Into the Wilderness

IN THE CHRISTIAN EAST, the fasting seasons are always periods in which the practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving are observed in a heightened way. The particular rules for augmenting the services and for fasting vary from one Local Church to another (eg Greek, Middle Eastern, Slavic, etc.) but the principle behind observing them is the same: the “ordinary business” of those who have put on Christ is prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

After Christ was baptized, we read in the Gospels, He “was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness” (Matthew 4:1), apart from others, where He would encounter both His Father and the devil. The Gospel story of His experience in the wilderness gives us some indications of the life which those, who have been baptized, should expect as normal. First of all, it involves solitude: separation from the ordinary world in order to refocus the mind away from everyday concerns to God, who is in our midst.

The second aspect of Christ’s experience described in Mt 4 is food fasting: “…when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry” (Matthew 4:2). Clearly what is described is a total fast (not eating), in contrast to the fast which most in the Church practice: fasting from certain foods (abstinence).

The Gospels testify that, during Christ’s public ministry His disciples did not fast. When questioned about this by some disciples of John, the Lord responded, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Matthew 9:15).

This prophecy was fulfilled when the first monastics made solitude and fasting the central aspects of their Christian asceticism. In his life of St Anthony the Great, St Athanasius says that the ascetic moved from his village to the local cemetery where he dwelt in one of the tombs. “He ate once a day, after sunset, sometimes once in two days, and often even in four. His food was bread and salt, his drink, water only” (Life, 7).

As monasticism spread, Anthony’s practices were lessened for the many believers who sought to live in solitude or in the monastic communities which grew up throughout the Church. The Church mitigated the strictness of their fasting even further when it proposed their lifestyle as the model for all Christians during fasting seasons. Thus we adopt the everyday practice of monastics (no meat or dairy) on Wednesdays, Friday and during fast periods only.

People who have visited monasteries in this country might be surprised that ascetics like St Anthony might still be found. Thus Fr Alexander Schmemann, writing in his journal, described his visit to monastics in Egypt in 1978: “Today I had an extraordinary day. A visit in the desert to three monasteries with an uninterrupted tradition from Antony the Great, Makarios, etc. … And the most amazing, of course, is how very much alive it all is: Real monks! In my whole life I have seen only imitations, only playing at monastic life, false, stylized; and mostly unrestrained, idle talk about monasticism and spirituality. And here are they, in a real desert. A real heroic feat. So many young monks. No advertisements, no brochures about spirituality. Nobody knows anything about them, and they do not mind it. I am simply stunned. I have a thousand questions, and I will have to start sorting it out…” (cited in Fanous, A Silent Patriarch, 2019, Yonkers, NY).

Solitude and Fasting Today

The first practice which our Church recommends to us in a fasting season is that we imitate Christ by social distancing (to use the modern term) – going “to the desert,” apart from our usual social and recreational activities. In earlier times, it was common that theaters and other recreational centers would close during a fasting season. A corresponding practice today might be to turn off one’s devices for the duration of a fast. That would at least expose us to the emptiness we feel without them.

It may mean, that the Christian, like Christ, go apart in a physical way to a special place, for only a few moments, for a day or more. We may go out of doors, to a church or to our personal icon corner. Serious prayer begins, as we say in the Liturgy when we “lay aside all earthly cares that we may welcome the King of all” into our hearts.

What would we do without the diversion our device offers us? The first activity to which we would be called is increased prayer. In our childhood, most of us were taught prayers to say. We learned to say the Lord’s Prayer, for example, before we even understood the meaning of words such as temptation or even evil. In time, we learned the meaning of those words, but our prayer life often did not deepen as our knowledge grew. It is as if we became deaf and mute in regards to God and our prayer to Him. We know the words of the prayers, but do we know how to pray them from our heart to God?

Apart from liturgical services, Eastern Christian prayer includes formal prayers for many occasions, the most common being Morning Prayers, Prayers at Meals, and Prayers before Retiring. If a Christian is usually too busy to observe these prayer times, the fasting season may give you the opportunity to practice them. Other formal prayers in the Eastern Christian’s repertoire may include canons and akathists, such as those to the Mother of God. Another common practice is to pray for the dead. Use the fasting season as an occasion for going to your local cemetery, or the place where your family members are buried, and remember them in prayer.

Besides formal prayers, our Church recommends the Jesus Prayer as a way to keep our minds “in the desert” wherever we are. Repeat this prayer – so easily memorized – throughout the day to keep your mind and heart in the presence of God. Using a prayer rope as a counter, you can commit yourself to a certain number of prayers every day.

Make time to spend with the Scriptures. We read in the Gospel that, when Christ was tempted to break His fast, He responded, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4). Strive to read one New Testament book during each fasting season to deepen your acquaintance with the Word of God.

What about Almsgiving?

When St John the Forerunner noticed some Pharisees coming to him, he told them, “… bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8): or, as American folk preachers often say, don’t just talk the talk: walk the walk.” Without the fruits of caring for those in need, our prayers and acts of worship run the risk of being the “talk” without the “walk.” The alms we may give to those in need are a way of making our repentance lasting. When the fast is over, we will go back to the foods and diversions we have put aside during the season. But what we give as alms is gone and stays gone – God has accepted it through the hands of the person in need.