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On Fasting, by St Mark the Ascetic

Updated: Dec 1, 2023

As the Orthodox Church begins its annual two-week fast on August 1 for the Dormition of the Mother of God (Aug 15), the Pappas Patristic Institute offers the following sermon on fasting by St Mark the Ascetic, also known as Mark the Hermit or Mark the Monk. This translation, by Tim Vivian, originally appeared in Counsels on the Spiritual Life: Mark the Monk (SVS Press, 2009) and is presented here with the kind permission of St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.


St Mark the Monk (commemorated March 5) is believed to have lived in the fifth-century and was possibly a disciple of St John Chrysostom. His writings—some of which are featured in the Philokalia—are especially famed for their reflections on Baptism, on the grace of God planted in the human soul, and the nature of spiritual warfare and temptation. A staunch opponent of the Messalian heresy, Mark’s writings are also closely linked with the Macarian corpus and occupy a central place in the Orthodox ascetical tradition. His sermon On Fasting is exceptional in that it deals not only with the nature of spiritual struggle, but with its concrete application in bodily fasting and discipline.


As we begin the Dormition Fast, the Pappas Patristic Institute wishes you good strength on the journey to the feast!


 

Concerning Fasting[1]


The importance of moderation in eating


1. It is appropriate for those setting out on a course of ascetic disci­pline, both young and old, also to have a goal in sight, keeping their bodies in good health, fearing neither weariness nor ill­treatment. They should give their complete attention, willingly and eagerly, to fasting, which is the most useful and trustworthy discipline. They should eat their bread by weight and drink water by measure, and do so at fixed times (Ez 4.10–11). Such a regimen will ensure that they leave the afternoon meal hungry and thirsty and not hinder the appointed worship offered to God because of the delight taken in various foods.


If we wish to eat until we are stuffed, we will quickly lapse into spiritual torpor and turn our attention to some other desire, and if we gain possession of this desire and completely satisfy ourselves, we will in turn reject this one and abandon it just as we did the previous one. It is not possible for us, whether we imagine ourselves fasting or fulfilling our desires, to remain satisfied once we have gotten our fill. What food is more truly perfect than manna? Israel ate this and was satisfied (Is 44.16). When they had nothing better to desire, they desired what was inferior, garlic and onions (Num 11.5–6); as a result, the desire for other things became implanted in them along with satiety. Thus, if we desire something else when we fill ourselves with bread, let us not fill ourselves when we eat bread, so that when we are hungry we always desire to be filled with that. In this way we will both avoid the harm that comes with desire and produce the righteousness that comes with abstinence.



It is hard work to get the shameless belly under control


2. But perhaps one of those who are hesitant to fast will say, “It isn’t a sin for a person to partake of food, is it?” We, however, are not offering our advice because partaking of food is a sin, but because of the sin that follows after eating. Israel did not sin because of its desire, but because of its desire it slandered God and acted impiously, for Israel said, “Will God be able to spread a table in the wilderness?” (Ps 78.19). After God spread a table for them, then the anger of God was kindled against them (Ps 78.31), and he bound their elect hand and foot so they would not desire other food as long as they lived and utter words against the Most High, and those remaining be completely destroyed.


It is hard work to get the shameless belly under control. It is a god to those defeated by it (see Phil 3.19), and it is not possible for the person who places his trust in it to escape punishment. Not only is there the danger of satiety; there is also the danger of not having enough food. When we spend a prolonged period of time without eating anything, spiritual torpor seizes the opportunity to rise up and wage war against us: At night it takes our keeping vigil and turns it into sleep, and during the day it takes our prayer and turns it into carnal thoughts; as a result, sleep does us no good and our carnal thoughts cause us the greatest harm. We begin to think we are better than our fellow ascetics, jealously commenting on our superiors while denigrating those inferior to us. This is the worst kind of offense. If a stupid farmer works his land with great expenditure yet leaves it unsown, he has labored for nothing. So too with us: If with great diligence we make a slave of our flesh without laying a good foundation built on prayer, rather than working for our benefit we have zealously worked to our detriment.



The need for fasting; safeguarding against self-conceit


3. But perhaps someone will say, “If righteousness comes through prayer, what is the need for fasting?” There is always a need for fasting!


If some poor farmer sows on dry land without first composting the earth, he will reap thorns instead of wheat. So too with us: If we do not mortify our flesh with fasting before we lay a foundation of prayer, we will reap sin for ourselves instead of righteousness. This flesh of ours comes from that same earth as the farmer plows, and if the former does not receive as much care and attention as the latter, it will never bear fruit of righteousness.


We say these things not to hinder those who want to be helped by fasting, but to encourage those who do not want to be harmed by fasting. Just as fasting helps those who submit to it with some thought and consideration, so too it harms those who apply them­selves to it without reflection. Those who worry about the efficacy of fasting ought also to be on guard against the harm it can cause, that is, the self­conceit it can bring about. In addition, the bread that we eat after completing the fast that we have set for ourselves should be portioned out on those days when we are not eating in order that, taking a little bit each day, we may muzzle the presumptions of our flesh and acquire a heart strengthened for even more helpful prayer. In this way, safeguarded from pride through the power of God, we may spend all the days of our lives in humility (Lk 1.75). Without humility, no one can please God (Heb 12.14, 11.6).



The humility that fasting brings and its fruits


The writings of St Mark in the 1782 Philokalia

4. If we have applied ourselves to practicing humility, we have no need of education, for all the evil and terrible things that happen to us happen because of our pride. If a messenger from Satan was given to the Apostle to keep him from being proud (2 Cor 12.7), how much more will Satan himself be given to us who are proud so as to trample us down until we become humble! Our forefathers were the lords and masters of their homes and had great wealth and provided for their women and children—and still conversed with God, all because of their sincere humility. We, on the other hand, have withdrawn from the world, and have looked down on wealth and forsaken our homes, and think we are devoted to God—and are still mocked by demons, all on account of our pride.


The proud person does not know himself; if he knew himself and his own folly and weakness, he would not be proud. How will the person who does not know himself be able to know God? If he is not capable of understanding his own folly, by which he is turned upside down, how will he be able to understand the wisdom of God, from which he is estranged and distant? The person who knows God contemplates God’s greatness and deprecates himself, like blessed Job, and says, “I first heard of you as something reported to my ear, but now I see you with my very own eyes. Therefore I deprecate myself and waste away; I consider myself dust and ashes” (Job 42.5–6).


Those who imitate Job, therefore, are the ones who see God, and those who see God are the ones who know him. So, if we too want to see God, let us deprecate and humble ourselves, not merely to see him standing opposite us but also, with him dwelling and resting within us, to delight in him and enjoy him. In this way our foolishness will be made wise in his wisdom, and our weakness will be made strong in his might (see 2 Cor 12.9), which strengthens us in our Lord Jesus Christ. Christ has deemed us worthy of this gift. Even more extravagantly, he deigned to be glorified in us and, for our sake, prevailed over Satan, our enemy and adversary, and put him to shame. In our Lord Jesus Christ himself, because to him belong glory, grandeur, and majesty forever. Amen.


Check out the full volume of translations: Counsel on the Spiritual Life: Mark the Monk (SVS Press, 2009).



 

[1] Translated from Georges de Durand, Marc le Moine. Traités, II (Sources chrétiennes 455) (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 2000), 158-166. The sermon is now sometimes attributed to Marcian of Jerusalem; see Counsels on the Spiritual Life, 47-48.

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