In the first installment of Metropolitan Kallistos Ware’s 4-part Lenten series, His Excellency talks about fasting. Questions include: It can sometimes feel like “Lent” and “fasting” are synonymous. Should fasting be our primary focus during Lent? What is the connection between fasting and confession? Why is it so important to feel supported by a community when we fast?
Transcript of Come Receive the Light: Metropolitan Kallistos Ware on the Subject of Fasting
This week on Come Receive the Light from the Orthodox Christian Network, as we continue in Great Lent, our subject once again is fasting.
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware: What you do in the fast should be a real effort. It shouldn’t be too easy. It shouldn’t just be a formal act. It’s not so hard to do without meat. But if we keep the fuller rules of fasting, that’s much more difficult.
Mike Trout: And those fuller rules are described in part by the Prophet Isaiah in the Book of Isaiah chapter 58 verse 6.
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware: Fasting involves the way we treat other people, it involves practical compassion, helping the oppressed and the poor, giving bread to those who are hungry, taking the homeless into our house. So, clearly, for Isaiah, the true fast is not just a question of food, but it involves our relationship to our fellow humans.
Mike Trout: And that’s what we’re going to take a look at on today’s edition of the broadcast, again welcome to Come Receive the Light, I’m Mike Trout and our host is Father Christopher Metropulos, who is, by the way, out of the studio and out of the country, he’s in the Holy Land right now with fifty other people on a pilgrimage and there’s a lot of pre-pilgrimage programming already up on our website at myocn.net. Two of our OCN board members are on that trip and they’ll be sending back information and live reports along with Father Chris, if he can snatch a few moments between his shepherding all of those folks around a foreign country. If you’ve never been on a trip to the Holy Land, this is a virtual way for you to get that experience. Please pray for those there, and if you’d like to follow along hour by hour, day by day, you can download the same book the pilgrims have as their guide during the trip. It’s free; it’s on our website at myocn.net. You should find a link right there on the home page for all of the pilgrimage information. I spent a little time on the website earlier today, watching the latest installment of the virtual tour, and a video about the Jordan River, it was fascinating. And we’ll be updating that information on a daily basis. Again, that’s our Holy Land Pilgrimage.
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware: One could say, looking at the Lenten fast, in a general way, and bearing in mind those three things, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving–works of mercy. We could say that Lent is all about the renewal of personal relations. We are renewing our personal relation with God through prayer. We are renewing our personal relation with ourselves and with our own bodies, with our physicality through fasting. And we are renewing our relationship with our neighbor, with our fellow humans through almsgiving, through acts of compassion.
Mike Trout: Well, his Excellency Metropolitan Kallistos Ware is our guest for the next several weeks as we dwell on the many aspects of Lent. This week we look at fasting, next week Prayer, then almsgiving. And finally we’ll wrap up the month with Scripture Memorization.
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware is a frequent lecturer and a prolific author. He’s been on this broadcast many times in the past. You may know him from his seminal book The Orthodox Church, written in 1963 and revised numerous times in subsequent years. That book, by the way, is available through the OCN online bookstore, which you can access through our website at myocn.net. That’s myocn.net. Again the title is The Orthodox Church.
He has retired from full-time leadership and it was a great privilege to have him on the phone with our host Father Chris.
Father Christopher Metropulos: When we think of fasting, we obviously think of food. But is food really what fasting is all about, your Excellency?
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware: Yes, indeed, we think about food. I remember when I was a young man, before I had been ordained, I was staying in London, teaching in a school. And each morning my Landlady, in whose house I was living used to provide me with breakfast. And she was very interested in the Orthodox Church. And she used to call out to me in the morning, “Mr. Ware, will you be keeping your ‘diet’ this morning?” And if I said “No,” then I got eggs and bacon and sausages. But if I said “Yes,” I was given a plate with cabbage and potatoes, not actually what I particularly wanted to eat early in the morning.
Father Christopher Metropulos: Right.
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware: But, yes, clearly fasting is not just keeping a ‘diet’, not just a question of food, what we eat and what we don’t eat, though that is a very important part of fasting. I think of some words from the Prophet Isaiah. “Is not this the fast that I choose? To loose the bonds of wickedness, to let the oppressed go free, to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, cover him. And do not hide yourself from your own flesh.
So there, on Isaiah’s view, fasting involves the way we treat other people, it involves practical compassion, helping the oppressed and the poor, giving bread to those who are hungry, taking the homeless into our house. So, clearly, for Isaiah, the true fast is not just a question of food, but it involves our relationship to our fellow humans.
And if we look at the Gospels, Christ talks sometimes just about fasting, yes. But at other times he says “Prayer and fasting.” So what we’ve really got are three things closely linked. Prayer, fasting, and, what I’m going to talk about later, almsgiving, meaning acts of merciful compassion–Social Justice, helping the poor. Those three, then, Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, go together. And we can only understand fasting if we see it as related to Prayer, and if we see it related to practical action to help others.
Father Christopher Metropulos: Now, I know, your Excellency, that some people will equate Lent and fasting many times. They think they are synonymous, so I love the way you delineated that down and you talked about those three aspects, because we can refrain from meat, for example, and dairy and oil, and yet at the same time hate our brother or not show any compassion for someone, so therefore the fast would better have been not done, right? We would have been better off to eat the meat at that point.
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware: Yes! Better to eat meat in the fast and be kind to other people than to fast and be judgmental. However, it’s possible to fast and be kind to other people as well.
Father Christopher Metropulos: Yes.
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware: The two can go together sometimes. But very often fasting leads people to a certain spiritual arrogance and they begin to commode other people, who perhaps are not keeping the fast. And once they do that, the whole purpose of the fast has been destroyed. So when we look at fasting, yes, it goes hand in hand with a renewed effort in prayer.
Father Christopher Metropulos: Okay.
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware: And that’s very clear in Lent. We have the fasting in the Forty Days of Lent, but we also have the special Lenten service of the Presanctified Liturgy and the Cheretismi, the Salutations to the Mother of God, and other special services in Lent. And so fasting in Lent should go with a renewed effort in prayer. Otherwise the fasting loses much of its value. And almsgiving, yes, we can make a special effort during the times of fasting to help others, to visit people who are sick and whom we’ve been neglecting, for example. To write letters to the people who perhaps are waiting for a letter from us, to whom it would give great joy and we’ve been overlooking that.
So, one could say, looking at the Lenten fast, in a general way, and bearing in mind those three things, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving–works of mercy. We could say that Lent is all about the renewal of personal relations. We are renewing our personal relation with God through prayer. We are renewing our personal relation with ourselves and with our own bodies, with our physicality through fasting. And we are renewing our relationship with our neighbor, with our fellow humans through almsgiving, through acts of compassion.
Father Christopher Metropulos: One thing that is often overlooked is the importance of Confession, in addition to abstaining from food during the fast, and the almsgiving, so can you talk to us about the connection between the two, because I have often spoken to people about it. I think it’s extremely important.
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware: You’re quite right, Father. And Lent, the Great Forty Days leading up to Pascha, that is an occasion especially when we should make our Confession. Of course, at other times as well, but in Lent perhaps we should make a special effort to prepare for Confession and go to the Priest when he hasn’t got a long cue of other people waiting and he isn’t in a hurry. So, yes, exactly. Confession is renewing our relationship with God through examining how we’ve been acting. And renewing our relationship with others through repenting of the ways we’ve failed them. And, of course, renewing our relationship with ourselves because Confession is not just to be seen as a harsh discipline. Confession is an opportunity to make a new beginning. It means not just gloomy thoughts about our failures, but Confession means new hop. Not just seeing what’s gone wrong, but seeing how, with God’s help, it might be changed.
Father Christopher Metropulos: One reason I believe people struggle to fast in the modern Western World, is that we feel we’re doing it on our own. We often are the only Orthodox person in the office or our school. Why is it so important to feel supported or connected to the parish or to the spiritual father when we fast, because we can be islands unto ourselves, I know here in America, I’m sure in England it’s the same thing.
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware: Yes, that’s an important aspect of the whole question of fasting. I think of the words of the Russian 19th century theologian Alexis Khomiakov, “When anyone falls, he falls alone. But no one is saved alone.” We are saved in the Communion of the Church. Now, that’s true of fasting as of all aspects of the Christian life. No one is saved alone. To be a Christian is to be a member of a family. The Christian is the one who has sisters and brothers. So that applies also to fasting. And it’s much easier to fast if the total community around you is fasting as well. When I am in the monastery I belong to, the Monastery of St. John, on the Island of Patmos, and we’re all keeping the fast, it’s easier. You don’t have to think about it. Unfortunately, in our Western Society, if we are living and working with non-Orthodox, then we have to debate rather carefully in ourselves how we’re going to keep the fast. And actually in the times of fasting we tend to think more about food than we do at other times.
Father Christopher Metropulos: Yes.
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware: Which obviously is not the purpose of the fast. But that’s the way, all too often, it works out. So, it is difficult, the fact we are not living now in an integral Christian, Orthodox Society, but in a society that is secular. To be a Christian today means going against the current. But that’s not a bad thing to do. And that’s how it was for Christians in the first centuries and how it is now for us. So, even if we are somewhat isolated, let us never say the fasting is too difficult, we’re not going to try.
Father Christopher Metropulos: And what would you like to say to the many people who honestly want to keep the fast, but can’t ever seem to get going or keep up with it in the process?
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware: I would offer to people three very simple guidelines. The first is, we should not fast in such a way as to damage our health, or to make us inefficient in performing our daily work. If fasting, for example, gives us headaches or makes us dizzy, that means not that we shouldn’t fast at all, but that we are fasting in the wrong way. The Canons of the Church which lay down how to fast should not be seen as rigid rules that have to be fulfilled to the letter. We should think of them, rather, as guidelines. Persons are very different and something which might be appropriate for one person, for another person may be inappropriate because it will damage their health and make them unable to carry out their duties and their work.
When I was a research student, it wasn’t so difficult to fast. I was sitting quietly in the library, writing my dissertation. But when I went to teach in a school, and found that I had to spend four hours in the morning with a class of twenty to thirty children, not very orderly, I found very quickly that if I had not had a proper breakfast, if I was trying to fast strictly, I got a headache, I became irritable, and not effective at all in my teaching. So that was an indication to me that I had to change my way of fasting. So, we have to allow for people’s health, for their circumstances. Not a single rigid rule for everybody. Don’t damage your health. Don’t make yourself inefficient in carrying out your daily tasks.
Then the second guideline would be, don’t be ostentatious. Don’t fast in such a way that other people notice. Why are you not eating this? Why are you not eating that? This is not helpful, to be questioned about our fasting by other people. On the whole, it should be something that isn’t noticed by others and we don’t want to embarrass other people. If they’ve invited us out to a meal, and it’s a fasting day, and they give us meat, well, we should eat what is put before us. If we want to fast strictly, then we shouldn’t accept invitations in Lent.
Father Christopher Metropulos: Yeah.
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware: Which perhaps is a good idea. But sometimes, out of courtesy, out of love for others, we do need to accept their invitations. So we have to be flexible there. Don’t embarrass others by rejecting what they’ve prepared for us. And certainly, yes, our fasting should be secret, not Pharisaical. So that’s a second guideline. Don’t draw attention to yourself. And in particular don’t make extra work for other people. When I was teaching in the University, at lunch during the fast we would have, we the senior teaching staff, a buffet lunch. So then I could easily keep the fast, just selecting some salad, and fruit. And nobody would particularly notice that. But in the evening we used to have a formal dinner served to us sitting round the table and with a set menu. And if I had not eaten what the others were eating in the evening, that would have drawn attention to myself. And the chef would have had to have cooked special dishes for me, and we shouldn’t make extra work for people through our fasting. So, in Lent, I didn’t go in to eat in the evening in college, but I would have my lunch there. So that’s a second guideline, don’t draw attention to yourself. Our fasting should be hidden. And that’s exactly what Christ says in the Sermon on the Mount.
But then a third guideline, yes, don’t damage your health, don’t be a nuisance to other people, but, what you do in the fast should be a real effort. It shouldn’t be too easy. It shouldn’t just be a formal act. It’s not so hard to do without meat. But if we keep the fuller rules of fasting, that’s much more difficult.
And, of course, fasting means not just the kind of food we eat, but eating less. Eating with greater simplicity. Not having a second helping. So, there should be a real effort, as well.
Father Christopher Metropulos: And what can we say, then, to those who are keeping the fast, because most of the time whenever I listen to programs or I listen to lectures, they are geared toward those who, we just accept the fact that they’re not keeping the fast. But we know here that folks who are listening to the program who do keep the fast. What can we say to them, your Excellency?
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware: People who do keep the fast need to do so with humility, with generosity, with love for others. We must not fast like the Pharisee. It’s very significant we begin the Lenten Season, the Season of the Triodion, with the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee–the Tax Collector and the Pharisee. And the Pharisee was no doubt a righteous person, but he made comparisons. And he compared himself with the Tax Collector. He said, I thank God I’m not like other people, not like this Tax Collector here. I keep the fasts. I say the prayers. I make prostrations. I do all the things that I should do. Now, the danger is that when we keep the fast we might be complacent and self-satisfied and think of ourselves as better than others.
So, if we do keep the fast, then let us do so in a humble spirit, not making comparisons with others–what are you doing–are you doing as much as me. But simply let our fast be a secret between us and Christ.
Father Christopher Metropulos: Thank you, your Excellency.
Mike Trout: Metropolitan Kallistos Ware will be our guest for several more weeks as we continue to take a look at the various aspects of Lent. I’m Mike Trout, our host is Father Christopher Metropulos and we can be found on the web at myocn.net. By the way, if you’d like to listen again to any of these broadcasts, you can do so when you go to the website. Just click on the “Listen” button there on the homepage and that will open up all of the audio resources we have available. That website again is myocn.net.
Well, next week we continue this series and the subject is prayer.
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware: Some people say, why pray to God? He knows what is best for us. Why don’t we just leave it to Him? That’s true, He does know what is best for us and we don’t know. But, by praying, we are not so much making God agree with us, but, through prayer, we are helped to make ourselves agree with God.
Mike Trout: Sounds like a good plan and that’s just a piece of what you’ll hear on the next edition of Come Receive the Light. We’re a weekly visit you can find on the web at myocn.net. That’s myocn.net and, on this radio station. Please tell your friends about the broadcast, encourage them to go to the website and discover all that we have available as we take a look at so many different subjects though the lens of the Orthodox Christian Faith. And don’t forget to check out our blog, called The Sounding, an opportunity for you to interact on a variety of subjects with listeners and readers from around the world, that’s myocn.net. I’m Mike Trout, our host is Father Christopher Metropulos. We hope to see you next week at this time and remember to always have faith in what you listen to.