Let us not then despair of our safety, but let us pray; let us make invocation; let us supplicate; let us go on embassy to the King that is above with many tears! We have this fast, too, as an ally, and as an assistant in this good intercession. Therefore, as when the winter is over and the summer is appearing, the sailor draws his vessel to the deep; and the soldier burnishes his arms, and makes ready his steed for the battle; and the husbandman sharpens his sickle; and the traveller boldly undertakes a long journey, and the wrestler strips and bares himself for the contest.
So too, when Lent makes its appearance, like a kind of spiritual summer, let us as soldiers burnish our weapons; and as husbandman let us sharpen our sickles; and as sailors let us order our thoughts against the waves of extravagant desires; and as travellers let us set out on the journey towards heaven; and as wrestlers let us strip for the contest. For the believer is at once a husbandman, and a sailor, and a soldier, a wrestler, and a traveller.
Hence St Paul saith, “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers. Put on therefore the whole armour of God”. Hast thou observed the wrestler? Hast thou observed the soldier? If thou art wrestler, it is necessary for thee to engage in the conflict naked. If a soldier, it behoves thee to stand in the battle line armed at all points. How then are both these things possible, to be naked, and yet not naked; to be clothed, and yet not clothed? How?
I will tell thee. Divest thyself of worldly business, and thou hast become a wrestler. Put on the spiritual armour, and thou hast become a soldier. Strip thyself of worldly cares, for the season is one of wrestling. Clothe thyself with the spiritual armour, for we have a heavy warfare to wage with demons. Therefore also it is needful we should be naked, so as to offer nothing that the Devil may take hold of, while he is wrestling with us; and to be fully armed at all points, so as on no side to receive a deadly blow. Cultivate thy soul. Cut away the thorns. Sow the word of godliness. Propagate and nurse with much care the fair plants of divine wisdom, and thou hast become a husbandman. And Paul will say to thee, “The husbandman that laboreth must be first partaker of the fruits”. He, too, himself practiced this art.
Therefore, writing to the Corinthians, he said, “I have planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase”. Sharpen thy sickle, which thou hast blunted through gluttony – sharpen it by fasting. Lay hold of the pathway which leads towards heaven; rugged and narrow as it is, lay hold of it, and journey on. And how mayst thou be able to do these things? By subduing the body, and bringing it into subjection. For when the way grows narrow, the corpulence that comes of gluttony is a great hindrance. Keep down the waves of inordinate desires. Repel the tempest of evil thoughts. Preserve the bark; display much skill, and thou hast become a pilot. But we shall have the fast for a groundwork and instructor in all these things.
I speak not, indeed, of such a fast as most persons keep, but of real fasting; not merely an abstinence from meats; but from sins, too. For the nature of a fast is such, that it does not suffice to deliver those who practice it, unless it be done according to a suitable law. “For the wrestler”, it is said, “is not crowned unless he strive lawfully”. To the end then, that when we have gone through the labour of fasting, we forfeit not the crown of fasting, we should understand how, and after what manner, it is necessary to conduct this business; since that Pharisee also fasted, but afterwards went down empty, and destitute of the fruit of fasting. The Publican fasted not; and yet he was accepted in preference to him who had fasted, in order that thou mayst learn that fasting is unprofitable, except all other duties follow with it.
The Ninevites fasted, and won favour of God. The Jews fasted, too, and profited nothing, nay, they departed with blame. Since then the danger in fasting is so great to those who do not know how they ought to fast, we should learn the laws of this exercise, in order that we may not “run uncertainly”, nor “beat the air”, nor while we are fighting contend with a shadow. Fasting is a medicine; but a medicine though it be never so profitable, becomes frequently useless owing to the unskillfulness of him who employs it. For it is necessary to know, moreover, the time when it should be applied, and the requisite quantity of it; and the corresponding diet; as well as various other particulars; any of which, if one overlooks, he will mar all the rest that have been named.
I have said these things, not that we may disparage fasting, but that we may honour fasting; for the honour of it consists not in abstinence from food, but in withdrawing from sinful practices, since he who limits his fasting only to an abstinence from meats is one who is especially disparages it. Does thou fast? Give me proof of it by thy works! Is it said by what kind of works? If thou seest a poor man, take pity on him! If thou seest an enemy, be reconciled to him! If thou seest a friend gaining honour, envy him not! If thou seest a handsome woman, pass her by! For let not the month only fast, but also the eye, and the ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all members of our bodies. Let the hands fast, by being pure from plunder and avarice. Let the feet fast, by ceasing from running to the unlawful spectacles. Let the eyes fast, being taught never to fix themselves rudely upon handsome countenances, or to busy themselves with strange beauties.
For looking is the food of the eyes, but if this be such as is unlawful or forbidden, it mars the fast; and upsets the whole safety of the soul; but if it be lawful and safe, it adorns fasting. For it would be among things the most absurd to abstain from lawful food because of the fast, but with the eyes to touch even what is forbidden. Dost thou not eat flesh? Feed not upon lasciviousness by means of the eyes. Let the ear fast also. The fasting of the ear consists in refusing to receive evil speakings and calumnies. “thou shalt not receive a false report”, it says.
Let the mouth too fast from disgraceful speeches and railing. For what doth it profit if we abstain from birds and fishes; and yet bite and devour our brethren? The evil speaker eaten the flesh of his brother, and biteth the body of his neighbour. Because of this Paul utters the fearful saying, “If ye bite and devour another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another”. Thou hast not fixed thy teeth in the flesh, but thou hast fixed the slander in the soul, and inflicted the wound of evil suspicion; thou hast harmed, in a thousand ways, thyself and him, and many others, for in slandering a neighbour thou hast made him who listens to the slander worse; for should he be a wicked man, he becomes more careless when he finds a partner in his wickedness; and should he be a just man, he is lifted up to arrogance, and puffed up, being led on by the sin of others to imagine great things concerning himself.
Besides, thou hast struck at the common welfare of the Church; for all those who hear not only accuse the supposed sinner, but the reproach is fastened on the Christian community; neither dost thou hear the unbelievers saying, “Such a person is a fornicator, or a libertine”; but instead of the individual who hath sinned, they accuse all Christians. In addition to this, thou hast caused the glory of God to be blasphemed; for as his name is glorified when we have good report, so when we sin, it is blasphemed and insulted.
In the meanwhile I desire to fix these precepts in your mind, to the end that you may accomplish me these during your fast: to speak ill of no one, and to hold no one for an enemy. As in a given field, the husbandman, digging it all up piecemeal, gradually comes to the end of his task; so we, too, if we make this rule for ourselves, in any wise to reduce to a correct practice these precepts during our present fast, and to commit them to the safe custody of good habit, we shall proceeded with greater ease to the rest; and by this means fruit of a favourable hope in the present life; and in the life to come we shall stand before Christ with great confidence, and enjoy those unspeakable blessings; which, God grant, we may all be found worthy of, through the grace and loving kindness of Jesus Christ our Lord, with whom be glory to the Father and the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.