By St. Gregory Palamas
There are certain parts of the sea which teem with huge beasts like sea monsters. Those who sail there hang bells from their ships, so that the creatures panic and flee at the sound. Many wild things far more horrible breed in the sea of our life: the evil passions and the even more evil demons who supervise them. God’s Church sails upon this sea like a ship, and instead of bells it has spiritual teachers to ward off the invisible beasts by the holy sound of their teaching. Prefiguring this, Aaron’s robe had sweet-sounding bells fastened to its edge, and it was decreed that when Aaron ministered their sound should be heard (Exodus 27.21-35).
Turning the literal into the spiritual to good effect, let our words ring out to you now spiritually, especially in this time of fasting when visible and invisible beasts make terrible attacks. The visible ones are gluttony, drunkenness, and the like. The ones that lie invisibly in wait are vainglory, pride, self-conceit and hypocrisy. The same sound puts such beasts to flight and safeguards those who practice fasting.
Fasting and self-indulgence are opposites, like life and death. Fasting is a commandment of life as old as human nature, for it was originally given by God to Adam in paradise (Genesis 2.16-17), as a guardian of the life and grace engendered in him by God Himself. Self-indulgence, on the other hand, is a counsel of death for both soul and body, craftily given by the devil to Adam in paradise by means of Eve (Genesis 3.1-6), for banishment from life and estrangement from God-given divine grace. God did not make death, nor does He delight in the destruction of the living. Does anyone want to find life and grace in God and from God? Let him flee lethal self-indulgence and run towards fasting and prayer which make divine, that he may return to paradise rejoicing.
When Moses fasted forty days on the mountain he soared to the height of divine vision and received tablets of godliness (Exodus 34.28). Meanwhile the Hebrew people down below made themselves drunk, sank into ungodliness and cast an idol in the form of a calf, like the Egyptian god Apis (Exodus 32.1-8). If Moses had not stood before God, having made atonement earlier through the merciless killing of many of his people, God would not have spared them at all (Exodus 32.9-34.27). If we too need God’s mercy, let us not become drunk on wine or weigh ourselves down by eating our fill, for debauchery and ungodliness accompany such behavior (Ephesians 5.18). Elijah also saw God, but he too was purified by fasting (1 Kings 19.8-12). Daniel attained to divine vision and saw one of the archangels, who granted him knowledge of things to come, but he had stayed without food for twenty whole days beforehand (Daniel 10.1-21). Another prophet was killed by a lion because he ate against God’s will (1 Kings 13.11-26). You all know about Esau, Isaac’s son, who, through gluttony, lost his father’s blessing as well as his other rights as the first born son (Genesis 25.25-34; 26.34-35; Hebrews 12.16). We should be afraid lest, by being intent on our stomachs, we fall away from the blessings and inheritance promised to us by our Father on high. You are also not ignorant of the three youths devoted to fasting (Daniel 1.11-15), who, without turning their feet or bodies, trampled on the furnace in Babylon which had been heated seven times more on their account (Daniel 3.16-27).
If we practice true fasting we shall trample here and now on the fire in our flesh and quench it, and in the time to come we shall pass unharmed through the furnace when each one’s work will be tried by fire (1 Corinthians 3.11-15). As for the Lord of the prophets, what can we say about Him? When He took flesh and became man for our sake, He taught us the way to defeat the devil by the fact that, while fasting, He was completely victorious over him when he stirred up every kind of temptation against Him. He also told His disciples, with reference to the deaf and dumb spirit, that “This demon comes forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting” (Mark 9.29; Matthew 17.21).
Let us show you, brethren, what sort of fasting is true and pleasing to God. You should be aware that we do not commend physical fasting for its own sake, but because it brings about other, greater benefits for the soul. As the divine Paul says, “Bodily exercise profiteth a little” (1 Timothy 4.8). Speaking from experience, our God-bearing Fathers do not approve of fasting for days on end. They consider it more acceptable to eat once a day without satisfying your appetite. This is what they refer to as a moderate and reasonable fasting, as the Scripture says as well: not to be led astray by a full stomach and the pleasure of eating, but to leave your food while still feeling hungry. The type and quantity of food should be appropriate to the strength and disposition of the eater’s body, to preserve his health as far as possible. If a weak person eats foods appropriate to his weakness in moderation, without supplementing the necessities with more satisfying extras, and if he seeks nourishment not enjoyment, something to drink not drunkenness, and moderate consumption not excess, self-indulgence and abuse, he will not be deprived of holiness.
This is the starting point of true fasting which is pleasing to God. But Christians laid it down as a rule and held it in honor on account of its outcome, the purification of the soul. What good does it do to abstain from bodily food and to be defeated by fleshly ways of thinking and passions? What advantage is it to refrain from wine and be tormented by thirst, but to be drunk without wine—as it says in the Scriptures, “Woe unto them that are drunken, but not with wine” (Isaiah 51.21; 28.1 LXX; 29.9)—and for our souls to be stirred up with anger and ill-will? How do we benefit by avoiding luxurious spreads, if our soul remains unhumbled, or by depriving our flesh of its fatness, without humbling our soul in fasting as David did? What good does it to us if we are free of the vapor given off by excessive food, but our mind is rendered useless by vain cares and thoughts and our prayers to God also become of no avail?
Fasting is beneficial when it is undertaken for quelling desire, humbling the soul, transforming hatred, extinguishing anger, erasing remembrance of wrongs, and for the purity of the understanding and the practice of prayer. If you are well off, let your surplus food be a consolation for the needy. When you fast like this you not only suffer with Christ and are dead with Him, but you are risen with Him and reign with Him for ever and ever. If through such a fast you have been planted together in the likeness of His death, you shall also share in His resurrection and inherit life in Him (Romans 6.5). Should the faster be tempted, he overcomes his tempter. Should he not be, he preserves the peace of his soul and body by bruising his body, according to Paul, and bringing it into subjection, for fear of being rejected (1 Corinthians 9.27). If Paul was afraid of this, how much more should we be? The faster brings his body into subjection and his soul is tried and tested. On the other hand, when someone fattens up his flesh, which is soon to perish, not eating to live, but rather living to eat, like animals we are preparing to slaughter, and supplements necessary foods with extras in order to make it fat and prosperous, either to rouse its evil desires or simply for sensual, bodily pleasure, obviously all he is doing is preparing more abundant food for the worms. David the prophet puts it well when he sings, “What profit is there in my blood, when I go down into the pit?” (Psalm 30.9).
When you are fasting and limiting your food, do not store up the surplus for the following day. The Lord made us rich through becoming poor, and you, by your voluntary hunger, should nourish those who are starving against their will. Then your fasting will be like a dove bearing an olive sprig which brings your soul the good tidings of deliverance from the flood (Genesis 8.11). “If you take away from the midst of thee”, says the great Isaiah, “the yoke, the putting forth of the finger and speaking vanity: and if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity and thy darkness be as the noonday” (Isaiah 58.9-10). If you do not wish to give what is yours, at least keep away from what belongs to others and do not take possession of what is not yours, by unjustly seizing and keeping things, sometimes even from people poorer than yourselves. Otherwise you may rightly hear from the same prophet, “Is it such a fast that I have chosen? saith the Lord, even if your bend thy neck as a ring, thy fast will not be acceptable, but loose the bands of wickedness, dissolve the ties of oppressive contracts, and tear up every unjust bond. Then shall they light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the Lord shall compass thee” (Isaiah 58.5-8 LXX).
If you do not give even what you have in excess of your needs to the poor, at least do not acquire extra things at their expense. When Christ, the Master of all, dispatches those on His left into the fire and curses them, He does not condemn them for seizing what belongs to others, but for not sharing with those in need (Matthew 25.41-45). Extortioners and unjust men will not be resurrected to appear and be judged, but only for an immediate greater judgment and condemnation. Even here such people appear never to have stood before God with their whole souls. “They eat up my people”, it says, “as they eat bread, and call not upon the Lord” (Psalm 14.4). That rich man whose ground brought forth plentifully (Luke 12.16-21), and that other one who was clothed in purple and fine linen (Luke 16.19-21) were justly condemned, not for wronging anyone, but for not sharing what was theirs. Treasures are common to all, as they come from the common storehouses of God’s creation. Anyone who appropriates what is common as his own is greedy, though not perhaps to the same extent as someone who openly takes possession of other people’s belongings. The first, as an evil servant, will, alas, undergo the terrible punishment of being cut off. The second will be submitted to things even more dreadful and terrifying. Neither will ever be able to escape these penalties, unless they receive the poor with hospitality, the one making good use of the things entrusted to him by God, the other distributing what he has accumulated by evil means.
The great Paul, writing to the Thessalonians, your ancestors in fact, says, “As touching brotherly love ye need not that I write unto you: for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another” (1 Thessalonians 4.9).
The Lord said to certain people, “If ye were Abraham’s children, ye would do the works of Abraham” (John 8.39). We should be afraid lest we hear these words, not addressed to us now, but, perish the thought, pronounced on that terrible day, when kinship will be judged rather by similarity of deeds. On that day all those who have loved poverty in Christ, or at very least have loved the poor, all who have despised glory, eagerly desired self-control, not just listened to but put into action the divine decrees in the Gospels, will, according to the prayer of the Father of us all by grace, be one in a way surpassing nature. “Grant them”, He says, “that they all may be one; as we are one” (John 17.21-22). On that day the all-discerning sword of the Spirit will divide a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and will make those whose ways are different strangers to one another (Matthew 10.34-37). If this happens here, how much more there, where the All-knowing declares to those who were not like Him in virtue, “I know you not” (Matthew 25.1-12; Luke 13.25-27). It seems that they did not possess the heavenly likeness, and were not merciful as our Father is merciful. They did not share their possessions with the needy, as He freely shared His good things with everyone. They were not kind to their neighbors, nor did they make those far away their neighbors through their good works. Because of this dissimilarity with Himself, He who is good neither knew them nor brought them into His dwelling. If He acts in this way, those who lived here according to His will and are going to reign with Him there, will presumably say the same to those related to them by blood who do not resemble them in virtue.
If someone says he is their brother, he will hear, alas, that no man can ransom his brother. If someone says he was their father, he will hear that God is the only father. And if someone says he is their child, he will hear the words, “If you were my child, you would imitate me, but as it is, you are the child of that father whose desires you accomplish. Away with you and dwell with him for ever. I do not know you. Everything that is God’s is mine, but you are not God’s. What was mine and yours has now gone. We hated it ever in that fading world, and so we became heirs of this kingdom.” The holy Fathers referred to “mine” and “yours” as cold words, and wherever they are found, the bond of love is absent and Christ has departed. Even in those days this passion of possessiveness produced love of self, love of money, hatred of one’s fellow man, and every kind of evil in those it had overcome, and it still disgraces them now.
Brethren, please let us be afraid of these truly dreadful evils. Let us organize our lives as it pleasing to God. Let us forgive that we may be forgiven, let us be merciful to those in need that we may receive mercy many time more abundantly. He who impoverished Himself to the uttermost for our sakes, Himself receives our alms, and in His munificence He will multiply the reward. We must either be poor as He was, and so live with Him, or share what we have with those who are poor for His sake, and so be saved through them. Let us acquire merciful hearts and give positive proof of brotherly love and of devotion towards the Father and Master of all. You will never find a more acceptable time to do this than these days of the fast. If you join almsgiving to fasting you will blot out every sin, venerate the saving passion with boldness, join in the rejoicing at Christ’s resurrection and gain eternal redemption.
May we all attain to this in Christ Himself our God, to whom belong all glory, honor and worship, with His Father without beginning and the all-holy, good and life-giving Spirit, now and for ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.