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March 9, 2011

St. Basil the Great's Homily On Fasting (3 of 3)

Continued from part two here.

8. Fasting knows nothing of loans; the table of a faster does not reek of usury. A father’s debts do not suffocate the orphaned son of a faster like serpents that coil themselves around their victims. In other ways, too, fasting is the occasion of gladness. For, just as thirst makes a drink refreshing and prior hunger makes a meal pleasant, so also fasting heightens our enjoyment of food. For, by interposing itself and interrupting your constant self-indulgence, it will make the consumption of food appear desirable to you, like an absent friend. Hence, if you wish to make a meal appetizing, accept the transformation that comes about in you from fasting. Because of your intense addiction to lavish fare, you have dulled your enjoyment of food without realizing it, ruining pleasure through hedonism. For nothing is so desirable that it does not become contemptible through constant gratification. It is the things that rarely come our way that we enjoy with the greatest avidity. Thus, He Who created us provided that we should take abiding delight in His gifts through an alternation in our lifestyle.36 Do you not see that the sun is more resplendent after the night, that being awake is more pleasant after sleep, that health is more desirable after the experience of the opposite condition, and that the meal table is more gratifying after a fast? It is the same for the rich and those who dine sumptuously as it is for those whose diet is frugal and improvised.

9. Fear the example of the rich man, who was consigned to the fire by his lifelong luxury.37 It was not for injustice that he was condemned, but for his sumptuous lifestyle, and for this reason he was tormented in the fiery furnace of Hell. Now, in order to extinguish that fire, we need water. Fasting is beneficial not only for the life to come, but even more is it profitable for the flesh itself. For even those in the peak of condition experience reverses and changes, when nature fails and proves unable to maintain an abundance of good health. Beware of spurning water now,38 lest you subsequently find yourself longing for a drop of it, as did the rich man. No one has ever gotten drunk on water. No one has ever contracted headaches from drinking too much water. No one who drinks only water has ever needed someone else’s feet.39 No one has lost the use of his feet or hands through their being nourished with water. Bad digestion, which inevitably dogs those who indulge in dainties, causes serious bodily disorders. The complexion of a faster is venerable, not breaking out in unseemly red blotches, but adorned with the pallor of temperance.40 His gaze is calm, his gait is sedate, his countenance is thoughtful — not demeaned by unrestrained laughter —, his speech is moderate, and his heart is pure. Call to mind the Saints from all ages, “of whom the world was not worthy, [who] wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented.”41 Emulate their way of life, if you seek their portion. What was it that gave Lazarus rest in the bosom of Abraham?42 Was it not fasting? The life of John the Baptist was one continuous fast.43 He did not have a bed, a table, arable land, a plough ox, wheat, a quern, or anything else that pertains to nourishment. For this reason, “Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist.”44 Among other things, fasting, which Paul reckoned among the afflictions in which he gloried, raised him up to the third Heaven.45 To cap all that we have said, our Lord, having fortified through fasting the flesh which He assumed for our sake, submitted to the attacks of the Devil therewith, both instructing us to anoint and train ourselves with fasting for the struggles that we must undergo amid temptations and affording the adversary a handle, so to speak, through hunger.46 For on account of the height of His Divinity He would have been inaccessible to the Devil, had He not submitted to human weakness through hunger. However, before He ascended back to Heaven, He tasted food, giving assurance of the true nature of His risen body.47 Will you not give up fattening and gorging yourself? Will you allow your mind to waste away through lack of nourishment, because you take no thought for saving and life-giving teachings? Or do you not know that, just as in the case of a battle those who fight for one side cause the defeat of the other, so he who sides with the flesh prevails over the spirit, while he who aligns himself with the spirit brings his flesh into subjection? “[For] these [flesh and spirit] are contrary the one to the other.”48 Hence, if you wish to make your mind strong, tame your flesh through fasting. For this is what the Apostle says, that to the extent that our outward man perishes, our inward man is renewed;49 he also says: “[W]hen I am weak, then am I strong.”50 Will you not disdain perishable foods? Will you not conceive a desire for the table in the Kingdom of Heaven, for which fasting here on earth is assuredly a preparation? Do you not know that by immoderate satiety you fatten for yourself the worm that torments? For who amid lavish feasting and perpetual delectation has become the partaker of any spiritual gift? Moses needed a second fast in order to receive the second set of laws.51 If the animals had not fasted along with the Ninevites, the Ninevites would not have escaped the threat of destruction.52 Whose carcasses fell in the wilderness?53 Were they not those of the people who demanded to eat meat?54 As long as they were content with manna and water from the rock, they overcame the Egyptians and journeyed through the sea; there was not a feeble one among their tribes.”55 But when they recalled the fleshpots56 and returned to Egypt in their desires, they did not see the Promised Land. Do you not fear their example? Do you not shudder at their gluttony, lest it exclude you from the good things for which we hope? But not even the wise Daniel would have seen visions, had he not rendered his soul more pellucid through fasting. For certain thick vapors are emitted from rich foods, which, like a dense cloud, prevent the illumination produced by the Holy Spirit from entering the mind. But if there is any food that is proper even to Angels, it is bread, as the Prophet says: “Man ate the bread of Angels”57 — not meat, nor wine, nor those items that are zealously sought after by those enslaved to their stomachs. Fasting is a weapon against the army of demons. “[For] this kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting.”58 So many are the benefits of fasting, whereas satiety is the beginning of lasciviousness. For sybaritism, inebriation, and all manner of rich foods immediately give rise to every kind of brutish wantonness. Hence, men become lecherous stallions59 on account of the frenzy wrought in the soul by self-indulgence. Perversions of nature arise from drunkards when they seek the feminine in the masculine and the masculine in the feminine. Fasting teaches moderation in conjugal relations, and, by chastising intemperance even in licit sexual activity, engenders abstinence by mutual agreement, so that married couples may devote themselves to prayer.60

10. Do not, however, define the benefit that comes from fasting solely in terms of abstinence from foods. For true fasting consists in estrangement from vices. “Loose every burden of iniquity.”61 Forgive your neighbor the distress he causes you; forgive him his debts. “Fast not for quarrels and strifes.”62 You do not eat meat, but you devour your brother. You abstain from wine, but do not restrain yourself from insulting others. You wait until evening to eat, but waste your day in law courts. Woe to those who get drunk, but not from wine.63 Anger is inebriation of the soul, making it deranged, just as wine does. Grief is also a form of intoxication, one that submerges the intellect. Fear is another kind of drunkenness, when we have phobias regarding inappropriate objects; for Scripture says: “Rescue my soul from fear of the enemy.”64 And in general, every passion which causes mental derangement may justly be called drunkenness. Pray consider a man smitten with anger, how he is inebriated by this passion. He is not in control of himself, he does not know who he is, nor does he know those around him. He attacks everyone and collides with everyone just as in a night-battle; he speaks recklessly, cannot restrain himself, rails, pounds his fists, utters threats, swears, shouts, and becomes apoplectic. Avoid such inebriation as this, and do not accept the inebriation that comes from wine. Do not precede the season in which you drink only water by consuming excessive amounts of alcohol. Let not drunkenness initiate you into the fast. For neither through greed do you attain to righteousness, nor through wantonness to temperance, nor, in short, through vice to virtue. The door to fasting is a different one. Inebriation leads to wantonness, frugality to fasting. An athlete trains before a contest; a faster practices abstinence before a fast. Do not indulge in drunkenness before the five days as if taking revenge for the days of fasting or attempting to outwit the Lawgiver. For you toil in vain if you afflict your body, but do not receive consolation for your privation.65 The receptacle is unreliable, you are drawing water with a perforated jar.66 For wine flows through your body, coursing along its own path, but sin remains in you. A servant runs away from a master who beats him; but you cleave to wine, which beats your head every day? Bodily need is the best criterion for the use of wine. If you exceed your limits, on the following day you will have headaches, you will be listless and dizzy, and you will reek of putrid wine. Everything will seem to you to be spinning around and unstable. For drunkenness not only brings on sleep, the brother of death, but also a wakefulness that resembles dreams.

11. Do you know Whom you are going to receive?67 He Who gave us this promise: “I and my Father will come unto him, and make Our abode with him.”68 Why do you forestall Him by inebriation and prevent the Master from entering you? Why do you encourage the enemy to occupy your ramparts? Inebriation does not receive the Lord; inebriation drives away the Holy Spirit. For smoke drives bees away, while drunkenness drives away spiritual gifts. Fasting is the adornment of a city, the stability of the marketplace, peace in the home, and security of possessions. Do you want to see its dignity? Pray compare this evening with tomorrow evening, and you will see a city transformed from tumult and commotion into profound tranquillity. Would that today might resemble tomorrow in dignity, and that tomorrow might yield nothing to today in gladness. May the Lord Who has brought us to this period of the year grant us, as contenders, to display steadfast and vigorous perseverance in these preliminary contests and to attain to the Day of the Lord, whereon crowns are bestowed, so that we might now commemorate the saving Passion of Christ, and in the age to come enjoy the reward for our deeds in life at the just Judgment of Christ Himself, for unto Him be glory unto the ages. Amen.

36 That is, through the alternation of fasting and non-fasting seasons.
37 St. Luke 16:19-31.
38 That is, during Lent.
39 That is, to carry him home when drunk.
40 Cf. Long Rules, XVII.2, Patrologia Græca, Vol. XXXI, col. 964C.
41 Hebrews 11:38, 37.
42 St. Luke 16:23.
43 St. Matthew 3:4.
44 St. Matthew 11:11.
45 II Corinthians 11:27; 12:2.
46 St. Matthew 4:2.
47 St. Luke 24:43.
48 Galatians 5:17.
49 II Corinthians 4:16.
50 II Corinthians 12:10.
51 Exodus 34:28.
52 Jonah 3:4-10.
53 Hebrews 3:17; cf. Numbers 14:29.
54 Numbers 11:33.
55 Psalm 104:37, Septuaginta.
56 Exodus 16:3.
57 Psalm 77:25, Septuaginta.
58 St. Mark 9:29.
59 Jeremiah 5:8.
60 I Corinthians 7:5.
61 Isaiah 58:6.
62 Isaiah 58:4.
Isaiah 51:21.
64 Psalm 63:2, Septuaginta.
65 That is, by excessive drinking before the Fast or on weekends during the Fast, one impairs his ability to live a more spiritual life by giving himself the spiritual consolation of the prayers appointed for Great Lent.
66 The latter phrase is taken directly from Xenophon (Oikonomicos, VII.40) and cited elsewhere by St. Basil, e.g. in “Homily XXI, ‘That We Should Not Be Attached to Earthly Things,’” §3, Patrologia Græca, Vol. XXXI, col. 545C.
67 That is, in Holy Communion. The verb ὑποδέχεσθαι is very commonly used by the Greek Fathers to denote the reception of Communion; cf. St. John of Damascus, Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, IV.13, Patrologia Græca, Vol. XCIV, col. 1149A.
68 Cf. St. John 14:23.

Source: Orthodox Tradition, Volume XXIII, Number 3 (2006), pp. 6-16.