... how are we to pair the quite prevalent approach today, that fasting is important but mustn't become 'unhealthy', with the many (many!) examples in patristic literature if fasting being a sacrifice of health, of physical well-being, etc?
Thoughts from the Fathers particularly welcome (perhaps someone has a moment to find and post for us a few examples?); but also of experience, etc.
First, a personal experience. When we joined the church and were getting guidance from our priest on fasting, he made a distinction between what we did as adults, and what we had the children do. For the children, we were to make sure their nutritional needs were satisfied even if it meant seriously relaxing the fast. For us, there was a "minimum" level we were expected to keep, but we could push as far beyond that as we wanted as long as we could do so without pride - nutrition wasn't even mentioned.
As for the Fathers, here are a few quotes that I found. First, Augustine had the following to say in one of his letters (#130, To Proba
), where he seems to lean towards care for health:
Fasting, and abstinence from gratifying carnal desire in other pleasures without injury to health, and especially frequent almsgiving, are a great assistance in prayer; so that we may be able to say, “In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord, with my hands in the night before Him, and I was not deceived.”
Whereas Jerome, in his Life of St. Hilarion
, praises the Saint's fasting with minimal regard to his own health:
From his thirty-first to his thirty-fifth year, he had for food six ounces of barley bread, and vegetables slightly cooked without oil. But finding his eyes growing dim and his whole body shrivelled with a scabby eruption and dry mange, he added oil to his former food and up to the sixty-third year of his life followed this temperate course, tasting neither fruit nor pulse, nor anything whatsoever besides. Then when he saw that his bodily health was broken down, and thought death was near, from his sixty-fourth year to his eightieth he abstained from bread. The fervour of his spirit was so wonderful, that at times when others are wont to allow themselves some laxity of living he appeared to be entering like a novice on the service of the Lord.
I think that St. John Chrysostom, in his first homily on the statues
, strikes a somewhat balanced note. Apologies for the greater length of this one, but I can't think of a good way to summarize it further, and there's much of value there (I'd encourage everyone to read it in full, for themselves):
... permit me to say something of the virtue of Timothy, and of the loving care of Paul. For what was ever more tender hearted than this man, who being so far distant, and encircled with so many cares, exercised so much consideration for the health of his disciple’s stomach, and wrote with exact attention about the correction of his disorder? And what could equal the virtue of Timothy? He so despised luxury, and derided the sumptuous table, as to fall into sickness from excessive austerity, and intense fasting. For that he was not naturally so infirm a person, but had overthrown the strength of his stomach by fasting and water drinking; you may hear Paul himself carefully making this plain.
... Timothy ... knew that youth is an age of difficulty; that it is unstable; easily deceived; very apt to slip; and requires an exceedingly strong bridle. ... “Let the body,” saith he, “be infirm; but let not the soul be infirm; let the flesh be bridled; but let not the race of the spirit towards heaven be checked.”
... Paul did not at first, nor at the outset give this counsel. But when he saw that all strength was overthrown, then he gave it; and even then not simply, but with a certain prior limitation. He does not say merely, “Use wine,” but “a little” wine; not because Timothy needed this admonition and advice, but because we need it ... bidding him drink just so much as would correct disorder; as would bring health to the body, but not another disease. ...
For what reason then did God permit that such a saint, and one entrusted with the management of so many matters, should fall into a state of disease; and that neither Timothy himself nor his teacher had strength to correct the disorder, but needed that assistance which was to be had by drinking wine? ... For of the diversified and manifold affliction which befalls the saints, I have reasons eight in number to declare unto your love. ...
The first reason then is, that God permits them to suffer evil, that they may not too easily be exalted into presumption, by the greatness of their good works and miracles.
The second, that others may not have a greater opinion of them than belongs to human nature, and take them to be gods and not men.
The third, that the power of God may be made manifest, in prevailing, and overcoming, and advancing the word preached, through the efficacy of men who are infirm and in bonds.
The fourth, that the endurance of these themselves may become more striking, serving God, as they do, not for a reward; but showing even such right-mindedness as to give proof of their undiminished good will towards Him after so many evils.
The fifth, that our minds may be wise concerning the doctrine of a resurrection. For when thou seest a just man, and one abounding in virtue, suffering ten thousand evils, and thus departing the present life, thou art altogether compelled, though unwillingly, to think somewhat of the future judgment; for if men do not suffer those who have laboured for themselves, to depart without wages and recompense; much more cannot God design, that those who have so greatly laboured should be sent away uncrowned. But if He cannot intend to deprive those of the recompense of their labours eventually, there must needs be a time, after the end of the life here, in which they will receive the recompense of their present labours.
The sixth, that all who fall into adversity may have a sufficient consolation and alleviation, by looking at such persons, and remembering what sufferings have befallen them.
The seventh, that when we exhort you to the virtue of such persons, and we say to every one of you, “Imitate Paul, emulate Peter,” ye may not, on account of the surpassing character of their good works, slothfully shrink from such an imitation of them, as deeming them to have been partakers of a different nature.
The eighth, that when it is necessary to call any blessed, or the reverse, we may learn whom we ought to account happy, and whom unhappy and wretched.