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Nov 24/ Dec 7 ns Great Martyr Catherine. Great Martyr Mercurios


Fasting in Prison

Why do we fast?

St John Chrysostom on true fasting.

Gleanings for the Holy Fathers – Fasting


I am writing this letter at a time when I should be in the Michael unit[1], but I was told not to come by the Chaplain, who was kind enough to spare me the trip. So far, I have gone to the Michael unit and not seen anyone only once or twice, but I have been shut down at the Hughes unit 6 or 8 times. I always appreciate it when the chaplain gives a heads up.  


A little news. A woman, (n)[2]  wants to become involved in the prison ministry. She will be taking the required training course to become a volunteer chaplain as soon as possible, but we all know that the “wheels of justice grind slowly”. In the meantime, she will be happy to write regularly to anyone who wishes this, and is already praying for all of you by name. Let me know by letter or in person if it is okay for (n) to write to you, and I will let her know.


Here is a little note of introduction I asked her to write (from her email to me):.


I am waiting to be approved to be a visiting chaplain. In the meantime, I would like to be able to send mail to encourage my brothers and sisters in prison. Because my (family member) is in prison and has been for over (#) years, I know how important it is to stay connected to others who care about you and can encourage you. I can't tell you how many times I sent my dad a note just to say "hello" or "I thought about you today."  That helped him get through the day or week. I would like to be able to support others in the same way. If it is alright for me to correspond with those you are ministering to, would you please allow them to sign up with you or give their agreement in some way and then you could send me a list with names, ID#s, and addresses. Besides sending notes to them, I will also be praying for them daily by name. I am excited to see what God is doing and going to do in ALL our lives. Kind Regards, (n)


A little more news. Things are still happening to allow me to serve liturgy once a month. I hope that will start at least in January. There is also at least a possibility of having a conversation with the prison chaplaincy about consolidating all or many Orthodox into one prison – one that I can reach I hope! This may be long term, and may or may not be God’s will, but I am asking you to pray that this may indeed come to pass.


We are in the midst of the fasting period for Nativity. It is very normal in Christian tradition to prepare ourselves for important feasts. There is a fasting period before the major feasts of the Christian year – Pascha (Easter), and Nativity (Christmas), and also before the Dormition (falling asleep of the Theotokos), and the Feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul.  We also fast on most Wednesdays and Fridays of the year.


Each fast differs a little bit in “character” and rigor. The Nativity Fast is one of joyful expectation, and is one of the easiest of the long fasts. Here are the “rules’. On all days of the fast, we do not eat any “(land or air) animal product” -  beef, chicken, pork, etc or their “products” – cheese, eggs, milk, etc.  We also do not fish, wine and olive oil on all weekdays. On weekends, we may have fish, wine and oil. There are lots of exceptions based upon which saint is celebrated on the calendar. For instance, I am traveling to DeQueen Arkansas to celebrate the Liturgy for the Apostle Andrew next Tuesday (and see one of the men I have  seen many times in the Hughes unit – for the first time since he has gotten out of prison), and on that day we will likely have a nice fish lunch.


Of course, in prison, food choices are limited. Everybody has different abilities spiritually and physically. You should talk to me or write if you have any questions. In general, it is very good to avoid meat (beef, chicken, pork, “mystery meat”) during the fast, and supplement your diet with whatever you can get at the commissary, such as peanut butter and beans. I understand that not everyone can make commissary, and there may be medical reasons why you need certain foods, and therefore it is always good to talk to me. The fast is not a set of rules that you must follow “or else” – it is a spiritual exercise in which the body helps the soul.


Anyone who has fasted for any length of time should be able to discern so of the benefits. They come over time, and it is very difficult if not impossible to make significant progress in the spiritual life without some fasting. This is because, if we are totally honest with ourselves, we know that we are by nature inclined to selfishness and self-indulgence, and forgetfulness about God. Fasting acts directly against these latter two tendencies – we choose to *not* indulge ourselves for God’s sake, and by choosing to keep a fast (and trying to pray more than we usually do, and read spiritual things too), we are less likely to be forgetful. Fasting acts indirectly against selfishness because a forgetful self-indulgent person is always selfish.


I am asking you to fast as you are able, and  to expect God to help you learn things about yourself and Him during your fast. Fasting is a little bit like taking blinders off – we see things more clearly – both good and bad. You may learn some things about yourself – positive and negative. You may  be able to pray more, or perhaps have trouble praying, and even this latter condition may be beneficial to you, because we always have trouble praying because of something in ourselves that is blocking our prayer.


We are on the road to perfection, made possible because of the perfect life of the God-man, Jesus Christ. This takes effort, and fasting has been shown to always help us in this task.


The following is a wonderful, long quote from St John Chrysostom that explains the significance of fasting. He emphasizes that fasting is not just what you do not eat, but what you do and don’t do to and for your fellow man. We fast to improve in the most important virtue – Love. After this are some quotes from the Holy Fathers


I think this is enough for now. God granting, I will see you all very soon. My poor prayers are with you daily. May God bless you and help you in all things. Pray for me please.



St John Chrysostom on true fasting.


This is a long quotation, but very profitable to read. It explains the purpose of fasting, the proper attitude towards it, its effects on our spiritual state, and how fasting not done in the right spirit is actually injurious to us.


We also see from St John’s words the reason we have a fast free week following the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee. He does not reference this custom, but his explanation is the reason it exists. The homily from which this quotation was taken has many other profitable things about fasting.


St John Chrysostom, Letters; Homilies on the Statutes, Homily III, (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf109.xix.v.htm)


Bold face and headings inserted.



Fasting is a help to us; we should approach fasts with expectation of spiritual improvement.


7. 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 traveler boldly undertakes a long journey, and the wrestler strips and bares himself for the contest.


So too, when the fast makes its appearance, like a kind of spiritual summer, let us as soldiers burnish our weapons; and as husbandmen let us sharpen our sickle; and as sailors let us order our thoughts against the waves of extravagant desires; and as travelers 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 traveler.


Hence St. Paul saith, “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers. Put on therefore the whole amour of God.” Eph. vi. 12.


Hast thou observed the wrestler? Hast thou observed the soldier? If thou art a wrestler, it is necessary for thee to engage in the conflict naked. If a soldier, it behooves 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 amour, and thou hast become a soldier. Strip thyself of worldly cares, for the season is one of wrestling. Clothe thyself with the spiritual amour, 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 laboureth must be first partaker of the fruits.” 2 Tim. ii. 6. He too himself practiced this art. Therefore writing to the Corinthians, he said, “I have planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.” 1 Cor. iii. 6.


Spiritual and physical effects of Fasting.


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 mayest thou be able to do these things? By subduing thy 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 boat; display much skill, and thou hast become a pilot.

But we shall have the fast for a groundwork and instructor in all these things.


Real Fasting: from meat and sins.


8. 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.” 2 Tim. ii. 5.


Why do we fast after the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee?


To the end then, that when we have gone through the labor 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,  Luke xviii. 12. 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 mayest learn that fasting is unprofitable, except all other duties follow with it.


The Ninevites fasted, and won the favor of God. Jonah iii. 10. The Jews, fasted too, and profited nothing, nay, they departed with blame. Isa. lviii. 3, 7; 1 Cor. ix. 26.


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 unskilfulness 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 temperament of body that admits it; and the nature of the country, and the season of the year; 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. Now if, when the body needs healing, such exactness is required on our part, much more ought we, when our care is about the soul, and we seek to heal the distempers of the mind, to look, and to search into every particular with the utmost accuracy.



Admonition - Dost thou fast? Give me proof of it by thy works!.


11. I have said these things, not that we may disparage fasting, but that we may honor fasting; for the honor of fasting 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 especially disparages it.


Dost 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 in enemy, be reconciled to him!

If thou seest a friend gaining honor, envy him not!

If thou seest a handsome woman, pass her by!


For let not the mouth only fast, but also the eye, and the ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies.

Let the hands fast, by being pure from rapine 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.


Fasting for all the senses explained


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.


12. 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 eateth the flesh of his brother, and biteth the body of his neighbor.


Because of this Paul utters the fearful saying, “If ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another.” Gal. v. 15. 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 neighbor thou hast made him who listens to the slander worse…


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Gleanings for the Holy Fathers – Fasting


Prayer, fasting, vigil and all other Christian activities, however good they may be in themselves, do not constitute the aim of our Christian life, although they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end. The true aim of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. As for fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done for Christ's sake, they are only means of acquiring the Holy Spirit of God. But mark, my son, only the good deed done for Christ's sake brings us the fruits of the Holy Spirit. All that is not done for Christ's sake, even though it be good, brings neither reward in the future life nor the grace of God in this. That is why our Lord Jesus Christ said: He who gathers not with Me scatters (Luke 11:23). Not that a good deed can be called anything but gathering, since even though it is not done for Christ's sake, yet it is good. Scripture says: In every nation he who fears God and works righteousness is acceptable to Him (St Seraphim of Sarov)


Fasting is an exceptional virtue; it represses bodily impulses and gives strength to the soul to fight against the poisoning of the heart through the senses, and provides it with a remedy against any past poisoning. Fasting causes the mind to be cleansed constantly. It withers up every evil thought and brings healthy, godly thoughts -- -holy thoughts that enlighten the mind and kindle it with more zeal and spiritual fervor. Elder Ephraim of Philotheou Mount Athos, "Counsels from the Holy Mountain"


A worker takes the trouble to get hold of the instruments that he requires. He does so not simply to have them and not use them. Nor is there any profit for him in merely possessing the instruments. What he wants is, with their help, to produce the crafted objective for which these are the efficient means.

In the same way, fasting, vigils, scriptural meditation, nakedness and total deprivation do not constitute perfection but are the means to perfection. They are not in themselves the end point of a discipline, but an end is attained to through them. St. John Cassian, Conference One


Abba Isidore said, "If you fast regularly, do not be inflated with pride; if you think highly of yourself because of it, then you had better eat meat. It is better for a man to eat meat than to be inflated with pride and glorify himself." The Desert Fathers


Abba John the Dwarf said, "If a king wanted to take possession of his enemy's city, he would begin by cutting off the water and the food and so his enemies, dying of hunger, would submit to him. It is the same with the passions of the flesh; if a man goes about fasting and hungry the enemies of his soul grow weak." Sr. Benedicta Ward, "The Sayings of the Desert Fathers," (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1975), pp. 85-89


Beware of limiting the good of fasting to mere abstinence from meats. Real fasting is alienation from evil. ‘Loose the bands of wickedness.’ For give your neighbor the mischief he has done you. Forgive him his trespasses against you. Do not ‘fast for strife and debate.’ You do not devour flesh, but you devour your brother. You abstain from wine, but you indulge in outrages. You wait for evening before you take food, but you spend the day in the law courts. Woe to those who are ‘drunken, but not with wine.’ Anger is the intoxication of the soul, and makes it out of its wits like wine. St. Basil, in his homilies on the Holy Spirit


Bodily purity is primarily attained through fasting, and through bodily purity comes spiritual purity. Abstinence from food, according to the words of that son of grace, St. Ephraim the Syrian, means: 'Not to desire or demand much food, either sweet or costly; to eat nothing outside the stated times; not to give oneself over to gratification of the appetite; not to stir up hunger in oneself by looking at good food; and not to desire one or another sort of food. The Prologue from Ochrid - by St. Nikolai Velimirovich (Volume 4, p 338)




Priest Seraphim Holland 2011     St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney, Texas


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[1] This letter was written, with very slight changes in the opening paragraph to men I serve in the Michael and Hughes units of the Texas State prison system. This version is edited to remove personal references.  The Red headings are added for the web version.

[2] Anything in (parentheses) is from the editor to protect identities

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St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney, Texas