Lessons From A Monastery: Fasting and Almsgiving

“Do you wish your prayer to fly toward God? Give it two wings: fasting and almsgiving.”
—Saint Augustine

Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are the traditional three pillars of Lent and also monastic life.  We can look to the practices of religious communities in this area to help us understand what the goals of such practices are.

Fasting and Almsgiving should be closely connected to one another. They should be the fruit of our prayer and the “wings” which reveal how deep our prayer is really meant and not merely spoken. Fasting and abstaining from food should enable us to serve (give alms) with what we have fasted from and help us to feel compassion for those in need; leading us to a giving of ourselves and not only money.

We see this kind of service in the different orders of religious in the Church. For example, in the lives of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, we see a giving of oneself in service to the “poorest of the poor,” a fasting from not only food, but comforts and security—these actions being supported through a life of prayer. Similarly, the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal were started in New York in a drug infested neighborhood of the South Bronx. They live among the poor and destitute, sharing in their lives and bringing the Gospel to them. Traditionally in the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches there are no “orders,” no special charism separates one monastic community from another. The monasteries engage the local community in which they find themselves and serve their neighbors in the best way they can.

So, what can we learn from monastics, and how can we better practice fasting and almsgiving in our own lives? A clearer understanding of these practices can be a step in the right direction.

“We were and still remain completely uninterested in programs and trendy ideas that promise spiritual renewal. Real renewal means daily conversion, and this is a long, painful road. The holy Gospels are our map, the saints are our guides, and the sacraments are our strength for the journey.”
-Fr. Glenn Sudano, CFR

Trendy ideas and promises of a great new spiritual renewal are not needed. Holy simplicity and keeping to the tried and true traditions of our faith is. I also want to emphasis the need for fasting and almsgiving to be a communal act. We should not undertake these practices alone. The growing of our faith together as one Church is absolutely necessary.

Fasting

At Holy Resurrection Monastery the fasting discipline that is kept is the traditional Eastern fast during four specific times of year and on most Wednesdays and Fridays. Ideally this fast is a vegan one for the entire church (not just monastics) but is adjusted as needed for individuals. The purpose of this fasting is to learn to discipline oneself and tame the passions. Going without the luxury of meat and dairy products is a discipline which takes years to become a good habit, especially in a culture like Americas where we have an abundance of food and rarely go without. Fasting should make us view our relationship to food in a new light. Being hungry should make us grow in realization of our dependence on God and knowledge that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”(Matthew 4:4)

Through fasting we should give alms out of our cutting back on food and also out of compassion. Having made ourselves go hungry we should identify with the poor and needy and give out of gratitude.  A true hunger for God should result from fasting; true charity for our neighbor should grow out of our lack of contentment and satiety of our bellies. The poor must fast all the time from lack of food; Christians should voluntarily go without, out of love of God and neighbor (read more on fasting in the East here and find vegan recipes here).

Almsgiving

Almsgiving does not mean simply writing a check. It can include giving money, but a giving of mercy, of oneself in service and love should be our goal too. Most of us will not serve the dying and destitute in India, or if we do, it will not likely be our lifelong work. But just like in many convents and monasteries, we will first serve our community—our family, friends, and church members.

A real giving of one’s self through service to your family, friends, and community is not easy. It can be much easier to serve a stranger, or someone you see rarely, or are not very close to. Just like writing a check can ease our conscience, and can be easier than a real giving of ourselves in friendship, mercy, and kindness.

One of the blessings of being a part of a small community is genuine relationships are forged over time. I don’t mean perfect and always pleasant relationships but honest ones—whether we like it or not! We can be very good at hiding from ourselves but we cannot hide who we really are from those closest to us, whether family, fellow monastics, or fellow church members. This is one reason real Christian friendships and family are invaluable. In them we love, fight, and sand the edges off of one another—this is how we grow together in holiness. It is in the daily acts of service we truly come to know our own hearts.

Whatever acts of charity and fasting we each undertake will vary as much as these things vary in religious orders. But what remains the same is the necessity to pray, fast, and give alms. The liturgical seasons of the Church allow us to focus on these efforts together as one Church, as do the traditional Wednesday and Friday fasts throughout the year. Fr. Moses of HRM recently mentioned visiting a Catholic college campus and seeing an ad for “Meatless Mondays” a global movement to quit eating meat on Mondays for health and environmental reasons. Not a bad idea, but Fr. Moses’ thought was, “Why not return to the traditional fasts of the Church and you will have meatless Wednesdays and Fridays as well as meatless fasting periods during the year? We do not need to reinvent the wheel and our own Christian traditions are certainly not lacking.” Wednesday is the day Christ was betrayed by Judas and of course Friday the day He was crucified; this is why we fast on these days. As a Church we can look within our own traditions to find ways to better live our lives instead of to outside sources.

Purity in our deeds and relationships will be the lifelong work of all Christians. We can easily get caught up in the externals of our faith—getting caught up in the rules of fasting, in our prayer routines, and patting ourselves on the back for our good deeds. These are certainly temptations we all have and things we fail at from time to time. This doesn’t mean we should disregard these practices. As in all ascetical efforts, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are not ends in themselves. They are the means to reach the goal of a deepening of our relationship with God and neighbor; love is always the goal.

“This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own” (Is 58:6-7).

The love, and acts of mercy mentioned in the book of Isaiah can and should be the result of any efforts we undertake to eat less. We can give more bread to the poor if we fast and have food to give, we can shelter the homeless when we identify with their pain through our own acts of self-denial and discipline, and we can cloth the naked from our fasting from worldly desires and goods. We can grow closer to one another, not turning our backs on those around us, through acts of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Parents know what it is to sacrifice for their loved ones, even in the smallest of things. These things do not go unseen—God knows and sees all. Individuals can make an impact on their parish, local community, and in the lives of those they know in the simplest and most loving ways as well. The religious of the Church have their own charisms, but they serve through acts of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These three must be the pillars of every Christian’s life, and not just in Lent, but all times of the year.

image: Christian Bertrand / Shutterstock.com

Jessica Archuleta

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Jessica Archuleta blogs at www.everyhomeamonastery.com where she and her husband share their experience of being Monastic Associates (oblates) of Holy Resurrection Monastery located within walking distance of their home. She and her family moved across the country to St. Nazianz, Wisconsin (a small Catholic village in the middle of beautiful farm country) after the monks had to make the move themselves. She is a Romanian Greek Catholic (Byzantine), a homeschooling mother of nine amazing and fun loving children and often learns more about love and life from her kids than she could ever teach them. You can find Every Home a Monastery on facebook and Pinterest.

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  • Jessica

    Hi Ms. Guest,

    I can’t imagine why we wouldn’t describe the fast as being vegan just because there are people who keep a vegan diet for reasons other than fasting. It’s a quick simple way to give an idea of what the fasting guidelines are (even if not complete since shellfish is allowed and honey eaten).

    For the second question, the discipline of keeping the fast on Mondays varies in Eastern Catholic monasteries in the same way it varies in Eastern Orthodox monasteries. Each community decides what works best for them.

    Thanks for your question and for reading!

  • Mr. Guest

    Good “food” for thought! Enjoyed the article.

  • Ms. Guest

    Hi Jessica…Here’s some fodder for your imagination. Some Catholics’ objection to the word “vegan” in the context of Christian monasticism has little to do with “people who keep a vegan diet for reasons other than fasting,” also known as dietary vegans. I’m mainly objecting to misunderstandings that can occur when people read the word “vegan” and think of the associated philosophy, such as one finds in ethical veganism, environmental veganism, etc. You are in the midwest, which doesn’t seem to have much of a vegan culture as far as the few chances I have had to observe. But if you say “vegan” in many parts of the country, a whole non-Christian philosophy, lifestyle and culture comes to mind. Have you ever been to a vegan potluck and meeting put on by a secular vegan society? Wow.

    Thank you for letting me know that some Orthodox monastics do not fast on Mondays. I have stayed at many Orthodox monasteries, in several states and in Europe, and have never come across that practice, so I’m glad to know of it. I’d be interested to know of an example.

  • Jessica

    I am originally from California so I know a about the vegan lifestyle. I still don’t see a problem with calling the fast vegan because that word sums it up better than any other word. I also don’t think it is a big deal or a reason to get upset. You are welcome to describe the fast however you wish of course!

    Regarding Orthodox monasteries not fasting on Mondays, I personally do not know of any and would not even bother to inquire about such things. I asked one of the monks I know and he said he has been to several who officially say they keep the fast on Mondays but in practice do not. Either way, it is the business of each monastery to keep the rules of the fast according to the needs of the community.

  • Jessica

    I think you are the only person getting upset about all of this. I gave a link for more information on the fast which explains in further detail how people keep the fast in the East. Just because I do not agree with you doesn’t mean I do not know what I am talking about or haven’t done my homework. I do not have a problem using the word vegan, if you do then don’t use it. I have never met anyone in the Eastern Church who has a problem using the word vegan either so I am not alone in my belief.

  • Jessica

    There are links in the article to give further explanation.

  • Jessica

    Oh and my comment about not bothering about asking such things was said because I am not going to go around and ask monasteries (or other people) about their fasting habits. The Church gives us the traditions and we practice them according to our own needs and the needs of our communities/families. The Monday fast is optional for monasteries. Not being nosy doesn’t mean I don’t know what I am talking about.

  • Jessica

    The fast is a time that many people will clean up their diets and eat healthier. Habits that hopefully we learn from and carry over into the rest of the year. Fasting periods are a time to think about our eating habits. The fasting rules are definitely not ends in themselves and everyone must adjust them to their own needs. Thanks for reading and your comment Dr. Longbottom,

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