The Fathers frequently take great pains to remind us that fasting and other forms of asceticism are not ends in themselves, but merely means to an end: our theosis. In this chapter, Colliander presents a summary of the Fathers’ warnings about extreme fasting and ascesis (this is the “extravagance” he refers to), which can often be counterproductive, especially in those of us who are relatively new to such practices.
As is his custom, Colliander begins with simple yet profound analogies: “It is a known fact that a person who practices the piano too zealously gets cramp in his hands, and a too diligent writer exposes himself to writer’s cramp. Dejected and downcast, the musician or author, just now so full of hope, must break off his work; in idleness he is exposed to many evil influences.
“From this example you should take warning. Fasting, obedience, self-discipline, watchfulness, prayer all make up the constituent parts necessary for practice, and only practice. And any practice should be always undertaken genuinely, quietly taking into account one’s own resources of strength (Luke 14:28-32), and without exaggeration at any point. Be ye therefore sober and watch unto prayer, advises the holy apostle Peter, and through him the Lord (1 Peter 4:7)” (78-79).
Many of the Fathers (examples that come to mind immediately include St. Seraphim of Sarov, St. Silouan the Athonite, and the Elder Sophrony) show and teach us that the main sign that we are progressing on the road to salvation is how we treat others. If we exhibit kindness, humility, love, joy, and forgiveness toward others, then it is clear that we are allowing the Holy Spirit within us to rule over us and to transform us. However, if we are constantly filled with bitterness, anger, and a critical and unforgiving spirit, if we do not treat others as persons created in the image of God, then we are opposing the Spirit and are making no progress toward salvation. Listen to what Colliander has to say about this:
“If we do not find within us fruits of love, peace, joy, moderation, humility, simplicity, uprightness, faith and patience, all our work is in vain, points out St. Macarius of Egypt. The work is carried on for the sake of the harvest, but the harvest is the Lord’s.
“Therefore, keep watch over yourself and be deliberate. If you notice that you are becoming irritable and intolerant, lighten your load a little. If you have the desire to look askance at others, to reproach or instruct or make remarks, you are on the wrong road: he who denies himself, has nothing with which to reproach others. If you think you are becoming “disturbed” by people or by external circumstances, you have not understood your work aright: everything that at first glance appears disturbing is really given as an opportunity for practice in tolerance, patience and obedience.“ (79-80).
And what do we do when (not if!) such trying periods come? Colliander gives the following advice: “Go into your room and shut the door (Matthew 6:6), even when of necessity you find yourself in a large and noisy company. But if this sometimes becomes too hard to bear, go out anywhere where you can be alone and cry out from your whole soul for help from the Lord, and He will hear you” (80).
Colliander concludes this chapter with another wonderful analogy that helps explain why trials are necessary for us: “Think of yourself always like a wheel, advises Ambrose: the more lightly the wheel touches the earth, the more easily it rolls forward. Do not think of or speak of or concern yourself with earthly matters more than is necessary. Remember, too, that a wheel that is completely in the air cannot roll” (80).