It’s Ash Wednesday, and Western Christians around the world are joining their Eastern counterparts in the observation of the Great Lent. It seems appropriate now to look briefly at what John has to say about fasting:
To fast is to do violence to nature. It is to do away with whatever pleases the palate. Fasting ends lust, roots out bad thoughts, frees one from evil dreams. Fasting makes for purity of prayer, an enlightened door of compunction, humble sighing, joyful contrition, an end to chatter, an occasion for silence, a custodian of obedience, a lightening of sleep, health of the body, an agent of dispassion, a remission of sins, the gate, indeed, the delight of Paradise.
For all the benefits of fasting–and he certainly believes there are many–John does not pretend that fasting is a cure all or that it saves in itself. Of King Manasseh, he writes:
I note that Manasseh sinned like no other man. He defiled the temple of God with idols and he contaminated the sacred Liturgy. A Fast by all the world could not have made reparation for his sin, and yet humility could heal his incurable wound.
The essence of the fast was not merely abstaining from food but pursuing humility in which true value lied. This came, however, though hard fought physical exertion.
The Lord understood that the virtue of the soul is shaped by our outward behavior. He therefore took a towel and showed us how to walk the road of humility. The soul indeed is molded by the doings of the body, conforming to and taking shape from what it does.
This toil in fasting is by no means easy, and John does not neglect the real struggle which fasting entails even for the monks he oversaw. He gives a number of lengthy instructions for when to be most alert and how to train the body to fast. His wisest piece of advice, however, and the one most certainly aligned with the spirit of Lent is this:
Make the effort, however little, and the Lord will quickly come to help you.
It is with this faith that we can persevere.