In ancient Egypt there lived an abbess named Sarah. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers reports of her that “for sixty years she lived on the bank of a river, and never looked down to see the water.”
As someone who loves all the sights of this world that God created good and beautiful (Genesis 1), it took me a long time to have some inkling why ancient Christians would find this story admirable. Did Sarah not appreciate the goodness of creation? Did she have an unhealthy, negative assessment of the material world?
We don’t know the answer. There is no more to the story. But I’ve come to see that there is another way of understanding it that gets at the heart of Lent.
First, the story would not be considered an ascetic feat if the abbess didn’t appreciate the water’s beauty. Otherwise, how would her abstinence be a sacrifice? It wouldn’t be an achievement for her to keep herself from looking at something she didn’t actually want to look at.
This highlights the importance of fasting as sacrifice. It isn’t a diet. It isn’t the same as giving up a bad habit that we want to get rid of in the first place, like smoking. (Though quitting is a good thing!) Fasting, rather, is about giving up something that is good for something that is greater.
Thus, second, Sarah “never looked down” at created beauty because she (metaphorically) always looked up to uncreated beauty. She had fixed the eyes of her heart on God.
This is why Christians fast—not because they believe the material world to be bad, but because they believe God to be better. In Lent, Pope St. Leo the Great taught, we strive to “feel something of the Cross at the time of the Lord’s Passion.” Why? “to be found partakers also of Christ’s Resurrection, and ‘pass from death unto life,’ while we are in this body.”
Last, fasting prompts us to meditate on Christ, who is Beauty incarnate, and who yet for our salvation had “no [earthly] beauty that we should desire Him” (Isaiah 53:2). Sarah understood the paradigm shift this calls for: Resurrected life only comes through dying to this life daily. To see that Beauty, we must become its image.
So we fast and sacrifice truly good things in this life in order that, even “while we are in this body,” we might taste something of the joy of eternal life.
Mentions of Sarah in Sayings of the Desert Fathers (search for “Sarah”)
Dylan Pahman’s Beauty Unseen
Pope St. Leo the Great’s sermon On the Resurrection
Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is also a fellow of the Sophia Institute: International Advanced Research Forum for the Study of Eastern Christian Life and Culture. Read more of his writing on the spiritual life at Everyday Asceticism.