Here is part four (of five) of my translation of Bishop Atanasije's talk. Continued from parts one, two, and three.
St John of Kronstadt, in My Life in Christ, says that when someone hates, his look can prevent another person from even moving. Through sin not only does a man himself suffer, but everyone around him also suffers, including nature, and when he begins to repent and fast, this too is reflected in everything around him.
Permit this digression: if contemporary humanity fasted more there would not be such a great ecological problem. Man’s relation to nature is not at all one of fasting or of asceticism. It is brutal, violent. Man is either an exploiter or an occupier. Marx taught that one simply had to pounce on nature and use it, master the laws, and reproduce. This will be “history” and so on. Such a relationship is anything but human or humane.
The ascetic Holy Fathers said that we are not body-killers, but passion-killers. Fasting is not a war against the flesh as created by God. Christ is flesh, and His Communion is also flesh. The fight must be against the perversion of the flesh. Each one of us can recognize and feel that if he does not rule himself, his own body, then he will become a slave of food, or drink, or other pleasures. Things begin to rule man, rather than man ruling things.
The fall of Adam was that he did not want to restrain himself: when he ate the fruit, he received nothing new. The commandment was not to prohibit him from eating the fruit because there was something dangerous in it, but so that he would lean to discipline himself, that he would put him on the path of podvig. This was a podvig of freedom and a podvig of love. No one except man is called to do this, and that is why he is called to do this. To participate in the freedom and love of God, man must be an ascetic.
For example, an athlete, a football player, must be an ascetic. He cannot drink and eat and do whatever he wants, and still be a good athlete. He cannot. That is as clear as day, as the sun.
A Christian must tame his body even more, so that it would serve (in Greek, liturgisalo), that is, so that it would be in “liturgy.” And “liturgy” means: a full, normal, common function, a common activity. When we speak of the holy Liturgy, this is the service of man to God, but the general sense of this word is the normal functioning of everything that has been given to man.
Therefore a Christian who repents must also make use of fasting. One needs to fast for this reason, and not simply in order to perform a duty or, as certain people think, to earn a reward or crown from God. No sacrifice that awaits an award is a sacrifice, but is simply work in expectation of payment. Mercenaries can think in this way, but not sons. Christ, when He went to the sacrifice for us, did not seek from God the Father a reward for this, but went out of love. As Metropolitan Philaret [Drozdov] said: out of love for God the Father the Son was crucified; out of the Son of God’s love for us He was crucified; and out of love of the Holy Spirit He conquered death by His crucifixion. Only love can understand this.
In a family, or in a friendship, when there is love it is very easy to give up a given pleasure for the sake of the other, this is a natural desire to share with others.
This is the proper understanding of fasting.
In addition, fasting helps us correct corrupted human nature, to put it into the correct order that God gave. This is to be fed primarily on the word of God, and only then on bread. Bread, it goes without saying, is necessary. Without bread we cannot live. But bread is in the second place. As Christ answered the devil, who was tempting Him in the wilderness: “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” The word of God means communion with God.
I remember one Russian sufferer, a former librarian at our [theological] faculty. He had been imprisoned for four years at Dachau. He found and took in a Serbian orphan, and then found him a wife. But this wife drove the old man out of the house. The old man later died in great poverty. He related that in Dachau one could tell by someone’s face whether he had living communion with God. There was no hypocrisy there. He told me, incidentally, that, in his opinion, Berdaiev never had living contact with God. Of course, Berdaiev was a tragic figure, a sufferer, a martyr in his own way, and one cannot simply reject him. But he was overly pretentious, and he did not know humility, and even ridiculed humility.
One must humble oneself before God, but not out of an “inferiority complex.” Job was patient, long suffering, but he was not “inferior” before God. He was humble, and this humility gave him boldness. “Come down from heaven,” Job said to God, and God came down. We do not need to accept a psychological or social category: humility is not impotence, but namely boldness. For example, I came to Vladyka Mark, I have no money, I could die here, so I hope that Vladyka would feed me and not leave me. This is boldness. In the opposite case I would be not only underestimating myself, but Vladyka as well.
Here is how ancient Christians prayed. One Egyptian monk said: “I have sinned as a man. But Thou, as God, have mercy!” Humility and daring go hand in hand, together.
Everything together, beginning with repentance -– whether repentance presupposes faith, or if it is born in faith – all the same, they go together. Faith in God immediately assumes repentance in my tragedy, in my problem, in my life. I cannot in any way agree to resolve my problem without God. Search, that means, for communion. God revealed through Christ that He wants communion with us. He gave His Son! He loved us before we loved Him. That means that He also seeks communion. This God is indeed the lover of mankind, an active God, a God Who certain Fathers call “prevenient eros.” In order for us to enter His omnipotence, He went out to meet us, and by this He limits Himself to our powers, in order to accept us. This is called “kenosis.” If He were to come straight to us, then… it would be as if the sun scorched us, we would simply disappear. But He diminished Himself out of love, seeking our communion, not out of compulsion, but simply because this is what He wanted. And this immediately grants us dignity. Therefore in our Orthodox Christian Tradition there is a great reason for boldness, for hope in God. Man is sinful, but all the same: God is greater than sin! In Demons Dostoevsky’s Elder Tikhon says to Stavronign: “You have only step to holiness!” Indeed, man can take this one step and meet God. This is never impossible. It is impossible for man, but it is possible for God. God entered this relationship with us and does not want us to resolve our problems without Him. And we have no reason to doubt that, since He sent His Son.
You see what powerful reasons we have for repentance. This is not simply some human moral teaching, that one has to be good, and therefore must repent. No, repentance restores us to the very foundation of Christian faith. God desires our salvation, searches for it, yearns for it, and waits for it. On our side it is only necessary to want it, and then we able – not ourselves, but with God.
Repentance, with all its accompanying Christian virtues, like Confession, humility, boldness, hope, fasting, prayer… repentance is already a foretaste of the resurrection, even the beginning of resurrection. This is the first resurrection of man. The second will be the result, being completed in the time of the Second Coming of Christ.