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February 13, 2018

Fasting: A Brief History
(and a Little Science)

- Gregory Drobny -

The further away I get from American Protestantism, the more amazed I am at the things I had missed for so long, many of which were right in front of me the whole time.

Chief among those is the discipline of fasting and how it relates to the spiritual life. It has been integral to Christian theology for millennia and yet somehow almost entirely ignored by modernity.

Consider a few examples from the Old Testament:

•   When Moses received the Ten Commandments, he had fasted for 40 days (Exodus 34:28)
•   The Israelites fasted on the Day of Atonement every year (Leviticus 16:29)
•   David fasted over his dying child (2 Kingdoms 12:16)
•   Jews fasted due to a threat of an outside force, Hamam (Esther 4:3)

In the Genesis account of creation, Adam and Eve were instructed to refrain from eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. While there are numerous interpretations of what this meant (literal, pre-figurative, etc.), the simple fact is that abstinence from food was the vehicle used to convey God’s will for man—it is hard to ignore this as being meaningful.

New Testament examples are also plentiful:

•   Anna, the elderly prophetess who fasted daily and spoke of the Lord “to all those who looked for redemption…” (Luke 2:37-38)
•   John the Baptist lived as an ascetic monk and fasted from nearly everything (Mark 1:6)
•   Christ fasting for 40 days (Luke 4:2)

Interestingly, a number of pastors and Protestant Christians I have heard and read through the years suggest that these were simply Old Testament “rules” that were fulfilled with Christ’s
resurrection. They do not apply to us in our current state—or so the logic goes.

Maybe someone should have told that to St. Luke before writing the book of Acts?

•   “As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away.”—Acts 13:2-3.

•   “So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.”—Acts 14:23

While some may dismiss these as mere descriptions of the ancient Jewish customs that people like St. Paul were still adhering to, it is important to understand that the Church as a whole saw this as a continuing practice that was inherently related to the liturgical cycles of Church life.

Point of fact, all the Saints and leaders of the Church for centuries saw fasting as integral to the
spiritual life.

•   “… let us turn back to the word which was delivered to us in the beginning, ‘watching unto prayer’ and persevering in fasting, beseeching the all-seeing God in our supplications ‘to lead us not into temptation,’ even as the Lord said, ‘The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.’”—Polycarp

•   “Fasting is an ancient gift which does not become old or grow outmoded, but is ever renewed and flourishes with vigor.”—St. Basil the Great

•   “The first commandment given to our nature in the beginning was the fasting from food and in this the head of our race (Adam) fell. Those who wish to attain the fear of God, therefore, should begin to build where the building was first fallen. They should begin with the commandment to fast.”—St. Isaac of Syria

The Church Fathers saw the practice of fasting as not only integral to liturgical life—which is to say spiritual life, as they did not see them as separate—but also its relationship to sinful desires. The more one indulges in order to satisfy every craving, the more one desires physical satisfaction in numerous areas of life.

All of this, of course, has been known to the Church for well over a millennia. What is new, however, is that even modern science is starting to grasp connections previously unknown. 

In a brand new work entitled The Mind-Gut Connection: How the Hidden Conversation Within Our Bodies Impacts Our Mood, Our Choices, and Our Overall Health, Emeran Meyer, MD, PhD lays out the latest, cutting-edge research from fields such as neuroscience and micro-biotics and how it relates to the mind-body connection. While the book is a compendium of knowledge regarding dietary issues [1] , relating specifically to the topic at hand there are several issues worth considering.

After explaining that, based on current evidence, fasting may have a “profound effect on the composition and function of your gut microbiome and possibly on your brain,” the author offers the following:

“There is good evidence that [fasting] removes microbes from the small intestine, where normally only a few reside, and sweeps them into the colon, where most gut microbes live. In people with an inactive migrating motor complex, microbes grow more abundantly in the interior of the small intestine, a condition called small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. This causes abdominal discomfort, bloating, and altered bowel habits… Fasting may also reset the many sensory mechanisms in the gut that are essential for gut-brain communication. These include our main appetite control mechanisms, which sense satiety. Having no fat in the intestine for one or more days may enable vagal nerve endings to regain their sensitivity to appetite-reducing hormones such as cholecystokinin or leptin, and it may also return sensitivity settings in the hypothalamus to normal levels.”

Modern medical science is essentially discovering that there is, in fact, a deeper and more profound connection between our psyche and what we do (and do not) eat—something the Saints of the Church have noted for millennia, and something that the overwhelming majority of Christians accepted for the first 15+ centuries after Christ. 

What changed? Why was this practice of fasting cast aside in the modern era as something “ancient” and therefore of no real value—or valuable only in a “symbolic” sense? 

Perhaps the full depth of the answers to those questions are better left explored at a later time.

For now it is important to remember that the Judeo-Christian tradition is filled with numerous examples of fasting, reasons for doing so, and instructions on how. These are now given even more credibility by the most up-to- date medical research. 

All of this when taken together should compel each of us to consider very seriously how we approach fasting, especially as we are quickly approaching Great Lent. In the words of Met. Kallistos Ware:

“We should not try to invent special rules for ourselves, but we should follow as faithfully as possible the accepted pattern set before us by Holy Tradition.”


[1] It is worth noting that the overall findings of the book lend a wealth of credibility to the Mediterranean diet’s health benefits and suggests that it could be even better for us than previously thought.

Even after wearing three different color berets in the US Army, earning a bachelor's and a master's degree, and working in every field from metal fabrication, music, and
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Even after wearing three different color berets in the US Army, earning a bachelor's and a master's degree, and working in every field from metal fabrication, music, and bar tending to politics and publishing, Gregory maintains that his greatest accomplishments by far are being a husband to the most beautiful soul he knows and father to four amazing and highly energetic children who each give ample opportunities for learning about life's mysteries.