Fasting. How we all *love* that word. It brings to mind deprivation. Monks and nuns and 'crazy' religious zealots starving themselves for God.
But, in both the Catholic and the Orthodox churches, fasting is a cyclical requirement of the faith. (In Orthodoxy, however, there appears to be a lot more fasting, and it seems to be much more complicated than it is in the Catholic church, but I've not gone into details, so I'm not clear on how and when and what.)
Archimandrite Webber, in this chapter, attempts to explain (briefly) the purpose behind fasting - it's not because our bodies are 'evil' and need to be smacked into submission, by the way.
The Greek word askesis (which apparently gives us the English word ascetic) means 'exercise'. It typically refers to the practice of prayer, fasting, making prostrations, and in other ways modifying out behavior to bring it in line with the spiritual life. This should *never* be an attempt to please God with our pain, or even just the effort that we're taking. If that's your intent, you're reducing God to an overseer - the projection of human characteristics and motivations onto God is something that should be avoided, as it creates unrealistic ideas of how to relate to God.
Rather, askesis is a matter of exercise, like an athlete preparing for a race. There can be no resentment, in the end, for all the work done in preparation for the race, because it is being done for a good reason. Likewise, we are all 'in training' spiritually, and the rhythm of fasts and feasts (remember that this is in the Orthodox church) allows us to intersperse rigorous periods of training with other times that are more relaxed. Lent and Holy Week are the 'training period par excellence' within the Church. This period of intense fasting is preceded and followed by weeks wherein there is no fasting at all, but the opposite of fasting is *not* self-indulgence, and feasting need never be an occasion of decadence.
'Fasting is like that balance that God puts into creation. Restraint and fasting characterize the lives of those who enjoy life to its fullest. How can someone be really contented who has not known hunger? How can someone really experience the joy of Pascha without having fasted during the weeks of Lent?'
Fasting is a therapeutic tool used to help bring us closer to where we need to be, physically and spiritually. It is not a punishment, it is not a matter of self-control or self-discipline. Those elements turn spiritual fasting into something ugly - as if our grim determination would make us more pleasing to God. It's also not meant to show the world that we can bear pain and hardship. We're not meant to fast so that others can see we're fasting. We're not meant to fast and make everyone miserable with our self suffering for God. That's not the point, and it doesn't please God.
Fasting is meant to help us learn the value of relying on God. The Orthodox apparently fast from midnight before Holy Communion in order to heighten their awareness of the desire to be united with God in Holy Communion. This should be the utmost theme in our lives. Fasting helps remind us that we are creatures in God's world, not above it.
The Orthodox church's setting of specific days and ways of fasting is meant to sort of regulate it - because if people were free to set their own fast days, a certain amount of pride would set in. Someone would always be fasting more than the next person, and feeling 'holier than thou' about it - thereby negating the usefulness of their fast, and possibly harming others if they slip and condemn the other person, judging them because their fast isn't as good or strict or what have you, as theirs. Fasting should be done 'in private' without a bunch of hoopla. No one should make a show of fasting - of going out to a restaurant and grill the waiter about the food, making sure they know you have to be very careful what you eat because you're fasting.
The physical aspect of worship is also briefly covered. As the author says, the body is not an 'optional extra' in the spiritual process. The body is a part of us, and the expectation is that we will be resurrected with the body, in some rarefied form.
'The act of prostration (metanoia, the same word Greek uses for 'repentance') in prayer is an extremely important one, and one we need to rediscover. It reminds us of the importance of the human body in prayer. The body participates as much in our path to God (which is not particularly obvious) as it does in any sin we may commit along the way (which is sometimes very obvious indeed- it is difficult to gossip when you have no tongue).
ETA: I forgot to mention, but Alana kindly reminded me, that the infirm, elderly, infants, ill, pregnant/nursing women are not required to fast. Also, a persons spiritual director (father) may modify their fast for personal reasons, so an individual may not be fasting from everything that others are. Which is yet another good reason not to go around judging others' fasts. You don't know their situation.