Global Resilience Solutions > Category:Orthodox Christianity

Fasting Part Two: Fasting for Spiritual Purposes


Ageless Beauty – Timeless Health:
Building a Lifestyle that Automatically Creates the
Health, Immunity and Longevity You Want

Toronto, Canada: June 4-5, 2011

Over the course of human history, fasting for spiritual purposes has been at least as widespread and quite probably much more so, than fasting for better health.  We also need to remember that non-Western and pre-industrial cultures did not tend to divide life into categories of “physical” and “spiritual” as we do out of (bad) habit. 

Goals of Spiritual Fasting

There are many different ones.  As I write this, tens of millions of Eastern Christians are beginning their Holy Week fast leading up to Pascha (Easter).  For them the goal is to become more open to divine influence and to actually participate in the events they’re celebrating.  Of course, there are many different spiritual reasons for fasting:

  1. To become more open to divine influence
  2. To receive divine guidance on a particular issue
  3. To receive healing, whether physical, emotional or spiritual
  4. To help someone else receive what they need, whether healing, guidance or protection
  5. To prepare for a spiritually difficult task

In reality, of course, the majority of people who would say they practice spiritual fasting seem to do so on a semi-conscious level at best.  They often think they’re fasting, when they’re simply practicing a form of abstinence, or they’re not clear on how fasting works or exactly what they wish to achieve.

Is fasting a form of sacrifice that God demands imperiously?  Is it a form of punishment for human sin?  Well, if you read the ancient Christian spiritual sources carefully, such as the various collections of “sayings of the desert fathers” from the fourth and fifth centuries, it’s quite clear this isn’t the case.

What emerges is a bit more complex.  Because fasting cleanses the body, it also makes the mind more lucid.  If you consider that the desert dwellers who pioneered Christian spiritual fasting were totally dedicated to remaining in an unbroken state of inner “prayer of the heart”, this lucidity of mind was very important.  The bottom line from their experience is that abstinence from heavy foods and periodic fasting will enable you to maintain focused inner attention and will cut down on the inner dialogue, swirling emotions and physical symptoms that ensnare your attention.  That’s obviously a vital consideration for any sustained program of prayer or meditation, and explains why spiritual fasting has been so widely used worldwide for millennia.  

So if we ask how spiritual fasting works, it’s clear the explanation bridges the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual planes of our being, creating a cleansing and unifying effect.  It’s not simply a matter of fulfilling an abstract divine commandment; it has to do with how your mind-body organism is intended to function.  This is something that Orthodox Christian ascetics, Kriya Yoga practitioners and many native American medicine people, to name just a few, will tell you.  

Here’s a really interesting video on spiritual fasting that also ties in the health aspect in an admirable and well thought out way.  Be sure to pause it to give yourself time to read the text, in addition to listening to the excellent commentary:

A Spiritual Warrior’s Explanation

Without contradicting any of the foregoing, the Coptic Orthodox Monk, Matthew the Poor, offered this explanation of fasting. When he uses the word “self”, he is using it in the sense of the “ego” or “false self”:

“[When we fast] we must reach a state of accepting not the partial, but the complete annihilation of the self, and this can only take place by an act of deliberate volition.  In other words, if we begin by any exercise, such as fasting, which brings us to the partial overcoming of the self, we need to supplement the feeling of satisfaction that comes from accepting this state with an acceptance of the total destruction of the self.  This is obtained by the mental acceptance of death itself, with no dismay or restraint.  ‘But we received the sentence of death in ourselves’ (2 Corinthians 1:19).  

“When our father Abraham offered Isaac his son, he did so partially with his hands, but totally in purpose.  When Abraham proved his willingness to offer Isaac, his only son, God did not leave him to carry out the slaughter; when the offering had been only partially made on the physical level, God considered the sacrifice to have been actually carried out.  This, and only this, is why God redeemed Isaac with a ram – a symbol of Christ – who was to redeem the souls of those whose self was destroyed partially by their actions, but wholly in their intentions.”1.

In terms of spiritual fasting, that’s certainly “food for thought”!  Think about it.  Better still, try it.  Just remember, though, as with fasting for health, the same advice and warnings apply here, so go back and read the previous post before you start!


~ Dr. Symeon Rodger 🙂

The REAL Meaning of Christmas

As you walk through the bustling shopping malls listening to carol music or tune in to the talking heads of radio and television yapping about the “meaning of Christmas”, you can’t help but be struck by one inescapable fact – if the meaning of this allegedly monumental event of two millennia ago is what they say it is, then… frankly… who cares?

“Peace on earth?”  Fat chance.  And if the birth of Jesus was about putting an end to armed conflict, then it wasn’t such a great success.  “Being surrounded by family and friends?”  Heck, most of us look forward to a vacation where we can get away from our relatives.  And we won’t even discuss Santa, Rudolph, or – worse still – snow and sleigh bells.  

So what is it about?  Well, as it turns out, the ancient Christian tradition has some much needed light to shed on the event.  And when you consider what this tradition really says about Christmas, it’s actually breathtaking… and totally different than the dumbed down and distorted perspectives that most Christians have dancing in their heads.

Prepared to be challenged?  Then read on!  Just know that this is not “light reading” or fluff…

And I’ve tossed in a bit of the ancient tradition’s Christmas music for your enjoyment too, some in Byzantine chant and some in Slavic melodies, sung in English and other languages.

Jesus Who?

The ancient liturgical texts of the Christian East unambiguously affirm that the one born in Bethlehem is a divine person, and “older than ancient Adam.”  Yet he is also fully human, “not merely in appearance, but in reality.”  So he is divine and uncreated, yet he has or takes on human flesh, a human mind and a human soul.  The ancient hymns put these words into the mouth of Jesus: “I who fashioned Adam’s form, now willingly put it on.”  

And because he is divine, yet adopts a human nature, he is just one person, one single identity: “The person of your divinity and of your flesh was one.” 

What does this all mean?  For the first time in all history, the Uncreated, the Absolute being entered into the created and mortal flesh of humanity, transmitting to that flesh a life-creating power it had not known since the dawn of time.  And since man is the microcosm and mediator of creation, whatever happens to his flesh, his organism, is transmitted to all of creation:

“Hearken O heaven and give ear O earth.  Let the foundations be shaken and let trembling lay hold of the nethermost parts of the world, for our God and Creator has clothed himself in created flesh.”  

This is why the ancient texts refer to the human body of Jesus as “the double-natured seed giving life in the furrows of the earth.”  

Why Did God Become Man?  

Nine hundred years ago, a so-called theologian in Canterbury named Anselm wrote a small book with that title.  Called Cur Deus Homo? in Latin, Anselm’s answer to this question would forever distort Western perceptions of Christmas, help reduce Western Christianity to juridical moralism and sever the bond between humanity and the cosmos.  Good thing he was totally wrong!

The answer to our question is simple.  “I have come openly,” says Christ in the ancient hymns, “to restore and to glorify with myself the fallen nature of mortal man.”  The “restore” part relates to the idea of salvation.  It’s the negative part, the recovery from the undesirable condition of mortality.  

But the “glorify” part is a whole other story and equates to a concept that was erased from Western Christianity a millennium ago, the concept of “deification” (theosis in Greek).  This means that by joining the human organism to its uncreated prototype through the birth of Jesus Christ, God not only repaired the damage of the fall, but also opened up the possibility for each person to unite him or herself with the divine.  

We’re not talking about some sort of fruitcake, pseudo-mystical experience here, not about something produced by emotional frenzy or drugs or whatever.  You see, the ancient tradition maintained that you could have direct, intimate contact with God even here, now in this lifetime.  Yet if you examine Western theology closely, you’ll notice it denies that is even possible.  Disagree?  Got news for you – it’s an open and shut case and easy to prove.  However, no time to do it here.

The Day the Universe Changed

The ancient texts go on to explain in detail, if in metaphorical language, how the birth of Christ has in itself opened the path to the true life of deification for every person:

“Come, let us greatly rejoice in the Lord, as we sing of this present mystery.  The middle wall of partition has been destroyed.  The flaming sword turns back.  The Cherubim withdraw from the Tree of Life.  And I partake of the delights of paradise from which I had been cast out through disobedience.  For the express image of the Father, the imprint of his eternity, takes on the form of a servant…”

And this miraculous rebirth extends to all of creation so that, in a real and physical sense (and everything in the ancient tradition is very “physical”), all of creation – rocks and trees, mountains and streams, the birds of the air and the fish of the sea – all of it “becomes” divine, filled with divine energy (a technical term in the ancient tradition) and supremely important.  If you’re looking for a “green-friendly” theology, look no further.

It’s Not About Salvation

As you may have noticed above, the birth of Jesus isn’t just about salvation, but about something much greater.  And this fact, which the ancient Christian mystics and their modern successors have verified through their own spiritual experience, led them to a startling conclusion…

…God did not become man just to “save us from our sins”.  God would have become man even if the fall had never happened and we didn’t need help to escape our mortality.  In the words of the great mystic and theologian, St. Maximos the Confessor:

“This is the great hidden mystery.  This is the purpose for which all things were created.  It was with a view to this (God becoming man) that God brought forth all beings.”  

In the words of the 14th century writer, Gregory Palamas, who successfully defended the ancient tradition from the the dualistic, body-hating tendencies (1) inherent in the emerging Western theology of his time:  “Hence the original creation of the human being, which was formed in the image of God, was for the sake of Christ, so that the human being should be able one day to make room for its archetype.”  

What’s the Big Deal?

Well, if you know anything at all about the conventional view of Christianity, you don’t need to read this part, because the foregoing has just blown the doors off your world.  I guess what it comes down to is this.  Here we have the original, ancient version of Christianity, which claims:

  • Jesus Christ is a divine person
  • By taking on a human body and soul, he transmitted divine, vivifying power to all humanity and through humanity to all of creation
  • So on the original Christmas day, the whole universe actually experienced a dramatic change 
  • By joining the divine and human organisms together, human beings were given the possibility of “becoming god” 
  • Joining the two natures together was the purpose for which everything was created 

It blows the mind….

Wishing you and yours a most blessed Christmas!

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger

Noetic Prayer: The "Real Chocolate" of Spiritual Life

In the pre-dawn darkness, broken only by candle light, I felt a tap on the shoulder.  “The ‘yerondas’ will see you now,” said a voice from behind, speaking Greek.  I turned to follow him out of the Church, where we had already been praying for half an hour, and across the compound to another of the monastery’s buildings. 

As I entered the abbott’s humble quarters, he rose to introduce himself in a very warm and welcoming way, as is typical on Mount Athos, a penninsula jutting into the Aegean off the Greek mainland, where only Orthodox Christian monks have lived for the last thousand years. 

Though we were both multi-lingual, we quickly settled on French as the easiest form of communication for us and began to talk about various things.  I told the abbott I would soon be teaching theology at the university level for the first time and asked his advice. 

“The most important thing is the heart, ” he said.  “Theology is not primarily dates, events and facts.  It’s primarily the transmission of a living experience.  You need ‘the prayer’ – it’s the key to everything.  The more you get a grip on ‘the prayer’, the greater the effect of your teaching.”

Hmmm… not “prayer” generically, but “the prayer”.  An enigmtic expression, yet very clear to the two of us conversing in the candle-lit darkness of the Athonite wilderness. 

What is “The Prayer”?

We’ve already talked this week about the importance of prayer to your personal resilience and how to begin a life of prayer that gets results and increases your faith in the process.  Today, though, we’re going to talk about the highest form of prayer, the “real chocolate” of spiritual life.

It’s sometimes called “unceasing prayer” because it becomes eventually a state of being.  And it’s technically called “noetic” prayer because it’s the prayer of the nous, as opposed to the rational mind.  The nous is the ancient Christian term for your deep, intuitive mind – it’s a form of intelligence within you that knows reality directly and not through concepts, the way the rational mind does. 

To clarify, this isn’t prayer in the sense of “give me, give me” or “save me from the consequences of my own stupidity”.  This kind of prayer is about achieving a living communion, an assimilation of being, with the Absolute Reality. 

We build our resilience by remaining as far as possible integrated into the Absolute (God), under His influence and open to His energies (the energies of God, by the way, is a technical term that goes back at least to the 4th century), and the only way to do this is to cultivate a meditative state of openness and inner stillness. 

What’s the catch?  Your mind stream, that internal dialogue that locks you up into an individual, isolated and ego-centric perception of reality is what prevents this.  The more active the mind stream, the more we identify ourselves with our thoughts and fall under the sway of delusive thinking and powerful emotions we don’t control.  The Absolute can’t act within us under these circumstances. 

Your real self is not your thoughts or your emotions.  So the more you’re under the mind stream’s influence, the more you lose track of who you are, until finally you totally identify your self with your personality, which is little more than a collection of reactions to past experiences, to cultural brainwashing, to media propaganda, as well as of numerous other influences, including fluctuating hormones, biorhythms and phases of the moon.  In the end, you’re totally controlled by your environment and lose your inner freedom.  

Noetic prayer frees you from all that and enables you to become who you really are.  It also opens you up to the Absolute and keeps you that way.  You begin to perceive the world in much more vibrant colors, so to speak, than other people do.

One master of noetic prayer, the famous elder Porphyrios of Athens (d. 1991), knew everyone’s name, could communicate with animals and, if you came to see him from overseas, he might tell you clairvoyantly to fix the front step of your house in California and to make sure your sister in Florida sees a specialist for her bad knee.  Such is the power and effect of noetic prayer. 

On my visit to Athos in 1998 I was too late to meet him in person, but we talked to his senior disciple for several hours about the old man.  When another spiritual guide had once told an inquirer to consult Porphyrios, the inquirer protested.  The spiritual guide said, “My child, Father Porphyrios is like a color TV set; I am just a black and white one.” 

Beginning to Practice Noetic Prayer:

There are many different approaches that can work for different people.  For modern Western people, it’s often best to use basic meditation as a starting point, since this is a very effective way to gain a direct experience of the nous and to separate your self from your mind stream – your thoughts and emotions.

Just use your mental attention to follow your breath in and out.  When thoughts and emotional states arise and try to dominate your inner attention, just ignore them and return your attention to your breathing.  This is called “watchfulness” – using the nous (your mental attention) to keep your mental continuum free of clutter.

The more you do this, the more you’ll discover that the centre of your noetic energy is in “the place of the heart.”  The place of the heart is in the upper chest, and not everyone experiences it in exactly the same location.   For most, it’s in the upper chest, above the physical heart and slightly to the left,  no doubt related to the heart chakra plexus of yogic anatomy.

Now it’s time to request the divine presence, and there are several ways to do this.  The continuous repetition of a short prayer text is one of the most often used methods.  In ancient Christianity there were several in use that we know of, including various psalm verses, snipets of hymns, etc.

Eventually the formula that dominated and virtually replaced all others was the now famous “Jesus Prayer”.  And when the abbott above talked about “the prayer”, this is what he meant.  The text of the Jesus Prayer is “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”  It’s also called the “five word prayer” because in the original Greek, it’s only five words. 

Repitition of the words, which can be done aloud or just mentally, is often combined with the breathing, though not always. 

However, it’s possible to pray noetically and request the divine presence with no words at all.

So it’s not an accident the ancient Christian spiritual tradition (paradoxically the best documented and least known or understood spiritual tradition anywhere!) has always been called “hesychasm” – the practice of stillness or silence.  Note that this “silience” is interior and has nothing at all to do with whether you talk or not. 

By keeping your mental attention in the place of the heart, and more generally inside your physical form, you eventually learn how to defeat the disordered emotional drives of your past, as well as all outside influences, so that you experience an extreme inner peace.

Noetic prayer is, on the one hand, like candy – you can’t taste it just once. You want to stay there always and you experience a great compulsion to do that.  On the other hand, it’s really tough to master and takes continuous and regular practice.  This includes times you set aside to just practice this, because, without separate practice times, your efforts to remain in prayer during the hustle and bustle of the day won’t likely bear fruit.

Ultimately, this kind of prayer leads directly to a direct encounter with the one, true and living God.  This is often called theoria (vision) or the vision of the Uncreated LightThis experience confers real knowledge of God, erases all possibility of doubt in the existence of God, and leaves you in what St. Isaac the Syrian used to call “awstruck wonder”.

It is an experience far beyond anything the human imagination can possibly dream up.  All I’ll say about it is this, quoting another great master of noetic prayer from the 20th century…

“Compared to the Divine Light, all the lights of this world, even of the sun at high noon, are nothing but darkness.  At that time there takes place a union, a communion of the Infinite and Uncreated with human beings, who are created and limited.  By His energie, the latter are truly transformed into children of the Most High.  It is then and only then that you can be assured in all your being that you really are created in the image and likeness of God.  Every limitation of time and space disappears, you soar above duration and space and find yourself immersed in peace.”1

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger

1. from The Living Witness of the Holy Mountain, ed. Alexander Golitzin, p.157.

OMG – a Spiritual Practice that Actually Works!

Early this month I spent a week or so in the Toronto area to attend a conference, as well as to see some friends and relatives. 

So it meant train rides, rental cars, hotel room, racing to get to the conference sessions on time, meeting a ton of new people and trying desperately not to be late getting to my friends ‘n relations.  Lots of fun, to be sure, but also really hectic and full of unforeseen challenges. 

And when you have that combination of a hectic schedule, constant changes of plan, events you don’t control, new people, great people, and difficult people, it can take you on quite an emotional roller coaster ride.  And, indeed, I was aboard that one, and not always to my liking!

At one point I just felt like yelling, “STOP the world and let me off!”

A Common Delusion…

We often think that if this would just stop, if my boss were different, if my spouse weren’t so self-absorbed, if this person just liked me, if…if…if… then my life would be peaceful and joyful. 

Fortunately, ancient traditions know better.  In both Tibetan Buddhism and Orthodox Christianity, they tell us that our real problem is never “out there”.  Rather, it’s our tendency to view reality from the ego’s perspective.  And the ego always divides reality into 3 categories – I love it, I hate it, or I just don’t care.  These can be thought of as attachment, aversion and indifference. 

Think of anyone you know and your thoughts will tell you immediately which bucket they’re in today!

Buddhism refers to these 3 attitudes as “poisons”, and it’s easy to see why – they cause you constant suffering and keep you chained to your tiny egocentric self.  We instinctively know this and that’s why we tend to react to the strong emotions the 3 poisons bring in one of two ways:

– we repress the emotion, or
– we act out the emotion

…and neither works at all.  They just continue our slavery.  The poison just gets worse.  And we think, “if only the poison didn’t exist, all would be well.”  So we resist, we try to control our world, we repress some thoughts and accept others, all without understanding what’s really happening, and so we suffer more.

But what if….  what if there was a way to transform this very poison into healing medicine?

A Spiritual Path that Actually Works!

Once we realize the poisons are within us, we can take ownership and even relax a bit! 

Now, when we feel strong attachment emotions for someone or something we see as desirable or strong aversion emotions, or complete indifference, we can simply say to ourselves, “Oh, here comes that heavy emotional stuff again… ho hum.”  We can relax and watch the movie without feeling the need to repress the thoughts and feelings or to let them take over.

Suddenly we feel this huge spaciousness all around us.  Everything’s calm, even though the situation hasn’t changed.  The boss can still be a jerk and my neighbor can still be drop-dead gorgeous, and the emotional reactions associated with these still come over me, but there’s a huge difference.

For the first time, I’ve truly surrendered.  I’m willing to just be with the emotional energy.  I’m willing to accept what seems unpleasant, as well as what feels pleasant, and watch it all.  So, for the first time in my life, I’ve gone beyond my old default setting of running toward what I thought was pleasure and running away from what I thought was pain. 

Now, at last, I’m breaking free.  I can simply BE. 

And what used to strike me as uncomfortable, as messy, as pleasant or painful, I now relate to as the richness of life, as the raw material for my emotional growth and spiritual development.  In a metaphorical sense, I’ve learned you really can transform lead into gold. 

And from now on I know that there’s nothing I can’t handle, because I no longer need to “handle” or control anything. 

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger 🙂

How to "Live Each Day as Your Last"

You’ll remember from last time that we said the biggest advantages to living each day as your last are:

1. If you live each day as your last, you’ll never succumb to petty emotional reactions

2. You’ll do nothing carelessly ever again – your actions will be increasingly filled with power

3. And because you’re increasingly conscious of the eternal consequences of your choices, you’ll stop wasting this precious life and start making spiritual progress

You may have noticed there’s a big difference between “remembering your death” and “living each day as if it were your last”.  It’s easy to remember intellectually that your time in this world is limited.  Everyone of us 6+ billion people is aware of that fact.  But that’s a far cry from the power that comes from living each day as your last.

To harvest the benefits of “living each day as your last”, you have to commit to training yourself to do just that.  There are no short-cuts here.  This means focusing all your efforts on living deliberately, on disengaging the autopilot of habit and taking full responsibility for even the smallest decision you make. 

Spiritual traditions, like Orthodox Christianity or Tibetan Buddhism teach this principle so that people will avoid self-destructive actions and use their limited time for spiritual advancement.  Martial traditions, like the Samurai, promoted it because this practice gives you greatly heightened situational awareness, and in the Samurai’s world, situational awareness was just about the only thing standing between you and your last day. 

The bottom line, though, is this practice is central to developing your resilience.  Back in 1982, a certain British soldier on the remote Falkland Islands watched in horror as a massive  Argentinian force invaded.  As he tells the story, his initial reaction was sheer terror.  Then, for some reason, he experienced a sudden inner shift.  He accepted the fact he was about to die, and from that moment on he was able to take positive action.  Of course, he ended up surviving the war, but having learned a priceless lesson that no classroon could ever teach.

Some lessons in life can’t be taught; they can only be learned.  And living each day as your last is just such a lesson.  For more information, go have a look at pages 247-8 of The 5 Pillars of Life.  Great info?  Yes.  However it’s nothing more than an interesting read unless you put it into practice. 

So go try it out and have some fun.  Fun??  Yes, fun!  Make a game out of it.  The same way you change your physical diet to see if your stomach feels better, you can change your mental diet to see how adopting a different focus, like “living each day as your last”, makes you feel.  At first it’ll be hard to stay focused, of course, so don’t beat yourself up.  Just have fun with it and see what happens. 

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger