Feast Day 14 December
We know that Father Nimatullah lived a holy life. He was a man of prayer, totally “enraptured by God”. He spent days and nights in meditation, prayer and adoration of the Eucharist. The Virgin Mary was his patron and Father Nimatullah prayed Her Rosary. He was also a very humble, sensitive and patient person who lived his monastic vows of “obedience, chastity and poverty” to perfection. His fellow brother Monks and the people who knew him called him “The Saint” while he was still alive. One of his students was Charbel Makhlouf (St. Charbel), 1853 to 1858.
In 1998, Pope John Paul II declared that Father Nimatullah “is an example of Christian and monastic life for the Maronite community and for all disciples of Christ today… He is a sign of hope for all Lebanese, particularly for families and young people.”
A large part of our Monastic tradition has involved fasting. We are told that St Charbel’s fasting was severe, that he would often only live on small amounts of herbs. Fasting, abstinence, prayer and meditation have been an important part of our Maronite tradition. Fasting always comes before a great feast. It allows us to prepare ourselves spiritually for the feast. We know from the Maronite Synod of 1736 that in the lead up to Christmas, abstinence was required for the twelve days from 13th – 24th December. This meant abstaining from eating all meat, oil, wine and animal products (eggs, milk, cheese etc.). These are fasts that St Nimatullah and St Charbel would have observed.
While this is not a requirement of the Church, it is one of our traditions and we can all benefit from reinvigorating it, especially in the lead up to great feasts such as Christmas. It gives us the opportunity to prepare ourselves and refocus on the things that matter leading up to the feast. It is a wonderful example to our children. If you want to know more about our tradition of fasting then read on….
Where does fasting originate?
The tradition of fasting originates from very early times. In the Old Testament we hear from Daniel. “I ate no delicacies, no meat or wine entered my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, for the full three weeks.” Daniel 10:3
Moses also fasted. “So he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments”.
We know that Jesus fasted. “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.” Matthew 4:1-2
Jesus also tells us
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Matthew 6:16-18.
So why fast?
Fasting is not profitable unless it is accompanied obedience to Gods word. This becomes apparent in the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus was asked by the disciples of John “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Matthew 9:14.
Our Eastern Fathers have written extensively on the importance of fasting.
“Fasting is medicine.” St John Chrysostom declares in his beautiful homily on fasting. He continues:
“Fasting is the change of every part of our life, because the sacrifice of the fast is not the abstinence but the distancing from sins. Therefore, whoever limits the fast to the deprivation of food, he is the one who, in reality, abhors and ridicules the fast. Are you fasting? Show me your fast with your works. Which works? If you see someone who is poor, show him mercy. If you see an enemy, reconcile with him. If you see a friend who is becoming successful, do not be jealous of him! If you see a beautiful woman on the street, pass her by.
In other words, not only should the mouth fast, but the eyes and the legs and the arms and all the other parts of the body should fast as well. Let the hands fast, remaining clean from stealing and greediness. Let the legs fast, avoiding roads which lead to sinful sights. Let the eyes fast by not fixing themselves on beautiful faces and by not observing the beauty of others. You are not eating meat, are you? You should not eat debauchery with your eyes as well. Let your hearing also fast. The fast of hearing is not to accept bad talk against others and sly defamations.
Let the mouth fast from disgraceful and abusive words, because, what gain is there when, on the one hand we avoid eating chicken and fish and, on the other, we chew-up and consume our brothers?”
St John Chrysostom is not discouraging fasting from food, but he insists that fasting from food must be accompanied with fasting from sin.
“Fasting secretly purifies the soul”, St Ephrem the Syrian declares in his hymn. He writes extensively on fasting and uses it as poignant imagery in his hymns.
Of course our founding father Mar Maroun was a hermit and as such fasting, prayer and meditation would have been a major part of his life. We learn from his biographer, Theodoret Bishop of Cyrrhus, about one of Mar Marouns disciples, the female Domnina. She also fasted and we are told:
“As food she has lentils soaked in water; and she endures all this labor with a body reduced to a skeleton and half-dead for her skin is very thin, and covers her thin bones as if with a film, while her fat and flesh have been worn away by [her] labors. Though exposed to all who wish to see her, both men and women, she neither sees a face nor shows her face to another, but is literally covered up by her cloak and bent down onto her knees, while she speaks extremely softly and indistinctly, always making her remarks with tears….
But how long can I expatiate in my eagerness to relate all her virtue, when I ought to bring into the open the life of the other women who have imitated both her and those we recalled above? For there are many others, of whom some have embraced the solitary life and others have preferred life with many companions – in such a way that communities of two hundred and fifty, more or less, share the same life, putting up with the same food, choosing to sleep on rush-mats alone, assigning their hands to card wool and consecrating their tongues with hymns.“
Fasting is a spiritual discipline and of course we are not asked to take on the extreme fasting of the hermits. However we can all benefit from fasting and we can benefit others as well. Recently Pope Francis asked for prayers and fasting for peace in Syria.
So in the twelve days leading up to Christmas from 13 December let us consider fasting. Maybe it is just to avoid alcohol, avoid chocolate or lollies or perhaps give up meat. What a great discipline to teach our children. But most importantly let us consider how we are going to prepare ourselves spiritually for Christmas. We may choose to partake in the Christmas Novena that starts on 15 December, commit to daily liturgy, say the rosary or assign a time for prayer each day.