In this recording, Archimandrite Athanasios Mytilinaios (1927-2006), answers the question: “Is Fasting a Virtue?” He also talks about Christian fasting and dieting, gluttony, and explains the three attributes of a virtue quoting St. John Climacus (of the Ladder).
Audio source: “Answers to Sunday school questions”, no. 124, March 22, 1987 (in Greek)
Archimandrite Athanasios Mytilinaios:
I come to another question. It says: “Is fasting a virtue?”
Most certainly, yes! All the more, it is the first virtue of the virtues, as we are about to see. You will ask: “How come the first one?” Yes, it is the first one and I will show it to you.
That fasting is a virtue – how can we know that? What does it mean “virtue”? Let me give you the definition so that [you will] always know it.
To categorize something as a virtue or not, [we take into account the answer provided by] St. John of Climacus to the question “what is virtue?”
He answers: «έργον προς Θεόν εν προαιρέσει» [labour directed to God by choice]. This is the definition of “virtue”.
What does this mean? It means three things.
That something is «έργον» [labour] means [it] demands effort, something personal. This [must be] directed towards God. And [it] happens on my accord. These [three] constitute the virtue. So, let’s take fasting. Is it a labour? Undoubtedly, it is a labour. Because when you do not eat what you wish for and you have to eat something simple and plain, is this not a labour, is it not a «έργον»? Are you doing it willingly? Second element.
What you willingly do, are you doing it for the sake of God? Third element. Then, that’s a virtue.
If one of the three [elements] is missing, then we do not have a virtue. Even if the other two are present.
Let’s take an example. If I am on a diet: I am fasting, it’s laborious, I am doing it willingly but not for God. [Instead] I do it to lose weight, for the sake of my figure. Now, is this a virtue? No! Another example. If I do it for the sake of God, it is laborious—but not willingly. I grumble. Since I am talking to young people, take this example. If the family is fasting at home and you do not wish to partake willingly… “Oof, fasting again?” Then, children, this is not a virtue since it’s not happening willingly. Hence, you see that if one of the aforementioned three is missing, then we do not have a virtue. Fasting is indeed a virtue because it requires these three.
Let’s take a look at something else. Do not forget that, along with two other virtues, there are the first three virtues that were given by God to Adam and Eve («πρωτόπλαστοι»). God gave three virtues to Adam and Eve. Which is the first one? The first one, to work in paradise. The second one, to guard paradise [Genesis 2:15]. The third one, to fast, meaning to not eat from the fruit of the forbidden tree. [Genesis 2:16-17]. Thus, three virtues. St. Basil says that fasting is “of the same age” [«συνηλικιώτης»] as man. See that this one is a really old commandment, not because it’s first from a temporal scope, but also from a qualitative point of view. Listen. “You might say is humility, love, faith not …”. Give me a second.
Do you know which are the deadly sins? They are seven. Do you know which one is the first among them? It’s gluttony. And do you know why it’s the first one? Because, gluttony opens the door, the gate for the other six deadly sins to enter. They are called “deadly” because they lead the soul to death. If one does not repent, it’s safe to say that he loses his soul. Which one is the first? Gluttony. What is gluttony? It’s the passion which makes me want to satisfy two things. As [over]saturation that is called gluttony [«γαστριμαργία» in Greek] and as throat as tasty food [i.e. the pleasure of taste] that is called greediness [«λαιμαργία» in Greek]. When I become a slave of this passion—it’s a terrible passion—right after it are the carnal sins.
The second deadly sin includes the carnal sins and so on. So, what stands as “the gate of the deadly sins”? Gluttony! Which is the gate of virtues? The opposite, fasting. This is why fasting is the gate of the virtues. Our hymnography also says so and that’s why during Lent we talk about fasting etc. Fasting enters so that we may also cultivate the rest of the virtues.
But what is the essence of the virtue of fasting? The virtue of fasting is polyhedron, multifaceted. It has a plethora, plethora, plethora of precious facets. Of course, I am not doing an analysis on fasting right now, but I am simply answering a question. Even if we assume that fasting had absolutely no value to offer at all… it would still have one great propriety left—obedience. Meaning, God said so. The end. Why do you fast? God said so. This is what Adam and Eve said to the devil. God told us not to eat. They only failed to honor it.
Thus, children, know this. Why do we fast? “How did you come up with this thing? Where is it written?” [This is asked] by those who have a spiritual laziness, indolence and do not want to perform any spiritual labor. “Where do you find this written and so on …?” Children, God said so. And since God said so, it’s over. Otherwise, God says so through the church. [Besides], the Holy Scripture is filled with [references] to fasting, filled with! But even if it was not, since the church says so, obedience to church is obedience to God. That’s the answer to this question.