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. Continue reading