During Lent, lay, clergy and monastic alike partake in fasting, and unlike other fasting periods, such as the nativity fast prior to Christmas, many modern Orthodox Christian laity do still partake in the Lenten fast, at least to some degree and for some extent of time. As the laity partake in this tradition, they ought to consider that for monks and nuns who engage in the practice of fasting throughout the year, fasting is not simply a matter of abstaining from food but is a spiritual exercise that is part and parcel of the quest to be Good and become more Divine-like. Despite the fact that not all persons are suited to monastic life, there are indeed lessons that laity can learn from the deeply psychological and moral dimensions of the monastic understanding of fasting as a spiritual practice.
Some of the most theologically developed discussions of fasting are to be found within the Philokalia, meaning “Lover of Goodness.” Within the four volumes of the Philokalia, we find a robust philosophy of fasting in which the psyche as well as the body must be involved in the spiritual pursuit of the good. Within these classic texts of Orthodox Christian spirituality, the idea that cultivating a state of psycho-spiritual “watchfulness,” “wakefulness,” or “mindfulness” (called nepsis) is foundational for the cultivation of arete, or virtue. Within the Philokalia, nepsis is described as vigilantly guarding one’s heart and mind from evil, or vicious, thoughts such as: anger, jealousy, rage, despair, gluttony, greed, egoism and lust. It is the practice of nepsis that helps enable one to transform these pathoi, or pathological thoughts, into more reasonable desires and place them in the service of attaining the higher-order desire for the good.
Cultivating nepsis through prayerful stillness (often referred to as hesychasm) entails utilizing the body through postures and breathing techniques in an integration of psoma-pneumatic askesis, or physio-spiritual exercise. By centering one’s attention upon one’s “heart,” the practitioner places one’s mental energies in the core of the body and strives to achieve both a physical, or natural (physis), alteration as well as a psycho-spiritual transformation. Perpetual practice of Hesychia, or meditative stillness, consists of the habituation of nepsis, or vigilantly attentive mindfulness to the moment, as a means of overcoming the strength of the ego; the root cause of egoism and selfish, which in turn are the sources of amartia, or sin, which make us miss the mark of our goals of being good and attaining wisdom.
This neptic state of mindful awareness is cultivated through both silent contemplative prayer as well as through the exercise, or askesis, of fasting. Often practiced in tandem with contemplative prayer, fasting also engages both psoma & psyche and requires a perpetual state of mindful awareness over what we consume and how we utilize our bodies in the pursuit of virtue, arete. Unlike hesychastic prayer however, within lay life fasting places nepsis in the external social and physical world as we must make choices over what to eat. In the social context, cultivating nepsis entails possessing an attentive watchfulness over our impulses and desires, and in the case of fasting, the exercise literally entails “watching what we eat” as she who fasts attempts to control her appetitive desires and avoid certain forms of consumption.
Only if one is also simultaneously and actively engaged in the pursuit of sophia, or wisdom, can vices be transformed into virtues, such as moderation, temperance, courage and justice, and may be used to cultivate a virtuous ethos. Yet, within the Philokalia, to be wise is not simply to be knowledgeable of facts but also entails understanding the divine processes operative within all of the living systems and beings that exist as well as how such knowledge can inform our pursuit of the good. Part of being wise is realizing the presence of divine energies within all of existence.
While there are a great many spiritual benefits to abstaining from certain foods, the Orthodox fast from most animal products is also capable of fostering an awareness of our dependence on, and relationality with, other forms of life and the larger ecosystems that we are a part of. Fasting can cultivate a state of awareness of the value of other forms of biological existence and ought to make us reflect upon our food sources; asking questions such as: Where does my food come from? And, How does my consumption play a causative role in sustaining life and contributing to the good? Once we begin to ask such questions and truly reflect upon the acts of relating, depending and coexisting with other pneumatic lifeforms in an otherwise breathless universe, and come to the realization that we are part of a web of biotic and abiotic being, fasting may be viewed as a practice that is participated in because it is part and parcel of a quest for flourishing and the pursuit of the Good.
For laity pursuing psycho-psomatic askesis, fasting can enable one to become vigilantly attentive to that which influences her own behaviors and how we influence our social and ecological environments. Nepsis entails mindfulness over the thoughts and impulses that guide our actions but also the way in which our consumption habits affect and reflect who we are as persons, as communities, and as a global society. In this way we may begin to practice perpetual nepsis, being ever mindful of where our food is sourced, how it was produced, whether or not our patterns of consumption are contributing to our pursuit of goodness and flourishing as individual persons and as a global community.
Chris Durante, Ph.D., M.A., M.Sc. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Theology at Saint Peter’s University in NJ as well as a Fellow of the UNESCO Chair in Bioethics & Human Rights in Rome, Italy.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.