Orthodox Christians spend a large portion of the year fasting. If all of the fasting days and periods are observed and kept, we fast for about half of each year. By fasting, we mean abstaining from any and all animal or dairy products and eating only one meal a day.
Our society today is not in any way conducive to supporting such an activity; it suggests to us in many ways and on various levels that we satisfy our appetites and that we indulge ourselves to one end: to enjoy ourselves for the sole purpose of comfort and pleasure. It is indeed that rare exception for anyone to indulge just one appetite. If one is gluttonous in one appetite, then in all likelihood, he will indulge (or over-indulge) all of his appetites. Furthermore, the Tradition teaches us that appetite and passions are closely related.
Foremost is the fact that fasting is above all a spiritual exercise, and as such, it needs to be supported by our private prayers, our public worship, and our regular confessions and partaking of the Sanctified Gifts of the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. This is the reason for the tradition that fasting should be done with the advice and direction of a confessor or spiritual father. Fasting is a response of the soul to the desire for God, and it is developed over a long period of time. Fasting is not something which is simply entered into lightly without any thought or preparation.
The reason that fasting should be undertaken with direction is simple. The fasting regulations and rules of the Orthodox Church are strenuous. We must follow Saint Paul who tells us that we must first take milk before we can eat meat; and this is true of any spiritual exercise or discipline. If one attempts to acquire a spiritual exercise without the proper preparation, direction, and support, he runs the definite risk of biting off more than he can chew--literally and figuratively. In such a condition, he becomes discouraged and drops the whole activity. It is, therefore, imperative that fasting be supported by our spiritual life and be directed by our confessor.
But why do we fast? What is the point? Certainly we do not fast for health, beauty, or long life! It has already been stated that fasting is a response of the soul in its desire for God. In addition to the stirring within the soul for God, we fast in imitation of the example of our Savior. After Christ's Baptism and before His earthly ministry began, Saint Matthew tells us that He fasted for forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, while being tempted by Satan.
We fast, as again Saint Matthew relates, because our Savior Himself instructed us to fast and to pray. Prayer and fasting go together hand in hand. One complements the other. We cannot engage in one without engaging in the other if we are to follow the evangelical precepts.
We fast because Saint Paul instructs us that we must keep our bodies under subjection. We are to rule our bodies and not let our bodies rule us. We grow in grace as we give ourselves to worship, prayer, study, and meditation until every aspect of life is governed and permeated by the indwelling of God the Holy Spirit. And God the Holy Spirit will dwell in us only if our hearts are a fit dwelling place for Him.
We fast to prepare ourselves for the Kingdom of Heaven, as we receive it upon this earth, that our souls may be saved, and that we may partake of God's Kingdom fully in the life to come.