Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers and Mothers. I’ve written 52 articles (designed to be read over a year) on the fathers and mothers of the Egyptian desert in the 4-6th century. This week I’m reflecting on the series.
Fasting and Weeping
Fasting seems to be one of the most misunderstood disciplines of the spiritual life. It is treated as an optional part of the spiritual life, but is just as foundational to a life of prayer as silence before the Lord is. To some degree, silence is fasting from external noise and solitude is fasting from external things. To the Desert Fathers and Mothers, fasting is not so much a discipline you practice occasionally, but a way of life to be embraced.
Fasting is not simply setting aside meal times to spend times with the Lord or attempting to gain God’s favor in a particular situation. Rather, it is a means by which our interior desire is exposed. Fasting according to the Desert Fathers can be brought into clarity by a simple example. In our modern age, we visit restaurants frequently. When you are perusing the menu to decide what you want to order, the thoughts going through your mind are something like this, “What do I feel like eating?” We have an emotional attachment to food that fasting helps to expose.
The lifestyle is not so much about not eating as it is about dealing with the emotional disposition of the spiritual life. Fasting trains our desires to be set on heavenly things and not on earthly wants and desires. When we fast we are disciplining ourselves to eat from a different source as Jesus stated in John 4:32: But He said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” Jesus had sent his disciples out to get food, had his encounter with the woman at the well, and when his disciples came back with the food he states that he is no longer hungry as he ate from a different source. This is the base understanding of fasting, it trains us to desire God.
A statement by John the Short helps bring clarity to the issue of fasting: “If a king wanted to take possession of his enemy’s city, he would begin by cutting off the water and the food and so his enemies, dying of hunger, would submit to him. It is the same with the passions of the flesh: if a man goes about fasting and hungry the enemies of his soul grow weak.”
Abba Macarius counselled one of his disciples struggling in his thought life to increase his fasting and meditation on Scripture in order to deal with his thought life. Amma Syncletica taught that fasting and prayer would drive away evil thoughts. She also counsels her disciples to practice fasting as a rule, not in spurts. To her, fasting was a way of adopting moderation through the spiritual life. It tempered the thoughts by way of subduing the will.
In light of the Desert Fathers on attachment, fasting was integral to exposing what our hearts are attached to. As desire, food, and emotions are intricately intertwined, fasting would serve to bring to light the ways in which our desires were connected to worldly things in an unhealthy way. The moment a fast is embarked upon, the first thing you want is the thing you have just decided to fast. Fasting goes to show you just how deeply we are attached to the things we feed ourselves.
Of similar importance to the Desert Fathers was weeping. Tears were such an integral part of the routine of the Desert Fathers that certain fathers were known for the amount of tears they had shed. Abba Arsenius in particular had such a reputation for the tears he shed that it was said his eyelashes had worn away by the end of his life.
Verses like Matthew 5:4: “Blessed are those who mourn, For they shall be comforted,” take on new meaning when considering the Desert Fathers. Mourning is a result of grief over having lost something significant. As we recognize our distance from God, tears of lament will naturally flow. The goal is not to be pitiful, but to be comforted. There exists an inverse dichotomy between intimacy with God and spiritual maturity. Generally speaking, the closer one draws to God the further they are convinced their proximity to be. The closer one draws to the holiness of God the more their lack of holiness becomes apparent.
To these men and women who drew so near to Christ, they were absolutely convinced of their unworthiness, which drew them all the more closer to his holiness. As they mourned the lack of His presence, His presence became more and more tangible to them.
A story about Abba Dioscorus highlights this: In his cell he (Dioscorus) wept over himself, while his disciple was sitting in another cell. When the latter came to see the old man he asked him, “Father, why are you weeping?” “I am weeping over my sins,” the old man answered him. Then his disciple said, “You do not have any sins, Father.” The old man replied, “Truly, my child, if I were allowed to see my sins, three or four men would not be enough to weep for them.” The men and women who others considered to be nearer to Christ than they recognized their distance.
If you desire tears just consider this: Jesus invited us to abide in him and there are many ways we don’t. We make choices that negate his presence, dwell upon things that draw our thoughts away from heavenly things, and harbor unforgiveness and bitterness. Considering my distance from God has become a significant part of my prayer life. It has helped me to draw nearer in intimate communion with his presence. The more I see my distance the more I lament that distance, and as I lament that distance the sweet aroma of his presence embraces my destitute heart. I am comforted in the place that I mourn.
Fasting and weeping serve to sever our ties to this earthly life and draw our heart toward intimate union with God. To the Desert Fathers and Mothers they were not simply disciplines, but they were lifestyles that enabled them to embrace a deeper, more intimate union with the Spirit of God. 1 Corinthians 6:17 states that we are made one Spirit with God, but few of us could claim that as a practical reality. Perhaps some time spent hungering after God and weeping over his presence would help us re-acquire an inheritance waiting to be claimed.