Fasting necessarily involves temperance, and although much has already been said and probably much more will be said about the fact that the “gastronomic” component of the fast is not the main thing, and certainly not the only thing, it nevertheless exists. It almost invariably causes some kind of stumbling. Some give it some kind of absolute value, and are mistaken, while others, conversely, think it’s not important at all, and are also mistaken. Some, not calculating their strength and not adapting themselves to the state of their bodies, strive to fast as strictly as possible, trying to fulfill the prescriptions of the Typikon, and wind up in a hospital bed as a result. Others, having excellent health and possessing remarkable physical strength, are sincerely convinced that there’s no way they’ll survive Lent without permission for dairy products.
Beyond all doubt, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath (Mk. 2:27). And in the same way, man was not made for fasting, but fasting for man. Therefore, when fasting, we must follow the royal, that is, the middle path: Don’t take an unbearable burden upon yourself, don’t fast more severely than the body’s capabilities allow, but at the same time, don’t forget that Lent demands a podvig—the oppression of the flesh, and we absolutely must feel this oppression, otherwise where is the podvig? And I am certain that no matter how reasonable we are, no matter how sensible we may be, it is still more correct when Christians preparing for Lent consult with their spiritual father about everything, including the so-called gastronomic side of it.
Why is temperance so important? By his very nature, man naturally strives for a good existence. But in our fallen state, our conception of what this good existence consists of is fundamentally distorted, and we most often consider the “good” to be the satisfaction of our passions—perhaps not crude and obvious, but subtle and hidden. However, everything is interconnected, and if we don’t labor to cut off one passion, we naturally find ourselves defenseless before another. And temperance in food becomes a kind of base, the first and simplest experience of renouncing that which brings us pleasure—not something sinful, but quite innocent. But it is this renunciation—willing, unforced—that helps us to at least somewhat strengthen our will, and gives us, on the one hand, an idea of just how much we are dependent on our flesh and its desires, and on the other, allows us to significantly reduce this dependence.
A person who is fasting renounces for the sake of God, for the sake of his spiritual benefit, that which pleases him; he renounces that which he can do without in principle, but which at the same time it is difficult for him to do without. And he doesn’t do it out of his own arbitrariness, but out of obedience to the Church, trying, as far as possible, to draw nearer to fulfilling the demands of the Typikon. In doing so he can, like the Psalmist, say in prayer: Look upon my humility and my labor; and forgive all my sins (Ps. 24:18)—if, of course, he not only humbles himself before the precepts of the Typikon, but also thinks about his own fasting humbly—not as some high virtue, but as doing what is natural for a penitent sinner.
However, is it possible to think that all this exhausts and closes the topic of temperance? That in determining the measure of bodily fasting and acquiring a correct attitude towards it we have fulfilled all that concerns temperance? Of course not.
Modern man is primarily a consumer. The spirit of consumerism penetrates deeply into our hearts—so deep that it’s difficult for us not to be consumerist not only in relation to the world in which we live, and to people, but even to God: We are constantly expecting something from the Lord. We demand something, and not receiving what we demanded, we take offense and murmur against Him.
And temperance is the best way to declare war on consumerism itself. Oppressing yourself in food is, I repeat, of a limited character. We probably all remember Hodja Nasreddin’s donkey, which he taught to mortify the flesh: Every day, Hodja reduced the amount of food for it, until, finally, coming to the stable, he saw the donkey lying on the ground lifeless. But as for temperance in what we consume in excess, in what is by no means necessary or is simply harmful for us, here we have a truly vast field for podvigs.
At least a few examples: All of us, even if the Lord hasn’t endowed us with the gift of eloquence, commit many sins with the tongue. This is especially facilitated by our habit of speaking without thinking, without fearing to say more than is necessary. If we venture to limit ourselves at least a little bit during the fast in unnecessary conversations, if we resolve not to speak without thinking, and we decide not to say that which our conscience clearly tells us is not necessary to say, we will receive great benefit, and such temperance will be highly praiseworthy.
So much superfluous information modern man consumes! It flows into us in an uncontrolled stream from TV screens, from computer monitors, from social networks, and from radio speakers, including in the car. We are overloaded by it; our nervous system cannot withstand such an abundance of stimuli, and our minds are in no condition to fully analyze and evaluate everything that we see and hear. And the word of God, so necessary for our souls, disappears in all this multiplicity of news, stories, rumors, and diversity of videos and photos, like the seed from the Gospel parable that fell among the thorns. Therefore, it is clear that the restriction of information, control over it, a kind of “information fast,” is a mandatory component of the podvig of Lent, without which we won’t succeed in anything.
There is that phenomenon of today’s reality known as shopping. Something is wrong, some problems plague us, our heart is heavy—what to do in such a situation? That’s right—go shopping! Shopping makes us perk up, improves our mood, increases our vitality, helps us forget about the complexities and conflicts, and you rejoice, hoping for the better, until you again become despondent and feel it’s definitely time to go shopping again. It’d be alright if this “magic recipe” was only available to those with stacks of cash! But today there is something no less magical—the credit card: Not only do you not have money but you’re up to your ears in debt; nevertheless you still have the wonderful opportunity to continue shopping. And then, having enjoyed yourself a little, you’re plunged into sadness because you have no clue how to pay back what you borrowed and pay interest on top of it. Abstaining from excessive, unnecessary purchases and shopping as entertainment is the most important spiritual exercise for modern man. Laboring in this, he strengthens his will, delivers himself from new reasons for despondency (because of yet another waste of money), and saves the funds to eventually acquire something truly necessary or even help the needy.
I think anyone can accomplish this if he attentively looks at his life and tries to understand what in it literally jumps into your shopping cart, from which the time has come to liberate yourself. Such all-encompassing temperance gives the soul great strength and freedom and allows it to see reality in a completely different way, not fixating on the fact that literally everything in it is an object for consumption.
And this is not enough. To begin with, it frees up in our hearts a small corner for what should ideally fill it: for the spiritual content that it is actually life, in the true, undistorted sense.
This is the first, truly important fruit of correct, reasonable fasting.