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Honey for the Heart: The Spiritual Re-set of Lenten Fasting 

by Matthew Wright 

Do not neglect the Forty Days; it constitutes an imitation of Christ’s way of life.” 

Saint Ignatius of Antioch

The Church has begun the Great Fast of Lent, our Forty Days of preparation for the Mysteries of Holy Week, for our entering with Jesus into the journey of death and resurrection. Our participation includes an outer fast – putting less food into our bodies, if our health allows – to help us listen for the Divine.

Within the human being is that reality the mystics of our tradition call “the heart”—a point of connection with the Infinite, with God, and a center of being that we can begin to cultivate and awaken. We can know ourselves more and more as a heart—as pure, loving awareness, and not simply a collection of thoughts, emotions, or personal wounds. We have both an outer life, with a physical body that has needs and appetites, and we also have an inner life. And we strive for a healthy balance between these two.

But often the outer world and the wider culture would have us know ourselves only or primarily as the outer self, worrying about age and appearance and our degree of outer control over our lives. And so once a year, the Church invites us to an intensive period of fasting, a temporary period of asceticism. This practice helps break the momentum of our addictions to our outer life, to call us back within, to renew our relationship with our own heart, to increase our purity of heart, and to put us in right and deeper relationship with God.

Eventually the fast ends. We’re not asked to live in asceticism year round, but to use it as a spiritual re-set, so that we can enter the remainder of the year with greater balance. Fasting is a central and essential practice of the Christian path, and we give ourselves to it each year, as Ignatius of Antioch reminds us, in imitation of the way of life of Our Lord Jesus. Jesus, who both feasted at the wedding of Cana with strangers and sinners, and who fasted in the wilderness for forty days—to face his demons, to clarify his heart, to listen to God.

Fasting has served as an initiatory experience across the great sacred traditions. From Jesus fasting in the wilderness in preparation for his ministry, to the Indigenous practice of fasting while on a vision quest in the forest, to Muslims today who fast for the month of Ramadan. Fasting doesn’t ask us to “believe” anything, rather it invites us into an experience. What happens when I do this? What do I learn about myself? What do I learn about my relationship with God?

Mevlevi Sufi teacher Kabir Helminski writes of fasting,

“Another cure for the heart is keeping one’s stomach empty. An excess of food hardens the heart. Fasting is the opposite of the subtle and not so subtle addictions with which we numb ourselves to the experience of heart. When through fasting we expose the heart’s pain to ourselves, we become more emotionally vulnerable and honest. Only then can the heart be healed.” (The Knowing Heart, pp. 74-75)

I know that I use food to numb my emotions. When I’m stressed or when I’m sad, or sometimes when I’m angry. Food becomes a way to turn away from the heaviness of what I am feeling. But during a fast, I have to simply be with those emotions, become intimate with them, perhaps let them come up and out, rather than covering them over with a nice layer of food.

“. . . a kind of sweetness opens within when we fast;
as there is less sweetness for the tongue,
we find a different kind of honey, in the heart.

When we fast there is also less energy for our bodies and even our mind, and we might find that we are more easily able to turn inward, to attend to that heart connection. It’s often said that a kind of sweetness opens within when we fast; that as there is less sweetness for the tongue, we find a different kind of honey, in the heart.

Fasting is sometimes called “meditation for the body.” Just as in meditation practices we empty the mind of thoughts, so in fasting we empty the body, and open to a new kind of receptivity. St. Augustine writes, “Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, […] and kindles the true light of purity. Enter again into yourself” (St. Augustine, Sermon LXXII).

Fasting is seen here as a doorway into our own interiority—which brings us to the inner dimension of the fast. There are two fasts observed during Lent. One the outer, or we might even say the lesser fast, and then there is the inner fast of the heart.

St. Basil the Great writes, 

“There is both a physical and a spiritual fast. In the physical fast, the body abstains from food and drink. In the spiritual fast, the faster abstains from evil intentions, words and deeds. One who truly fasts abstains from anger, rage, malice, and vengeance. One who truly fasts abstains from idle and foul talk, empty rhetoric, slander, condemnation, flattery, lying and all manner of spiteful talk. In a word, a real faster is one who withdraws from all evil. As much as you subtract from the body, so much will you add to the strength of the soul.” 

So the outer fast, and the inward turn that it helps us cultivate, is only ever for the sake of that inner fast—our fast from negativity, from arrogance, from anger, from pride. Abba Isidore, one of the early Desert Fathers, said, 

“If you fast regularly, do not be inflated with pride; if you think highly of yourself because of it, then you had better eat meat. It is better for a person to eat meat than to be inflated with pride and glorify themselves.” 

This brings us to Jesus’ words in the Gospel reading appointed for Ash Wednesday, 

  “whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their   faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received   their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Abba God who is in secret; and your Abba who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18). 

On the Jesus path, fasting is always for the sake of our own inner work, for the cultivation of purity of heart. It is not to meet the legalistic requirement of a demanding god, or to engage in acts of ascetic heroism. We’re not trying to be spiritual body builders, but simply to grow in humility and simplicity of heart—that’s what truly builds our inner body. 

“. . . make a beginning every day.”

To return yet again to the early voices of our tradition, Abba Macarius of the Desert Fathers said, 

“This is the mark of Christianity: however much one perform, to feel that you have done nothing, and in fasting, to say, ‘This is not fasting,’ and in praying, ‘This is not prayer,’ and in perseverance at prayer, ‘I have shown no perseverance; I am only just beginning to practice and to take pains’; and even if you are righteous before God, you should say, ‘I am not righteous, not I; I do not take pains, but only make a beginning every day.’” 

In Lent we make a beginning, yet again. Saint Asterius of Amasia wrote in the 300s, 

“The strictness of the Forty Days mortifies the passions, extinguishes anger and rage, cools and calms every agitation springing up from gluttony. And just as in the summer, when the burning heat of the sun spreads over the earth, the northern wind renders a benefaction to those who are scorched, by dispersing the sultriness with a tender coolness: so fasting also provides the same…” 

These forty days are meant to be a cool and gentle breeze for the soul. May we each feel that breeze in the days ahead. And may we remember, “Do not neglect the Forty Days; it constitutes an imitation of Christ’s way of life.” 

Matthew Wright is an Episcopal priest, writer, and retreat leader working to renew the Christian Wisdom tradition within a wider interspiritual context. A longtime student of Cynthia Bourgeault, he serves as a teacher for Wisdom Waypoints and The Contemplative Society. Matthew is also a student within the Mevlevi Sufi tradition under the guidance of Shaikh Kabir and Camille Helminski. He lives with his wife and two cats in Woodstock, NY, where he serves as priest-in-charge at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church.