The Spring of the Spiritual Life

“The true fast is that in which sins, anger, tongue, and instincts are under control.”    (St. Basil the Great)

The Great Holy Fast is often referred to as “The Spring of the Spiritual Life.” Spring refers to the most beautiful season of the year, and a time of our spiritual renewal to be filled with the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22, 23). The 55 days of the Great Fast are considered the most Holy days of fasting of the Coptic Church. Fifty-five days include the forty days, which were fasted by the Lord Himself, the Passion Week, and the first initial week to prepare us spiritually before this great season of renewal. We fast to commemorate His sufferings on the Holy Cross for our spiritual discipline and our salvation.

Our Main Objective:
Fasting in the Orthodox Church has two aspects: physical and spiritual. The first one implies abstinence from rich food, such as dairy products, eggs and all kinds of meat. Spiritual fasting consists in abstinence from evil thoughts, desires, and deeds. The main purpose of fasting is to gain mastery over oneself and to conquer the passions of the flesh. It is to liberate oneself from dependence on the things of this world in order to concentrate on the things of the Kingdom of God. It

Fasting is not to weaken the body, but to subdue it; to revive the spirit. Fasting is not only abstaining from certain foods, but it is a time for us to have our hearts filled with the Holy Spirit. How can our hearts be filled with the Holy Spirit and guarded against all sin? When we fast we exercise self-control. Fasting provides an occasion to enrich the soul and elevate it to a higher level of spiritual discipline. St. Isaac said, “Having control of what we say (i.e. fasting of the tongue) is better than having control over what we eat (i.e. fasting of the mouth), and guarding our hearts against sin (i.e. fasting of the heart) is best of all.”

Fasting is the best to strengthen human will. Man sinned because his will had weakened when confronted with different outside temptations. A person sins either because he is deceived by temptations, or because his will weakens towards lust, and beforehand he knows that he is not able to resist and decides to commit that sin. Here comes the importance of the will power to keep one without blemish. Fasting, especially abstinence, is one of the effective means for strengthening the human will power. Man abstains from the vitals for his life, i.e. food and drink, for certain period of time by his will to control himself and subdue his body. When man fasts, he overcomes the desires for food; and this leads him gradually to overcome every lustful desire of the flesh.

Soul Fasting and Flesh Submission:
St. John Cassian wrote, “We should not be confident that practicing fasting of food is enough alone for the purity of the heart and body, unless it is accompanied by the fasting of the soul.” He further said that, “Fasting is an important means which leads to purity of heart and not as a goal in itself.”
Fasting of the soul is spiritual discipline. The importance of spiritual discipline can be found in the Holy Book of Proverbs 25:28, “Whoever has no rule over his own spirit is like a city broken down, without walls.”  This tells us that a man without self-control and discipline is defenseless and disgraced.
In fact, what hinders the spiritual growth and advancement in virtues of any man is his submission to the lust of the flesh, and its bad desires. St. James says, “Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members?” (James 4:1). No doubt, the lusts of the body are a strong obstacle in the spiritual life. The spirit desires to be with God, but the body pulls it down and hinders its growth “For the flesh lusts against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish”. (Galatians 5:17)

Submission of the flesh is the tool for implementing the desires of the spirit. This needs strong bridles and effective means to control and subdue this flesh. No doubts that the best bridle for the soul is fasting. Our saintly fathers have experience this matter and recorded their experience. St. Isaac says, “Every struggle against the body and its lust should start with fasting, especially if it concerns our inner sin.” St. John of Asiout says, “Fasting is to our lust as water is to fire.”
Moreover, St. Paul defines the true Christian as the one who subdues the body and its lusts, as he says, “Those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:25). He believed that spiritual discipline and self-control prepare a Christian to exercise faith and enter the Kingdom of God: “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.” (I Corinthians 9:24-27)

Self-control incorporates dominance over different lusts, desires and wrong reactions including the physical desires of food, drink and sex; psychological desires of fame and love of praise; wrong reactions like anger and revenge; and spiritual weaknesses like pride and judging others. It has often been said that one has reached the pinnacle of spiritual success as soon as one becomes uninterested in money, compliments, or publicity and fame. “If you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Romans 8:13)

Spiritual Discipline:

Spiritual discipline must always be accompanied with spiritual knowledge. This type of knowledge is not primarily mental but spiritual in nature and personal. It is experienced with faith, exercise, control, and will bear good fruits in the Lord Jesus Christ. “But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness and to brotherly kindness love. For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (II Peter 1:5-8).During this Great Holy Fast let us all further develop our need for spiritual discipline. The Holy Book of Wisdom of Solomon 8:7 tell us, “Do you love justice? All the virtues are a result of Wisdom’s work: justice and courage, self-control and understanding. Life can offer us nothing more valuable than these. ”To develop self-control during this Holy Great Fast it is recommended that one begin with:
A.    Love of Godliness and Righteousness: St. Felix says, “When any person sets on the way of righteous, he starts with fasting, for without asceticism all other virtues like prayer, thoughts, and mind are not pure, and the inner man cannot be renewed.”
B.    Clear Goals: Our Lord Jesus Christ warns us, “Take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and cares of this life” (Luke 21:34).
C.    Brotherly Kindness: St. Paul says, “This being so, I myself always strive to have a conscience without offense toward God and men” (Acts 24:16).
D.    Desire for diligent practice of spiritual exercises: St. Paul said, “But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.” (I Corinthians 9:27). Spiritual exercises capture our bodies and senses by not giving into the things desired. Spiritual discipline is training to the body and senses, which leads to purity of the soul.

Joy of Victory:
The days of fasting are days of repentance and contrition. At the same time, they are periods of joy and cheer as believers experience victory and power in their innermost self. Pope Athanasius of Alexandria has recorded this experience. He says, “Let us not fulfill these days like those that mourn, but by enjoying spiritual food, let us try to silence our fleshly lusts. For by these means we shall have strength to overcome our adversaries… Fasting is not a situation, which may be used as a pretext for anger. It is rather an opportunity to demonstrate a loving heart and power over the spirit of anger, selfishness, and all egocentricity.