Justin Shaun Coyle, Ph.D.
“Oh, no,” my 10 year old recently grumbled upon seeing Forgiveness Vespers on the parish calendar: “it’s almost here again.” By “it” he meant the Great Fast, which begins today for some of us and soon enough for others. And he grumbled because my son knows what the fast entails: restricted foods, longer bed-time prayers, longer and more frequent liturgies, and so on. His grumbling then turned into a question: “why do we always do this?”
My son’s question was exaggerated and rhetorical. But it’s also a good one, one we don’t consider often enough. Indeed, why do we fast?
Some of the most common answers to this question turn out to be unsatisfactory. One unsatisfactory answer is that we fast because the church calendar says that it’s time to fast. Another is that we fast because it’s our tradition to do so. But both of these answers—“because it’s time” and “because that’s what we do”—are exercises in evading the question by begging it. When my son (or anyone else) asks why we fast, they’re not asking why we’re fasting on this particular day or in this particular way. No: they’re asking why we do it at all.
Another, more theologically elegant answer for why we fast hides within another tradition of the Great Fast. I mean of course the reading of St John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent. There St John teaches that “one who has conquered the body has conquered nature; and one who has conquered nature has certainly risen above nature” (15.17). He writes too that “withdrawal from the world is voluntary hatred of vaunted material things and denial of nature” (4). Even if we don’t read the Ladder, we’re familiar with this talk of “overcoming nature” from liturgical texts. Consider, for instance, the theotokion chanted during matins during the fifth week of the Fast: “where God wills the order of nature is overcome.” We fast, on this view, principally to overcome nature.
But what exactly does this business about “overcoming nature” by “conquering the body” mean? Is St John Climacus teaching that our bodies are, as material, intrinsically evil? Does salvation entail tormenting the body? Is fasting really about subjecting our bodies to pain and starvation in order to rise above and beyond them?
This answer too proves to be insufficient. Not only is it deeply erroneous. It also makes nonsense of St John Climacus’ sometimes positive statements about nature—as when he says, for instance, that we Christians ought to “live in communion with all that is natural and sinless.” So what’s going on here? Why is St John telling us that fasting allows us both (1) to conquer nature and (2) to become natural? Isn’t that a contradiction?
In fact, St John Climacus uses “nature” in two different senses. In one sense, he means by “nature” that for which we were created. Theologians call definitions like this “eschatological” because they have to do with the eschata, or the last things. On this first, eschatological definition, “nature” is less what we see around us and more what God sees in God’s own time. Becoming “natural” is on this definition at once entering more deeply into the life of God even as God enters more deeply into your own life. It’s a process the Church Fathers call theosis. Hence the great mystery that St Maximus the Confessor identifies as the “principle of condescension” (συγκαταβάσεως λόγῳ): the more divine we become, the more human we also become (Amb. 33.2; 10.9). (His model is Jesus Christ, who was and is both fully divine and fully human.) The first definition of “nature” has less to do with what we are at present than with what we will be in glory. Call that nature-as-eschatological.
At present, however, we find that we’re not (yet) quite “natural” in this eschatological sense. However much our true eschatological identities are “sons [and daughters] of God” (Eph. 3:20), that reality remains here below veiled to us—glimpsed “only in a mirror darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12) and “hidden in Christ” (Col. 3:3). We appear to ourselves instead as finite creatures subject to the same pain and damage and decay and death that rules all fleshy creatures. Worse: almost uniquely among fleshy creatures we add to this damage the destruction of sin—of willed damage, that is, our own and of others. The iron law that brings all flesh at long last to death with pitiless necessity is what St John Climacus calls “the order of nature.” Call this nature-as-empirical; from its inevitable cycle there seems no escape.
Unless, of course, that cycle should be interrupted—indeed conquered—by the resurrection of Jesus Christ and extended thereby to his Church. That’s Pascha, and the journey to it is just what the Great Fast is.
How then does fasting entail overcoming nature and becoming more natural, as St John Climacus teaches? Well, we overcome nature by adopting practices which remind us that by baptism there is more to us than what we see. Or that there is more to our identities than the flesh that time’s death-dealing will eventually destroy. Fasting from eating or drinking (or other habits as appropriate) is in fact only the negative side of this. As we’ll learn again at Pascha, feasting forms another, positive way to overcome nature (in the empirical sense). And the ascetical struggle to discern who we really are in Christ helps us with God’s grace to become more natural (in the eschatological sense). “What we will be has not yet appeared,” 1 John 3:2 says. “But we know that when he appears we shall be like him.”
We fast, then, to enter “the divine battlefield,” as the hymns of Forgiveness Vespers have it, “casting aside the works of darkness and put[ting] on the armor of light, that we may pass through the tempest of the Fast and reach the goal of the third-day resurrection of Jesus Christ.” To do so is at once (1) to overcome nature and (2) to become more natural. May God grant us the mercy and strength necessary for our task.