I recently read a great passage about bodily discipline (meaning primarily fasting in this case) from St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, a Russian bishop and elder of the nineteenth century. In this passage, St. Ignatius argues against those who would say that ascetic self-discipline has no place in the Christian life. He also has a caution for those who would over-emphasize it. Without further ado, here are the words of the saint:
“Bodily discipline is essential in order to make the ground of the heart fit to receive the spiritual seeds and to bear the spiritual fruits. To abandon or neglect it is to render the ground unfit for sowing and bearing fruit. Excess in this direction and putting one’s trust in it is just as harmful, or even more so, than neglect of it.
“Neglect of bodily discipline makes men like animals who give free reign and scope to their bodily passions. But excess makes men like devils and fosters the tendency to pride and the constant recurring of other passions in the soul.
“Those who abandon bodily discipline become subject to gluttony, lust and anger in their crudest forms. Those who practice immoderate bodily discipline, use it indiscreetly, or put all their trust in it, seeing in it their own merit and worth in God’s sight, fall into vainglory, self-opinion, presumption, pride, hardness and obduracy, contempt for their neighbors, detraction and condemnation of others, rancor, resentment, hate, blasphemy, schism, heresy, self-deception, and diabolic delusion.
“Let us give due value to bodily ascetic practices as instruments and means indispensable for acquiring the virtues, but let us beware of regarding these instruments as virtues in themselves so as not to fall into self-deception and deprive ourselves of spiritual progress through a wrong understanding of Christian activity.”*
In other words, if I may be so bold as to attempt to summarize the saint’s words, fasting is a means to an end, not the end itself. It is a necessary but not sufficient part of our path to salvation.
May God grant you a blessed final week of the Lenten fast.
*Quoted in Fr. Thomas Hopko, The Lenten Spring (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1998), 51-52.
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