Having spent a great deal of time discussing prayer, Colliander now turns to the Fathers’ teaching on another crucial part of the spiritual life: fasting. The primary question he addresses is “Why should we fast?” There are several good reasons to fast, and Colliander devotes exactly one paragraph to each, giving the reason in the first sentence and then elaborating upon it in the rest of the paragraph. I will reproduce this chapter almost entirely in full, because it is so powerful.
“Fasting, neither above nor below your ability, will help you in your vigil. One should not ponder divine matters on a full stomach, say the ascetics. For the well-fed, even the most superficial secrets of the Trinity lie hidden. Christ Himself set the example with His long fast; when He drove out the devil He had fasted for forty days. Are we better than He? Behold, angels came and ministered unto him (Matthew 4:11). They are waiting to minister to you, too.
“Fasting tempers loquacity, says St. John Climacus. It is an outlet for compassion and a guard upon obedience; it destroys evil thoughts and roots out the insensibility of the heart. Fasting is a gate to paradise: when the stomach is constricted, the heart is humbled. He who fasts prays with a sober mind, but the mind of the intemperate person is filled with impure fantasies and thoughts.
“Fasting is an expression of love and devotion, in which one sacrifices earthly satisfaction to attain the heavenly. Altogether too much of one’s thoughts are taken up with care for sustenance and the enticements of the palate; one wishes to be free from them. Thus fasting is a step on the road of emancipation and an indispensible support in the struggle against selfish desires. Together with prayer, fasting is one of humanity’s greatest gifts, carefully cherished by those who once have participated in it.
“During fasting, thankfulness grows toward him who has given humanity the possibility of thanksgiving. Fasting opens the entrance to a territory that you have scarcely glimpsed: the expressions of life and all the events around you and with you get a new illumination, the hastening hours a new, wide-eyed and rich purpose. The vigil of groping thought is replaced by a vigil of clarity; troublesome searching is changed to quiet acceptance in gratitude and humility. Seemingly large, perplexing problems open their centres like the ripe calyces of flowers: with prayer, fasting, and vigil in union, we may knock on the door we wish to see opened.
Here we find the reason that fasting is often used as a measuring-stick by the holy Fathers: he who fasts much is he who loves much, and he who has loved much is forgiven much (Luke 7:47). He who fasts much also receives much” (75-77).
So the purpose of fasting is manifold: we fast to help us in our vigil (i.e., in watchfulness against temptation), to help us to guard our tongues, to show our love to God through sacrifice, to help free ourselves from the tyranny of the flesh, and to learn thankfulness for all that God has given us. Colliander concludes this chapter with a warning:
“The holy Fathers recommend ‘moderate’ fasting: one ought not to allow the body to be weakened too much, for then the soul, too, is harmed. Nor ought one to undertake fasting too suddenly: everything demands practice, and each one should look to his own nature and occupation” (77).
I often counsel people new to fasting to start by just avoiding meat and alcohol. Then, once they get used to that, I challenge them to also cut out dairy, eggs, and olive oil. Next, I urge them to increasingly cut down on the total amount of food they eat (although certainly, even from the beginning a fasting person should never gorge him/herself!). Finally, if they have the strength and the desire, they can cut down to only two or even one meal on a fasting day, or even fast completely from food. As Colliander states, however, people can only fast to the best of their ability, keeping in mind their own unique health needs.