Today, November 11, is the Feast of Saint Martin or Martinmas. In Church tradition, beginning the day after Martinmas, from the late 4th century (following hard upon the death of Saint Martin) to the late Middle Ages, much of Western Europe, including England, engaged in a period of fasting as strict as that of Lent, the fast that became known as “St. Martin’s Lent” or “St. Martin’s Fast”, also the “the forty days of St. Martin”. At St. Martin’s eve and on the feast day itself, people surfeited themselves with meat and drink for a last time before they started the forty-day fast. This time of abstinence before the Feast of the Nativity (Christmas) came to be called Advent by the Church.
Those forty days take us through December 21, which is the winter solstice – or the Sol invictus (the birthday of the “victorious Sun”) of the pagan observance of the later Roman Empire, this fortieth day of fasting being, it seems quite likely, a careful avoidance by Christians in acknowledging this pagan feast. It is entirely possible that the date of the Feast of the Nativity was already fixed by the Church at December 25 even a few generations before this time. If this was so, Christians would have understood themselves to be celebrating on this date the birth of the true “Sol invictus”, the Lord God as “Sun and shield” (Ps. 84:11),the Christ Jesus as “the Sun of righteousness” (Mal. 4:2).
However, let us return to this matter of fasting.
With the Reformation came a relaxation of the fasting rule for Advent, as eventually also with Lent, among Protestants, with the Roman Catholic Church following some centuries later in regard to Advent, though still keeping it as a season of penitence. Given these relaxations in the West (with a toe-hold exception in the idea of “giving up something for Lent” that has prevailed over the last several generations among Catholics, as well as among Anglicans and Lutherans), one might easily come to the conclusion that fasting as a meaningful religious or spiritual practice has by now, at least in the West, devolved into complete obsolescence. We hear of fasting for health reasons, but, in regard to its relevance to spiritual life, there seems to be a tacit assumption that post-modern humanity is now liberated from this ancient custom (“Fasting is an institution as old as Adam,” states Mahatma Gandhi. “It has been resorted to for self-purification or for some ends, noble as well as ignoble.”) This, despite the fact that the Eastern Orthodox still to the present day observe the rule of strict fasting for the “forty” days of Advent (actually somewhat longer, because their Advent begins six Sundays before December 25), together with a strict observance of Lent, in addition to observances of other strict fasts throughout the Church year.
But consider what Saint Augustine (354-430), authoritative voice of the generation following Saint Martin, has to say in sermon 52 in his collection of sermons entitled On Prayer and Fasting on the practice of fasting:
Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, and kindles the true light of chastity. Enter again into yourself.
I want to mention something here that will seem outlandish to most people. This is the matter of fasting. Consciousness of the meaning of fasting has been completely lost. Fasting is enormously significant, however, for rhythmizing our astral body. What does it mean to fast? It means to restrain the desire to eat, to block the astral body in relation to this desire. One who fasts blocks the astral body and develops no desire to eat. This is like blocking a force in a machine. The astral body becomes inactive then, and the whole rhythm of the physical body with its innate wisdom works upward into the astral body to give it rhythm. Like the imprint of a seal, the harmony of the physical body impresses itself upon the astral body. It would transfer much more permanently if the astral body were not continuously being made irregular by desires, passions, wishes, including spiritual desires and wishes.
Similarly, in lecture 11 of An Esoteric Cosmology (SteinerBooks, 2008, p. 57) we have these words of Steiner:
The whole of waking life is a process destructive of the physical body. Illnesses are caused by excessive activity of the astral body. Eating to excess affords a stimulus to the astral body which reacts in a disturbing way on the physical body. That is why fasting is laid down in certain religions. The effect of fasting is that the astral body, having greater quiet and less to do, partially detaches itself from the physical body. Its vibrations are modulated and communicate a regular rhythm to the etheric body. Rhythm is thus set going in the etheric body by means of fasting. Harmony is brought into life (etheric body) and form (physical body). In other words, harmony reigns between the universe and man.
“What the eyes are for the outer world, fasts are for the inner,” declares Gandhi from the viewpoint of his own spiritual path which he refered to as satyagraha (“truth-force”). “A complete fast is a complete and literal denial of self. It is the truest prayer.”
And of course we can consider the words of the Christ Jesus himself, as recorded in Holy Scripture, where we read in Matthew 17:20b, 21:
For truly, I say unto you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you. But this kind never comes out but by prayer and fasting.
Faith and prayer, prayer and fasting, asserting will over appetite, joining rebel will to God’s will, making the voice of prayer audible to Divine Mercy through voluntary hunger, making it “loud” in heaven through effort founded on suffering (see Letter XIII Death in Meditations on the Tarot, p. 349) – this ultimately means, according to Augustine, to “enter again into yourself”.
“Today, especially in affluent societies,” says Pope John Paul II, “St. Augustine’s warning is more timely than ever: ‘Enter again into yourself.’ Yes, we must enter again into ourselves, if we want to find ourselves. Not only our spiritual life is at stake, but indeed, our personal, family and social equilibrium, itself. One of the meanings of penitential fasting is to help us recover an interior life. Moderation, recollection and prayer go hand in hand.”
“Fasting possesses great power,” says Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 220). “If practiced with the right intention, it makes one a friend of God. The demons are aware of that.”
“By fasting,” says Saint Basil (329-379), “it is possible both to be delivered from future evils, and to enjoy the good things to come. We fell into disease through sin; let us receive healing through repentance, which is not fruitful without fasting.”
“Fasting is the soul of prayer,” says Saint Peter Chrysologus (c. 380–c. 450), “mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. So, if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy. If you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others, you open God’s ear to yourself.”
If, in fasting, we hear the petition of others, says Chrysolgus, we will open God’s ear to our own self, because mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. As today is Saint Martin’s Day, we can call into remembrance as an example of this “hearing the petition of others”, the well-known episode in the life of Martin when he was twenty and still a soldier (Sulpitius Severus on the Life of St. Martin, trans. Alexander Roberts, 1894, A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, Volume 11, Chapter 3):
. . . At a certain period, when he had nothing except his arms and his simple military dress, in the middle of winter, a winter which had shown itself more severe than ordinary, so that the extreme cold was proving fatal to many, he happened to meet at the gate of the city of Amiens a poor man destitute of clothing. He was entreating those that passed by to have compassion upon him, but all passed the wretched man without notice, when Martin, that man full of God, recognized that a being to whom others showed no pity, was, in that respect, left to him. Yet, what should he do? He had nothing except the cloak in which he was clad, for he had already parted with the rest of his garments for similar purposes. Taking, therefore, his sword, he divided his cloak into two equal parts, and gave one part to the poor man, while he again clothed himself with the remainder. Upon this, some of the by-standers laughed, because he was now an unsightly object, and stood out as but partly dressed. Many, however, who were of sounder understanding, groaned deeply because they themselves had done nothing similar. They especially felt this, because, being possessed of more than Martin, they could have clothed the poor man without reducing themselves to nakedness. In the following night, when Martin had resigned himself to sleep, he had a vision of Christ arrayed in that part of his cloak with which he had clothed the poor man. He contemplated the Lord with the greatest attention, and was told to own as his the robe which he had given. Ere long, he heard Jesus saying with a clear voice to the multitude of angels standing round — “Martin, who is still but a catechumen, clothed me with this robe.” The Lord, truly mindful of his own words (who had said when on earth — “Inasmuch as ye have done these things to one of the least of these, ye have done them unto me”), declared that he himself had been clothed in that poor man; and to confirm the testimony he bore to so good a deed, he condescended to show him himself in that very dress which the poor man had received. After this vision the sainted man was not puffed up with human glory, but, acknowledging the goodness of God in what had been done, and being now of the age of twenty years, he hastened to receive baptism
Martin was “full of God”, i.e., he was fasting, and that is why he was able, upon meeting the poor man destitute of clothing, to hear the man’s petition, and to respond to that petition unselfconsciously and imaginatively by doing an unpredictable thing: namely, with his sword, cutting his military cloak in two, giving half to the naked man, never mind the laughter of others. Pertinent to this, we have the following observation of Saint Basil:
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.
We would completely misunderstand Basil were we to believe that he is denigrating physical fasting. He is not. He is saying that we abstain periodically from food in order more easily to abstain from sin. Periodic abstaining from food will lay a firm foundation for fasting from wayward thinking, wayward feeling, and wayward doing. “As much as you subtract from the body,” he advises, “so much will you add to the strength of the soul.” Clearly, the young Martin, even when so young, was a “real faster”. Withdrawing “from all evil”, his fasting bore the most wonderful fruit of truest prayer, which is an all-encompassing warmth made manifest in deeds of compassion and love.
“To accomplish the greatest deeds,” remarks Steiner, “to achieve the greatest results in the spiritual world, a strengthening of the positive will impulse is not what is necessary, rather a certain resignation, a renunciation is needed.” (The Spiritual Hierarchies and the Physical World: Reality and Illusion, Anthroposophic Press, 1996, p. 200):
We achieve a certain spiritual result not by bringing our earnest desires into play or being occupied with them, but by subduing our wishes, restraining our desires, and foregoing their satisfaction. . . . While one becomes stronger in the physical world if one eats well and is nourished and thus has more energy, one will achieve something significant in the spiritual world – this is a description and not advice – when one fasts or does something to suppress or renounce wishes and desires. Preparation that involves relinquishing the wishes, desires, and will impulses arising in us is always part of the greatest spiritual endeavors.
All moral effort, all spiritual striving, all attempts to achieve great results in the spiritual world, will prove effective, Steiner is telling us, only insofar as this effort, this striving, is based on active and continuous renunciation.
The less we will, the more we can say that we let life stream over us and do not desire this or that, but rather take things as karma casts them before us; the more we accept karma and its consequences; the more we behave calmly, renouncing all that we otherwise would have wanted to achieve in life – the stronger we become. (Ibid)
Enter again into yourself: so that, in your poverty of wishes and desires, in your being “full of God”, the half-cloak you would bestow upon the nakedness of the other is cut from “the whole cloth”, i.e., the fullness of the Blessed Virgin’s immaculate mantle of protection; so that your path of renunciation is one of true renunciation; so that you enter not into a path of illusion. For, as Steiner cautions:
. . . Self-denial has meaning only when it accompanies renunciation that is rooted in the spirit. We must understand the concept of creative renunciation, creative resignation. (Ibid p. 201)
Surely, therefore, when it comes to fasting, we can learn everything we need to know from the Holy Virgin. In greatest clarity the Gospel tells us that she pondered in her heart the events of her life (Luke 2:19), seeking in those events an understanding of God’s will for herself, God’s will for humanity, God’s will for the Earth. Of all human beings, she is the greatest exemplar of the path of renunciation. Surely, were we only to ask, she would be radiantly glad to share the secret of that spiritual fast which frees the soul from slavery to things, which strengthens the soul in faith and hope, which makes the soul ever-watchful for the Lord Jesus Christ, ever-ready to greet the Son of Man coming with the clouds in great glory – who is the One seeking to enter the purified heart, who is the One that is the true Sol invictus, the Sun of righteousness: who is the One born at midnight in the Bethlehem of every simple shepherd’s heart.
Pax et bonum,