more deeply and subtly pray with his mind to God.
But for those who have never fasted it is dangerous to start fasting very strictly right off the bat for such a long duration. I know this from my own experience. Twenty years ago I fasted strictly for the first time, and it was physically very difficult. In the end I fell sick and had to give myself a small dispensation—to eat fish one or two times during the fast, because the doctors told me: Your organism hasn’t reoriented itself yet, it’s not used to fasting, so you need to tone it down or your organism will not be able to endure it.
So, my advice to those who are fasting for the first time is this: It’s not necessary to fast strictly, to abstain from all food and drink. If there is a situation when a person wants to repent very deeply before God and this is simply the lamentation of his soul, it is enough for him to fast reverently, with discernment and counsel, to the best of his ability.
It is also very good when people who have decided for the first time to fast that they not do it with self-will, but with counsel. They should first of all ask the advice of their priest. This is a guarantee of a successful time of Great Lent, because the priest gives his blessing; and he does not give it from himself but from above. It comes from God, at the prayers of those who ask God’s advice through the priest. Through divine grace the priest both blesses and gives a discerning answer.
I repeat: The most important thing in Great Lent is repentance before God. What does repentance consist of? A change in the person, a change in his life. What change? The answer to this question is very important. Before we begin fasting in Great Lent we need to read the Gospel, best of all with explanations, in order to understand everything correctly according to the holy fathers. If we do not rely on the holy fathers then it could happen—and it often does happen—that a person gets some delirious ideas and he begins to live by that delirium. This condition is called “prelest” (spiritual delusion). And then there can be no talk of communion with God. The person simply falls sick with prelest, and in the spirit of prelest there can be no spiritual gifts and communion with God.
Some people who fast put emphasis on evoking some special spiritual feeling. This is not correct. There should not be any such feelings. These feeling are often delusional. One should have faith in God, heed the Church, pray, discuss it and ask advice, and the right state will visit us when we purify our souls and fill them with divine grace. The Lord visits such people, and the Christian rejoices, because he feels the presence of God.
At the same time, repentance is present as the guarantee of a correct spiritual disposition—the feeling of deep repentance, and tears over our sins. One weeps, and is consoled by this; he feels assurance from God. God says to him: You will be forgiven and saved. Weeping is blessed—it is compunction.
But when someone expects that he will become “holy” by fasting, forgetting about repentance, nothing good will come of it. St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov) spoke very precisely about this: When you prayed and were visited by tender feelings of compunction, thank God for it. But if you went again to pray and were expecting only tender feelings of compunction, then you are in prelest.
These are the instructions for building your spiritual life during the fast; this question should be one of the basic ones, because a spiritually deluded man can never converse with God, and true prayer is first of all tears and lamentations over sins.
A plan for the fast and dizziness from success
Hieromonk Ignaty (Shestakov):
—I strongly recommend to those stepping for the first time into the field of Great Lent that they attentively acquaint themselves with its structure, the order of the weeks, the feasts, their events and content, and note all of this down. Often in our sincere zeal and desire to fast with benefit for the soul we simply forget about one or another event in the Church. This happens due to inattentiveness, disorganization, and elementary theoretical unpreparedness. It always seems to us that someone will prompt us, that the priests will remind us... And in the end we miss something very important, and later regret it. If we don’t understand what is specifically happening in church and at the services, we will not receive in full measure the prayerful consolation and benefit that have been waiting for us all year or even all our lives.
For starters it would be correct to simply get a Church calendar, look through it in its entirety for the period of Great Lent—what is when and where... It would be even better to plan the fast, write down the most important moments, and create a personal plan for Great Lent. Read ahead about all the weeks, and what comes after what. Reading brief but complete information does not take much time, but it will structure Great Lent for us in our heads.
For example, here is one practical point that the novice spiritual ascetic might encounter. Many, and especially those who are stepping onto the field of Great Lent for the first time, simply don’t know that Divine Liturgy is not served every day during Great Lent. Not even in monasteries with daily services. That is just the rule of the fast. It is important to know when and what kind of Liturgy there is, when we can take confession and receive Communion. In a large city, where the larger part of our Christians live, this elementary knowledge is very important.
In fact, unawareness and forgetfulness is common to the majority of people who consider themselves church-going and in the know. This is in general common to modern man—to forget the most important thing but fill the head with what is secondary and unnecessary. Then we often regret that that most important treasure has passed us by because of our absent-mindedness and fuss. We become aware to our horror that this treasure was the most important and desired thing—and not all the fuss on which we have frittered away our time and our lives. So that this would not happen and we would not miss the precious moments of a meeting with God, it would be best to study the structure of Great Lent, note this or that, even write it down, or make a note in our information gadgets. Let there be these beneficial “reminders” in them.
There is so much that can be said about correct fasting the first time, and anyone who is interested can turn to the volumes of literature available about this, as well as discussions in video format.
But I would particularly like to direct your attention to one more point. It is very important not to forget about a certain phenomenon called dizziness from success. This is something common to all of us, but especially for neophytes. We have to always remember that often after our first successes and spiritual flights come falls. Many know from their own experience just what can happen after a good first week of Lent—prayers, all the canons, Communion... When literally one day later or hour later there can be an unexpected temptation and fall.
A humble or humble-minded person will be the first to avoid this. There is a Russian proverb that is very apropos to this: “The quieter you walk, the further you’ll get.” We don’t need to take on a burden that is beyond our possibilities, but the main thing is: Do not exalt yourself, even if it’s only in your own eyes. That would be the straight path to a fall and loss of everything good you’ve gained. Let’s be wise as serpents and meek as doves. We should fast attentively, consciously, and calmly, without irritation and with love for our neighbor. And our humble disposition will serve in matters of love and mercy, which are just as necessary during the fast as zealous prayer and abstinence.
Don’t be afraid, and rejoice!
Hieromonk Zosima (Melnik):
—I think that important here is the motivation for fasting, to put it in modern language; that is, why a person has firmly resolved to fast. The desire to please God is very important. A person who has just started coming to church wants the maximum, to follow as zealously as possible the Typicon of the Church and all its rules: to pray correctly, fast correctly, and do everything correctly. How can we advise such a person? Well, since he’s resolved to do it, then first of all don’t be afraid! The Lord also calls us to this in the Gospel—not to fear anything. Not to fear hunger or sickness, which supposedly comes with fasting. Many doctors are always warning not to fast because there could be anemia, vitamin deficiency, and so on. But if we look at history we’ll see that no one has ever died from fasting. Don’t be afraid to step on that ascetic path. And if there is a zealous desire to please God by fasting, then one should completely follow the Typicon; call it the monastic typicon or whatever you like, unnecessary for laypeople, but try to fast strictly according to the Typicon especially during the first and last week.
Secondly, we should pray according to the commandment of God—pray without ceasing. And as the holy fathers say, prayer and fasting are two wings on which the soul flies upward to God, to the heights of heaven. Therefore prayer is very essential during the fast, and we have to have recourse to it, because otherwise fasting and asceticism becomes no more than a diet, and not a means for spiritual growth; and along with fasting prayer is a effectual means for emotional stability and spiritual growth.
Well, and the third piece of advice is: Rejoice. The Lord says that we should always rejoice! If we will truly fast correctly, pray correctly, making use of the counsel of the holy fathers, our spiritual instructors, and priests to whom we go for confession, then both prayer and fasting will definitely lead to spiritual joy, which the Lord imparts along with the grace that comes as a result of ascetic labors and the striving to please God.
Fasting, prayer, and joy all together are both the means and the fruits of our spiritual efforts; we could even say they are the fruit of the Holy Spirit, which we acquire in the field of fasting. However, the main thing to which all our efforts should ascend, all our ascetical practices and prayers is: love. Love for God and neighbor—that is the foundation and root of the spiritual tree that grows and brings forth fruit in the future age and the Kingdom of Heaven.
Do not let the opportunity for a meeting with God slip by
Hieromonk Nikon (Parimanchuk):
—We have to keep in mind that a person may not understand anything at the first try. Maybe even at the tenth. This is all gathered gradually, some experience in the spiritual life is accumulated, and only later do we understand that we should always be fasting—only we are not capable of always remaining in a vigilant state. We are given a certain time for relaxation and a time for vigilance—that is, fasting.
It is important not to forget that we also need to do good works, that this is also one of the obligations of the fast. I would advise not getting caught up in your external successes—none of them, even spiritual successes (or gastronomical).
The fast is a time given to see your weakness and incapability, even with all your zealous striving, to fulfill what the Lord asks of us: to at least for the short span of the fast to be merciful to people, love God, love your neighbors, refrain from the evil that we can do, and to try to do good that we have to opportunity to do but it’s hard for us to do it.
During the fast we should have with us also the feeling of repentance over what we have let slip by, the feeling of regret over all the missed opportunities that are given to us. We mostly let slip by in life the opportunity for a meeting with God. We are unable to refuse what we love, and this cuts off from us people whom God sends to us along our way—people who are not always as convenient as we would like them to be, who bring us cares, problems, unpleasantness, but whom we must serve, and through them see the Lord, Who also came in order to serve others.