Saint Metropolitan Philaret (Voznesensky) of New York, The New Confessor – The glorification of the great Holy Fathers in asceticism.
Now that Great Lent is just about to begin, on the last Saturday before Great Lent the Church commemorates together all the holy fathers who shone forth in the ascetic life, that is, all our great ascetics and venerable God-bearing fathers throughout all of church history, as an example to us of how we should discipline ourselves with prayer and fasting. These were saints who fulfilled the Gospel words “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mt. 11:29-30). They came to the Lord and learned from Him, became gentle and lowly in heart, and found rest for their souls because His yoke is easy and His burden light.
Lent is upon us. These great ascetics give us various examples of fasting, for they fasted in different ways. The Church does prescribe certain rules for fasting, but in one of the church books it is written that for a righteous one, rules are not set in stone as long as he continues to glorify God. Thus, while an ordinary person needs the definite order of a prayer rule to say his prayers, a righteous one does not need this. He who glorifies God without ceasing and stands before Him continually is already doing what is above and beyond what the Church prescribes. So, there are rules regarding prayer and fasting for us, but the great ascetic strugglers actually fasted much more strictly the Church requires.
For example, we know that St. Paisius the Great on two separate occasions fasted for forty days straight, not eating anything, strengthening himself only with the partaking of Holy Communion. This is truly a rare feat, while there have been many examples of saints who fasted for a week at a time. Many saints went the whole week without eating, and only at the end of the week regained their strength by taking in some food. The Church, however, does not demand from us such extraordinary feats, but calls us to fast within our power, according to the church rules.
Of course, if a person is sick or weak, a strict fast is not required. The aim of fasting in a physical sense is to restrain and suppress oneself, but if someone is sick, he is already weakened physically, so why does he need to do what his sickness has already done? When one great saint who was a strict ascetic fell ill, he relaxed his fasting. His neighbor, also a great saint and ascetic, saw this and asked him, “How can you be so lenient to yourself?” The reply was, “We are taught by our fathers not to slay the body, but to slay the passions”. Our struggles, fasting in particular, are not supposed to bring the body into a state of weakness, but only to weaken the passions. St. Basil the Great, himself a model of strictness in fasting and asceticism, said that fasting should not make a person weak and powerless, for if it were necessary and better for us to be feeble, the Lord would have created us as such. However, since He created man with a certain strength of body, that is the standard, and man needs to discipline himself in obedience to the Church, and humble his physical nature through fasting so as not to be tempted by passions and lusts. Therefore, all ascetics say that when a person is ill or weak in some way, it is all right for him to lighten his struggles and relax his fasting from his usual norm.
At the same time, it is of course necessary to remember that fasting is established by the Church, and the Church does not deal trifles. If She established fasting, a Christian ought to respectfully obey and do what She requires. We have brought up before the example of St. Seraphim of Sarov who once said outright that he who does not observe the fasts is not a Christian, no matter what he thinks himself to be and what others think he is. If he does not obey the Church and live by Her rules, he is not a Christian. St. Seraphim is basing his conviction wholly on the words of the Savior, for the Lord Jesus Christ said, “If he [your brother] refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and tax collector” (Mt. 18:17).
If we look at life around us and see how Orthodox Christians, in particular Orthodox Russians, treat fasting, it is not very encouraging. Not only do many people not observe the fasts, they practically ridicule the whole subject, commenting every chance they get that it is some kind of outdated practice, an anachronism from the past which is of no use in our day. In this way they bring judgment upon themselves, in the way that St. Seraphim said, that those who do not observe the fasts are in fact not Christians.
We always need to remember this because life now has so many temptations that at every turn church rules are being broken left and right, and people who follow them are few and far between. Of course, it is possible to find examples of the latter. In the last decades before the Revolution, Orthodox Russian people in our own Motherland of Russia were also very lax with regard to fasting. In fact, St. Seraphim said, “God’s wrath will befall Russia due to the fact that people have stopped obeying the Church, especially by not observing the fasts”. St. Seraphim foretold this, and we can see that God’s terrible anger has indeed come down upon the unfortunate Russian people and the Russian land. However, as I was saying, there are examples even now, and always have been, of people who strictly observed the fasts. Several come to mind. There was the renowned Russian man of culture named Alexei Stepanovich Khomiakov. He was a writer and columnist, as well as a profound theologian with a creative mind. Although he was brilliant and independent, he did not make anything up, but based everything strictly on the teaching of the holy fathers. He was extremely knowledgeable in their teaching and knew how to make use of this knowledge in his discussions. Moreover, he was a husband and father, the head of his family with a full life, and a most faithful and devoted son of the Church as well. In terms of culture and education, he was an aristocrat and belonged to the highest stratum of Russian society. Whenever he appeared among people of high society who had practically fallen away from the Church and forgotten all about fasting, he amazed them all by his strict observance of the fasts. No one could get him to ever break the fast. And as they were all astonished by this, he responded, “As an Orthodox Christian, I should obey the Church and follow Her rules”.
These days, when we clergy go visiting on a fasting day, we often see the table laden with non-lenten foods. Then they say to us, “Here is lenten food just for you, since you are fasting”. (?!) Once it happened to one of our hierarchs that they said to him, “Vladyko, here is lenten food for you”. He answered, “Yes, after all, I am Orthodox”. This was a way of implying to his hosts that if they did not observe the fast, they were no longer Orthodox.
Let us remember this, beloved brothers and sisters, and let us be inspired by the example of the great ascetics whom the Church commemorates today -- how St. Anthony the Great, St. Theodosius the Great, St. Euthymius the Great, our holy venerable fathers St. Sergius of Radonezh and St. Seraphim of Sarov, and many like them fasted. They were giants in the spiritual life! We are little of stature and obviously no match for them, but their example should nevertheless encourage us to emulate them within our weak power. When we honor the saints, it means not only to revere and glorify them and pray to them, but also to imitate their way of life and spiritual endeavors as much as we are able. Amen.