Many many thanks to all those who contributed to match a generous $3000 donation from an anonymous donor. The goal was attained this past weekend. It is because of people like you that the Mystagogy Resource Center can continue to offer unique material to all for free on a daily basis that I hope people find beneficial. For those who still wish to contribute, please do so, with much gratitude in return. God bless you all!

May 22, 2010

The Lengthy Fasts of the True and False Saints

I've been asked by some to respond to the recent report about the Indian Yogi Prahlad Jani who has gone without eating for seventy years and currently is being tested for his authenticity. Though I await the final results of the tests to be published to give my response, I will initially say that such ascetic feats are nothing new among Hindus and the so-called Breatharians, and even if this proves to be a fraud, I do not deny that such things can be done. The question should rather be whether such fasts should be done or not and what the consequences of such fasts are when done outside of an Orthodox Christian context. He claims to be sustained by the Hindu goddess Amba and fed an elixir of cosmic energy by her while in meditation. Rationally this cannot be explained or sustained, but spiritually or psychologically it may be possible through relaxation techniques. But could this be a form of demonic delusion?

Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov, a 19th century Russian Orthodox theologian, introduces his book The Arena: An Offering to Contemporary Monasticism by saying that his writing is the "legacy" and "offering" of an old man who has endured much from "spiritual directors suffering from blindness and self-delusion." He claims that because of his "hardships" he is able to assist those "who have already set out without knowing the way or with only a superficial knowledge of the way [drawn] from antiquated descriptions." He hopes to show his readers how to "use the writings of the ancients and adapt them to modern conditions, so as to avoid the sad plight of those who do not realize or notice the need for adaptation." He presents terrifying stories of ascetics destroyed by demonic delusion for failing to follow this basic order of spiritual discipline and behavior.

St Ignatius writes that "worldly people and even monks without spiritual discernment are nearly always attracted by humbugs, imposters, hypocrites and those who are in demonic delusion, and they take them for saints and genuine servants of God." He says that "in Russia bodily discipline holds the field, while the very idea of spiritual discipline has been lost." He also claims that "obedience to elders in the form in which it was practiced in ancient monasticism ... is not given to our time." He says the same thing about living the solitary life. And he emphasizes that the "voluntary giving of advice (in spiritual matters) ... is a clear sign of pride and self-deception."

St Ignatius insists that ascetical efforts and bodily disciplines are essential as means to the fulfillment of Christ's evangelical teachings. He says that those who neglect these means leave themselves victims of the crudest forms of carnal passions, gluttony, greed, lust and anger. But the holy father reserves more violent warnings for those who make ascetical discipline the very essence of their spiritual life.

Those who practice immoderate bodily discipline, use it indiscreetly, or put all their trust in it, seeing in it their merit and worth in God's sight, fall into vainglory, self-opinion, presumption, pride, hardness and obduracy, contempt of their neighbors, detraction and condemnation of others, rancor, resentment, hate, blasphemy, schism, heresy, self-deception and diabolic delusion.

Regarding fasting, he speaks of abuses of fasting which lead to the attribution of "special significance to dry bread, mushrooms, cabbage, peas or beans," abuses that "corrupt the ascetic" and reduce "sensible, holy and spiritual exercises" into "senseless, carnal and sinful farces," producing "conceit and contempt for his neighbors, which snuffs out the very conditions for progress in holiness."

The saint also criticizes those who allow the devil to dupe them into "attaching an exaggerated importance to the material side of church services, while obscuring the spiritual side of the rites; thus hiding the essence of Christianity from those unfortunate people and leaving them only a distorted material wrapper or covering...." He is especially strict in his warning against "carnal and animal (perhaps better translated psychic) zeal," which, he says, is not "divine and spiritual zeal," but rather "zeal without understanding, which leads to conceit and pride."

How did the Saints endure lengthy fasts? Saint Nikolai Velimirovich says the following:

"How was Moses able to fast for forty days? How were the many Christian ascetics able to live a long life in extreme abstinence from food and drink? For the physical man who does not know about the spiritual life, it is impossible to believe. It is impossible even to prove it to him for the understanding of this is achieved only by experience.

"When the torturers of St. Basiliscus detained him for three days without food and water and when they offered him food to eat, he refused saying that he was not hungry. 'I am,' says he, 'filled with immortal food and do not want to receive mortal food. You are fed by earthly bread, but the heavenly word of God feeds me; wine makes you happy, and the Grace of the Holy Spirit makes me happy; meat satisfies you and fasting satisfies me; physical power strengthens you and the Cross of Christ strengthens me; gold makes you rich and the love of Christ enriches me; clothing adorns you, and good works adorn me; you are made happy with laughter and I am comforted by the Spirit through prayer.'

"Here is a man, one out of many, and there are many more upon whom the word of the Lord is confirmed. 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God!' (Matthew 4:4)."

A Hindu yogi may be able to sustain himself without food for a lengthy period of time on a supernatural level, but the discipline of the Orthodox Church offers strict warning that if not done correctly and with the right purpose even within the Church, it leads to delusion. When a Hindu yogi and an Orthodox Christian ascetic is put side by side, they may appear no different on the physical level, but spiritually they offer different messages which contradict one another. The Orthodox ascetic acquires divine grace to sustain him and it serves as a means to make him a god by grace, while a Hindu yogi relies on his techniques and false gods to be absorbed into Brahman (since he believes divinity is within his nature). The latter is everything the Noetic Fathers of the Church have warned against over the centuries regarding false asceticism, and this warning stands against even the most extraordinary Hindu ascetics as well.