Dr. Roxanne Louh: Well, hello, everyone, and welcome to Healthy Minds Healthy Souls. We are once again so excited that you’ve taken the time to join us on this Tuesday evening. My name is Dr. Roxanne Louh, and I am joined by my co-host and husband, Fr. Nicholas Louh. Together we are serving at the community of St. John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church in Jacksonville, Florida. This radio show has actually been a really great opportunity for us to cast our net wide, as really an extension of our ministry there, and we’ve so enjoyed it. We just want to thank you, the listeners, for always being a part of our show.
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Tonight, as I mentioned, we’re going to talk about fasting. Specifically we’re going to take a look at that time-honored tradition of using fasting really as a tool in your walk of faith. We’re honored to be joined tonight by Rita Madden. She’s the nutrition director for Mediterranean Wellness, a company that focuses on chronic disease prevention, and she has a podcast on the subject of food, health, and the Eastern Orthodox faith that you can actually listen to right here on Ancient Faith. She’s also recently published a book entitled Food, Faith, and Fasting, which Nick and I certainly both enjoyed reading, so we’re excited about tonight’s topic, especially in light of tomorrow beginning our Advent Fast. We’re certainly hoping tonight’s show will help equip you to utilize fasting this Advent season as a way to really reconnect your soul to your faith.
Welcome, Rita! Welcome to the show!
Ms. Rita Madden: Thank you. Thank you very much for having me and thank God for the work that you’re doing. It’s very beneficial, I know, to many.
Dr. Louh: Thanks, and you as well. So, Rita, tell us a little bit—we’re curious—tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to wanting to shed light as a nutritionist on the idea of fasting as a tool. What brought you to it?
Ms. Madden: It’s actually kind of a very interesting thing. I grew up in my mom’s kitchen. Best place on the planet to be. I was just always surrounded by wonderful, nourishing, tasty food in this enjoyable environment. As you know, in our Orthodox community, we’re eating a lot together. At one point, I was in this parish, and a fasting season was coming along. I just saw this overhaul of our coffee hour take place. Out went the regular half-and-half we’d put in our coffee, and I just saw all of these different alternatives come in, such as margarine instead of butter and coffee-mates or non-dairy creamer versus the regular creamer. As a person working in the field of nutrition, I just started to cringe.
So I went to the spiritual father of the community and I said, “Father, it’s making me really sad. Fasting just in its basic essences is just such a healthy way for us to eat, but when we replace all these foods that are just naturally good for us with these unhealthy, man-altered alternatives, this is making fasting be very unhealthy.” You know what he said to me? He said, “Rita, I want you to dive into our tradition and learn what you can learn about how our tradition teaches us to eat.” From that, I did it, and I was blown away. Then he allowed me to share what I discovered. We were doing classes every week, and from there this all started.
Dr. Louh: How interesting! Okay, so it was through the notion of “oh, I don’t like what’s happening” to actually learning about it and really coming around to embracing it.
Ms. Madden: Absolutely.
Fr. Nicholas Louh: And, Rita, I was just kind of curious: How did fasting look like in your family growing up?
Ms. Madden: I’m just very blessed, like I said, to have my mom as the most amazing cook on the planet. She comes from a culture where they’ve been fasting forever. So I actually joke around. I’m like: they’ve mastered fasting recipes [so] it doesn’t even taste like they’re fasting, because so many of the dishes are so delicious. It was just incorporated, and the way we were encouraged to eat was the rhythm of the calendar. Our liturgical calendar outlines for us a fasting period and a non-fasting period.
What I really admired about how my parents fed us [is that] it was really always connected to our faith. As we see in many families, when it’s time to feast it’s time to feast. Certain foods will only be prepared at that time of year. There was this fasting that led up to it, where, again, things were moderated and you’d be more attending more services which guided us in prayer more, to actually prepare for the celebration. At a very young age, seeing this rhythm, but never really diving into the nutrition aspect of it until, again, I saw our coffee hour blow up with a lot of unhealthy…
Dr. Louh: And you got older.
Ms. Madden: Yes, absolutely.
Dr. Louh: Talk to us a little bit about… I mean, you talk about in the book, which I just love, love, love this chapter, about nourishing our bodies from the earth to really be able to care for our souls. Like I said, I loved reading that really because I’ve always believed that our bodies really have to be cared for in order for our souls to thrive. When we don’t fuel our bodies with proper nutrition and balance and the rainbow, we don’t really think as clearly, our energy and moods fluctuate, and it sort of becomes what I think of as difficult to live life with God’s potential. Talk to our listeners a little bit about the importance of nourishing our bodies from the earth so that our souls can really thrive.
Ms. Madden: Absolutely. It’s a wonderful topic. Something I’ve really seen come to life is in the workshops that I conduct, I like to show a video. It’s actually a 60-minute clip. It’s these food scientists that essentially will go out into nature and they’ll taste a piece of fruit. Then what they do is they extract some of the properties of that fruit, and then they go into a lab and they synthetically try to design that flavor. Basically, what they’re able to do, through food science these days, is they can take a flavor… Let’s say you’re drinking some beverage. They can have the flavor create this burst in your mouth and then die off. Basically, in this 60-minute episode, they’re showing how we’re able to create food addiction, because we are actually now chemically altering our food so much.
A lot of times when I’m doing my work and I look at someone’s diet and I see that a lot of these foods that they’re eating contain a lot of artificial flavors, preservatives, additives, it just really takes a toll on our body. It can create inflammation in the body. When inflammation is occurring in the body, it makes us feel very fatigued. If we want to attend more services or [give alms] or even just do our daily work around the house, caring for our families, possibly fulfilling our job tasks, everything seems that much more difficult. When people return to eating the foods that God intended them to eat—God in his wisdom created us to partake of his nature, his creation, then people just start to realize—“Wow, I’m more alert. I have more energy. I’m sleeping better.” All these things start to come into place. But that is the biggest thing. It’s almost as if that alone is a fast. It’s really trying to say it’s time for me to clean up my diet and focus more on eating the foods that God created versus all these foods that we know have now been altered.
Dr. Louh: Absolutely. And you’re right, it really is a bit of a fast just to eat food the way God intended it to be eaten. I think that we’ve struggled as a human race in what we have done to food, as you’ve talked about. I know Nick and I both have had fathers who’ve just recently passed away from cancer, so in the last three to five years we’ve really, really learned a lot about nutrition and what it does, you know, what food is really doing to our bodies, but I do think that for a lot of families who are a little bit more well-informed, who’ve learned a little bit about how we’re supposed to eat food as it is from the earth, how much of an obstacle it really is for families and for children to be able to eat food as it was intended, because everywhere you go quick food is processed food and food on the run is fast food, and everything is artificially colored and very few things are natural. No longer are we having potatoes; we’re having potato chips. What tips do you have for families on really trying to stick to that fast and to eating food as God intended it to be eaten? because that’s really how our bodies are going to function best.
Ms. Madden: I really want to say this because my heart feels so heavy many times when I’m working with families and they realize—and even individuals—“I had no clue that I was eating all this fake stuff!” I study this stuff and it’s confusing, but this is how it is in our culture. It’s like this wave: this new food product gets introduced, and for so long in this culture we’ve been told to focus on the fat and the carbs and the proteins before we take the first bite—but we don’t talk about reading the ingredient list.
The one thing I try to encourage families to do is, first and foremost, focus on looking at your ingredient list. We can handle the fat and the carbs and the protein and how much you should be eating of that when we talk about portion control, but first and foremost we need to read our ingredient list. Pretty much, if you wanted to make it at home, you could buy all the ingredients at that store. For example, we see sometimes on our food labels: partially hydrogenated oils. If you look at the history of it, it wasn’t intended to be a bad thing. During the era of the Depression when butter was really expensive, the two chemists went into a lab and went: “Okay, we’re going to be able to feed the country for a cheap price by making something that resembles butter.” Their intention was good, was pure, we hope, but 40 years later we’re like: “What? Butter is better than margarine!” We just don’t know this stuff unless we really read the ingredient list. Sometimes on the front of the package something can be advertised as “heart-healthy,” and then you turn it around and it contains high-fructose corn syrup, which we know is an altered sugar that the body can’t process.
Dr. Louh: It’s getting harder and harder.
Ms. Madden: So we need a starter list. Yeah, and the thing is I put a starter list, because it can be overwhelming. I would say—and I actually do have a podcast on this—there’s just a few starter ingredients, and if you really focus on looking at your food labels and become ingredient detectives… I always joke when I tell people, “Turn that food label upside-down. Instead of focusing on the fats and the carbs and the proteins, focus on the ingredient list instead.” I could just name—let’s start with five. If you see “partially hydrogenated oils,” if you see “high-fructose corn syrup,” if you see—
Dr. Louh: Anything where you wouldn’t know what it is, right? Anything that doesn’t sound like a wholesome ingredient that you can’t pronounce.
Well, I just wanted to remind our listeners to give you a call-in, Rita, because I know they probably have so many questions about what you’re asking and wanted to know more about your tips. Our number is 855-237-2346. Again, give us a call: 1-855-237-2346. You can also join us in the chatroom at ancientfaith.com/live. We’re looking forward to hearing from you.
Fr. Nicholas: I was also going to build— I’m sorry. Go ahead, Rita.
Ms. Madden: I was going to say that it’s funny. You made a really good point that the lists can be overwhelming, but the frustrating thing is, like I said, because I work with this stuff, it’s still so confused for the general public because you might see something like “riboflavin,” but people don’t know that’s a B-vitamin. That’s insane. I would just say if you need a starter list, the resources are out there. I could even mention those at the end, to direct people to them.
Fr. Nicholas: Just to kind of build on what you were saying, Rita, because obviously we want to talk about the spiritual aspects and the spiritual benefits of fasting as well, but one of the things that I often share with Roxanne is how concerning it is that healthy food and even healthy eating is not cheap. It seems to be more of the expensive food items. My concern sometimes is that for people that it is out of their price range to purchase foods that are that healthy. Do you have any suggestions for things that are… Food within the Orthodox Church is so vast and so beautiful and tastes so great and as you said so beautifully earlier, sometimes you don’t even know that you’re fasting because the food tastes so great. But do you have suggestions about some foods that may not be so expensive that you would recommend that are some really wholesome foods that people can eat during this fasting season?
Ms. Madden: I do a whole workshop just on this, because it is almost like a myth that I like to bust. We hear two myths: Healthy food can’t taste good and healthy food is expensive, but, again, I tell people, “If you look at you look at your food budget when you fast compared to when you don’t fast, and you’re taking out the dairy, you’re taking out the meats and you’re taking out the alcohol for different fasts, you’re really going to save a lot of money.” But the different strategy of eating on a budget, you’re absolutely right: we want to focus on using our dollars wisely. The big thing is, when you look at beans and when you look at whole grains, these can be foods that really, really satisfy with a small amount. Again, if you buy them in bulk, they’re going to be even cheaper.
The fruits and vegetables: I really try to encourage people, as much as possible, if you can, shop at your local produce market. By me, my local farmer’s market is less than half the cost of what I would pay for the fresh fruits at the grocery store. If that’s an option, try to take advantage of that. Another thing is: buy the fruits and vegetables that are in season. We live in culture where we can have kind of everything accessible to our fingertips at any time in the area of food, but if we’re really focusing on, okay, apple season is rolling around; apples are going to be way cheaper than buying strawberries. In a way, that’s allowing us to simplify our eating, which we’re called to do when we’re fasting. Frozen vegetables and fruits, those can also be maybe a cheaper alternative that is still a very nutritious way to go.
The interesting thing, too, is that when we start to cut out a lot of the processed foods that contain a lot of the additives and preservatives that our body doesn’t need, we free up our food dollars to be able to spend a little bit more maybe on some quality fish if we’re going to have something like that, because when you cut out, for example, something that doesn’t really have any nourishment, you’re like: “Oh, I have some more food dollars to use on some of this other food.”
Dr. Louh: Absolutely. The wholesome stuff.
Fr. Nicholas: Thank you so much, Rita. Once again, you’re listening to Healthy Minds Healthy Souls. Call in to our show. We’d love to hear some fasting techniques and fasting ways that you practice during the Advent season. You can reach us live here at Ancient Faith. Our number is 1-855-237-2346; that’s 1-855-237-2346. We also encourage you to join our chatroom. Simply go to ancientfaith.com/live and be part of the conversation. If you haven’t joined our Facebook page or even our Instagram page, all you have to do is put in the search engines for both of those different social media accounts, just put “Healthy Minds Healthy Souls” in your search engine; it’ll come up. We provide some encouragement just as you’re going through your day and your walk of faith, just to lift you up and remind you of how much God loves you and to also give you some words of encouragement and wisdom as you go throughout your week.
So, Rita, as we take kind of this little bit of a turn towards the fasting spiritually, I’d love to get your idea, in your conferences and in your presentations: what are you hearing are some of the big misconceptions about fasting spiritually and how that applies to our life?
Ms. Madden: I would say some of the biggest misconceptions… Well, one is—this isn’t so much on the spiritual end of it, but “I have Type II diabetes, so I can’t fast.” It’s interesting, because in the workshops that I do, it’s amazing to see diabetics walk away with the recognition that actually fasting is the way I should be eating the majority of the time. There’s so much research to back up a plant-based approached approach to eating to manage diabetes. Another thing that a lot of people—I think this is where the spiritual end comes up to it—“I just don’t feel like it’s going to benefit me.” A lot of people [who] say that feel like: “Okay, I’m just going to try to tweak it to the way that I see fit.” Where, interestingly enough, it may be they feel like just focusing on the prayer and almsgiving is where they’re going to benefit more, but God in his wisdom had this whole package designed for us, knowing that we’re creatures that need discipline. This aspect of food can really tie in to help be a tool for our prayer and our ways we give alms.
I guess that’s the big thing. “It’s not really going to benefit me.” “Eh, it doesn’t benefit me. I’ve tried it in the past. I can’t do it.” Those are the things that I tend to hear.
Fr. Nicholas: Right, and I think sometimes, too, one of the things as a priest that I hear so often is that either, if they don’t fast, those reasons that you had mentioned are definitely in line for those who have chosen not to fast, and for those who are fasting, it becomes more [that] they almost, for lack of a better word, it almost becomes like a ritual that they’re simply just doing it because it’s what they’ve always done and they do it just simply out of habit, but they never really tie it into the other parts of those three pillars of our Orthodox Christian faith. You said it so beautifully earlier that prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are really the three pillars on which Orthodoxy stands. We get these that’s so beautiful in the Orthodox Church, and you so beautifully say it in your book entitled, Food, Faith, and Fasting, and we want to really encourage our listeners: This is a really great book to have, even to give during this season of Advent and Lent, just a great book.
I think sometimes we can kind of forget to connect the dots. These three pillars that we have in our Orthodox Christian faith and the beauty of our Church is that we have seasons that allow us to take a break from the busyness of life to say, “Slow down. Be still and know that he is God,” and remember that we can’t live on bread alone, but that we have to live by every word that comes out of God’s mouth and through Scripture and through the teachings of our Church. I love the fact that you have that focus.
I guess the question I want to give to you is: Spiritually speaking, how have you found and what kind of ways do you encourage people about the benefits of fasting spiritually?
Ms. Madden: I think you just said it best, and I can kind of build on that a bit. Traditionally, fasting has been a tool to really actually make us feel hunger. We’re living in a culture where—you know as well as I know—you can walk into a post office and get food, you can walk into a gas station and get food. We have a limited amount of time that we actually feel true hunger, but the fasting is truly given to us as a tool to drive us to feel physically hungry so that it’s a physical reminder of what our true food really is. What I really encourage people to do with this fasting is, even if you have never done it—maybe you’ve just become Orthodox or you’ve been cradle and it’s just something you’ve never really practiced or tried and didn’t know what you were doing or didn’t have success with it—this is such an opportune time to give it a try.
Even if you start with something small, with trying not to snack between meals, choosing the foods that are prescribed to us, and start to notice the feeling of physical hunger and wait it out… If you know dinner’s going to be in an hour, instead of just grabbing something to address that hunger, make your source of nourishment for that moment to get you to that next meal to be focusing on prayer. Allowing that physical hunger that we can feel by limiting our food choice and the amount of food we eat can physically just make our bodies feel something that can drive us to praying more.
Dr. Louh: Rita, what would you say on that line to people who might say, “Gosh, in waiting that out I’m finding myself thinking more about food than prayer.” Is there a line that you kind of cross where you’re no longer thinking about food and you’ve sort of embraced the spiritual realm? How does that work?
Ms. Madden: That’s a beautiful thing. In fact, there was a blog I came across, oh, years ago, and one of the priests that was responding on the blog, he said: Don’t let the cure from the passions become a passion. I think that’s very interesting. There’s another quote by a head cook at a monastery. She said: When we eat our foods, we try to make them be nutritious and tasty and with real ingredients so that we don’t spend our time thinking about food a lot. I would say right here what you need to do here is trust the tradition.
If you’re trying to replace that feeling of hunger with “Let me pray a bit more; let me pray a little bit more,” things just happen. There’s a wonderful—let me see if I can find it—it’s a writing by one of the Church Fathers—I had it in front of me a second ago—basically, what he was saying is: I felt hungry, and I said, “Let me pray.” Oh, is this it? I should have highlighted it, but I didn’t know it was going to come up. Basically, he said: I was waiting till the third hour to eat, and then I decided to pray a bit more. The sixth hour came, and I said, “Let me pray a bit more.” Oh, here:
A brother was hungry early in the morning. He fought his desire as to not eat before the third hour. When the third hour came, he forced himself to wait until the sixth hour. At that time, he broke his loaves and sat down to eat. Then he stood up again, saying to himself, “Now I will wait until the ninth hour.” At the ninth hour, he said the prayer and saw the devil like smoke rising from his manual work, and his hunger vanished.
The whole story here is that, as he was waiting, as he continued to wait, he continued to pray. He saw his hunger become less and less. We see so many of these stories laid out for us by the Church Fathers. Once you start to pray, these things, our desires seem to recede to the point where if someone is really feeling like they’re focusing on the food that much more that they never know if the meal is going to be in an hour, then they start to recognize if they waited until that meal, the next time they’re going to do that, it’s going to become that much easier. It’s almost like a physical training for their body to wait it out.
I would just encourage you to trust the tradition, trust what we’re supposed to be doing when we’re feeling that hunger. Again, not waiting four hours, but one hour might be enough for someone to start.
Dr. Louh: Mm-hmm, when they start.
Fr. Nicholas: And I think what’s so important about what you’ve been saying, Rita, is I think so often, if we’re not careful, fasting becomes simply an external exercise. Christ warns us; as we read in Scripture he’s very clear when addressing the Pharisees specifically about having a fast, an external fast, in other words, where we’re just fasting either to show people that we’re fasting, we’re talking about what we’re fasting. Even in another way, when we fast we kind of just make of it so much like an idol that we do. If we don’t tie it back to the prayer—and I loved how you talked about this, because at the cornerstone of our faith is Christ, who practiced this prayer, who practiced this fasting. He asks us to follow in his same life, to follow in his own teachings.
I would kind of build upon what you were saying, it’s that to our listeners, and really one of the things that we challenge ourselves with is that fasting without prayer is simply going on a diet. It has to be tied to the fact of us praying and that we’re taking that time to connect. This is where the Jesus Prayer is so powerful. We’ve been telling on our show for months now is that one of the things is that God knows our heart and he knows our person. Sometimes we become also ritualistic in our prayer, in other words, where you just say the same prayer without really connecting it. I would want to encourage you and to encourage our listeners, because what you say in this book I think has a great balance of both the faith and the physiological benefits of fasting, but that we remember that, if it’s apart from prayer, this is nothing more than just going on a diet.
Christ yearns for us. He doesn’t want our stomach; he wants our heart. He wants us all in. I encourage you, just as we hear, as we go through this Advent season, how St. Basil talks about fasting from sin and knowing and being consciously aware of what are the struggles that are in our life. Those struggles can’t just come from a physical action, but they have to take place through prayer and self-reflecting, looking at our lives and how we can better who we are. Great, great comments, Rita. Appreciate it.
Dr. Louh: Looks like we have a question in the chatroom here, from Nicholas. The question is: Do the vegetarians eat the way God intended? If yes, then how should vegetarians fast? Should they eat meat in order to be spiritually correct? Rita, what would you say to Nicholas?
Ms. Madden: Hmm. Wow.
Dr. Louh: Great question!
Ms. Madden: Yeah, that is. Father, did you want to…?
Fr. Nicholas: [Laughter] I’ll tell you what: I’ll start us out, and then you can share some of your amazing wisdom. I think that if fasting simply becomes a ritual of just simply depriving ourselves of a litany of items that—
Dr. Louh: Like meat and dairy.
Fr. Nicholas: —like meat and dairy products and the oil, which have specific reasons for why those particular items are used, and we can talk about perhaps if we have the time. But if it simply becomes a ritualistic, external…
Dr. Louh: Practice.
Fr. Nicholas: ...practice, I think that what I would say is that I would be concerned about fasting from anything that we do, fasting from any tangible food item, because fasting is meant… Fasting, yes, there’s a part of it that’s a rule of fasting, but more important than that, I would add to that is that it is a tool. If we look at these gifts that God has given us through the Church as tools, that way we avoid worshiping those acts but practicing and imparting those acts into the way in which we live, I think we’ll be so much better off.
It concerns me sometimes, in a world where it’s so easy to hang onto these tangible things almost to the point where we idolize them, that we’re fasting from this and we’re fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays, but if we don’t ever tie it back to—Why are we fasting on Wednesday? Christ was betrayed on that day. There’s significance of that day. Why are we fasting on Friday? That Christ himself was hung on the cross on Friday. If we ever lose touch of the spiritual realm of why these things were put into place, they just become an external act, and Christ, as I mentioned earlier, is very clear when he talks to the Pharisees, the people of faith in the Jewish tradition, the Jewish leadership, if you will, that he wasn’t happy with that.
To answer that question specifically, I would say that I would ask them to look at other things other than just food to fast from. As St. Basil says, I would fast from sin, I would fast from what we’re looking at, I would be fasting from the time that we’re spending on doing things that may not be as productive. There’s other ways other than those meat, those tangible items that we oftentimes think about to fast. But, yes, whatever it is that allows that depriving of our yearning to happen would be what I would suggest to do.
Dr. Louh: So what you’re saying is really that the idea is to really stretch ourselves past the physical in any way, shape, or form. Even for that vegetarian to be stretched out, as you were saying, a couple of hours, or maybe eat less of the exciting processed foods but maybe more wholesome food from the earth: something that causes a departure from your physical giving in to temptation, to embrace more of the spiritual realm. Would you say that, Rita?
Ms. Madden: Absolutely. It’s interesting, and I heard this, and I don’t want to be quoted exactly, but supposedly there’s a monastery in the Middle East where, once a year, the monks actually partake in meat. They eat meat as a statement to say: Look, we’re not saying meat is bad, that’s why we don’t eat it. Anything that God has made, anything that we bless before we eat, they say it’s okay. And they’re kind of doing that for a statement, but the whole concept is explaining why we fast, why monks eat the way they eat. This is a tool to help us in becoming more humble, becoming more Christ-like, emptying ourselves of sensual desires and the desires of this world so that we’re more open to Christ.
To that point, I work with lots of people that are new to Orthodox or they’re Orthodox for a while and their diets have had to change maybe due to managing a chronic condition or something along those lines. The way they fast is a bit different, but exactly to what you said, Dr. Louh, we can fast from other things. Father, you were mentioning the same thing. I think everyone has this line; everyone can see where they’re at. That’s the beauty of Orthodoxy. This is a constant journey that we’re on. Maybe this year we fasted and there was a lot of these quick, processed foods. I always joke around: everyone knows that Oreos are a fasting food. But maybe we’re like: This fast, what am I spending too much time with, and can I try to limit that, be it in my eating or in my entertainment? We’re called to decrease our entertainment, and that just opens up more time and less excuses for us to be at the extra services that are taking place.
I think it is important to recognize that anything that God made is—how we use it that can make all the difference. St. Maximus the Confessor really does explain that well. It’s how we use the things that can change them, be it food or entertainment or anything of that [kind]. Fasting is like the way the Church gives us that reset button, that we so readily all need.
Dr. Louh: Helps us reconnect back with the soul. I love that, Rita. Thanks so much. You guys are listening to Healthy Minds Healthy Souls. Again, that phone number is 855-237-2346. We’d love to hear from you, but right now we’re going to take a quick break. When we come back, we’re going to get some more nuggets of wisdom on the importance of fasting. We’ll be right back.
Dr. Louh: Welcome back to Healthy Minds Healthy Souls. We’re talking about fasting tonight, and we have our Rita Madden on the lines with us, happy to take your questions. We’re inviting your calls at 855-237-2346. You can also email us a question at email@example.com. We also invite you to join us in the chatroom at ancientfaith.com/live.
So, Rita, tell us a little bit about children and fasting, the elderly and fasting, sort of these sub-populations of people. I hear a lot of people who say, “Well, we fast, but my kids, you know…” Or some families say, “We don’t like to fast, because we don’t like to do it in front of our kids and we don’t make the kids fast.” What would you say to families who have children about fasting? Should children fast?
Ms. Madden: This, again, I always encourage people, first and foremost, to talk to their spiritual father, because it’s important to have an understanding and know what’s going on with the family. But in terms of the nutritional aspect of it, because that’s the biggest question I get a lot, it is safe for children to fast, again, as long as we are focusing on the whole foods and the foods that nourish us and that we’re eating the real foods. God in his wisdom has provided us the nutrients that we need in those foods, so there is definitely a little bit of a focus on that.
I think that the other thing that is beneficial for children as they grow into this tradition is to understand, as we’ve been talking about, that the fasting is way greater than just food. So maybe during a fasting period that they family unit decides: How are we going to give alms as a family? The child grows up seeing the connection with “Oh, the eating changed a bit”—whatever that means for your family. Maybe it’s like: “Okay, maybe as a family we’re not fully ready to dive into fasting, but we’re ready to clean up the diet a bit, help our child decrease the amount of sugar they’re eating a bit.” That could be a start in one area. They see this connection with: Now we’re going out and volunteering as a family together. We decided to put some of our money towards this. Even having more prayer time as a family together during the fasting periods helps the children at a very young age to connect the three that are all connected. But it is definitely safe for children to do as long as the nutritious foods are what are being prepared and served.
Dr. Louh: So, really, I guess what I take away here is that fasting is really so much about depriving ourselves in some way from the desires of this world, from the physical world, and that when we do so, we are more spiritually in tune, spiritually connected, so there’s lots of ways you can do that for children as well. I think something that is somewhat difficult for somebody who says, “I want to become vegan” or “I want to become vegetarian,” I always tell folks in my practice who are talking about that that if you’re going to do that, you have to really be willing to take the time to do it right, because you can’t just eat pasta and rice all day and call yourself a vegetarian because you’re going to be missing out on so much; and that to truly do vegetarianism well takes thought, takes planning, takes care, and takes, I think, an understanding of where you find different nutrients and how you put them together to create the different ways that our body needs food to function.
I think even in the same way is fasting, that when we deprive, to be sure that we are doing so in a way that doesn’t sacrifice our health or make us—for somebody who has blood sugar issues, to load up on a bunch of rice and then have these ups and downs in your sugar isn’t really good either. Would you say is there a right way to approach fasting? Do we need to be thoughtful about the way we are approaching it?
Ms. Madden: It’s interesting because something that I realize when I go through my fasting periods is that—you said it best—a lot of times eating more of a vegetarian, vegan diet, there is just more prep involved in the cooking: there’s more chopping to do, we’re using more vegetables. I actually think—I’ve thought about this a few times and it’s amazing—“I’m tired. I just got home from a long day at work. Oh, I want to make a cheese sandwich and have it with some slices of fruit and veggies and just call it a meal.” Then I start to realize: I’ve got to get involved in this chopping. But, you know, this is so beautiful because this really is an opportunity for me to pray. Instead of being frustrated about the fact that there’s an extra step involved because I’m trying to prepare myself a vegan meal, why don’t I reshift my way of thinking?
I spent a lot of time at a monastery, and the nun that I was cooking with really emphasized that. She’s like: It’s one of the best times to pray, when you’re preparing a food. You fuse your foods with those prayers. St. Gregory really says that. The monks become wizards in the kitchen when they’re praying as they’re cooking. There is this aspect of recognizing it is going to take a little bit more time, but that time is an opportunity for us to pray.
Another thing—I think you brought it up, too—any diet can be done unhealthfully or healthfully, no matter what we’re eating. If we’re doing a vegan diet, it can be done unhealthfully or healthfully. I worked with a vegan that was eating vegan solely for her kids and animals. We’d drive by a Wendy’s and she’d say, “Oh my gosh, that smells so good.” I’m like: “Really? Wow. This is interesting.” But she said she just wanted to do it, but, you know, she was just eating French fries, she was eating—this was like a staple of her diet—all these processed foods, and she actually got herself into a state of having severe anemia. She started to have the hair loss. It’s to your point exactly: any diet we have to embark on [thoughtfully].
There again, we kind of look and turn to the aspect of trying to slow down our lives in general. When we slow down our lives in general and we open up other times for nourishing ourselves, nourishing our family, it’s not that we’re just trying to nourish ourselves just to be strong and be healthy, but again it opens up another opportunity for us to commune with God, to pray as we cook, as we eat.
Fr. Nicholas: A thing I was going to ask you, too, Rita, is in your presentations that you give and in your seminars that you present, do you find it… how do you approach, scripturally speaking and within the Church tradition, how do you talk about the importance of fasting in people’s talk of faith?
Ms. Madden: Again, this is interesting, because in my secular work, people come to me and they tell me, “I want you to tell me how much to eat, what to eat, when to eat.” They want a menu; they want a prescription. The beautiful thing is that we have that. If we’re eating just as the liturgical calendar outlines for us to eat, we have our dietary prescription. We’re hearing so much of the research saying: Return to a plant-based diet, return more to a plant-based diet. If we’re simply just doing the Wednesday and Friday fasting, we’re doing that; we’re returning more to eating a plant-based diet, without saying we have to completely give up dairy and we have to completely give up meat. There’s just this natural balance that our calendar creates for us.
I remember talking to a nun, and the doctor was so blown away with her lab values, her lipid code files with the fats in her blood. She’s like: “Well, we eat a vegan diet more days of the year than not.” It was just reflected in what her lab values were showing. I would simply say: Just follow what the liturgical calendar plans for. It makes it easy, really. Tomorrow’s Wednesday. Our meals have been planned. Well, the fast actually starts for New Calendar tomorrow. That’s it. Now we know what we’re eating for the next few weeks, because the tradition has outlined that for us. And people are craving this. This is what they want to pay me money to give them.
Fr. Nicholas: And you know it’s interesting, too—I’m not sure if you’ve also found this in your research—within the Christian Church, especially really around the world, there is this phenomenon, almost a reawakening of the importance of fasting, that you see outside of the Orthodox Church in some of our Protestant brother and sister communities, the importance… There are now large amounts of books being written about the importance of fasting, as if they’re rediscovering or actually discovering for the first time.
The beautiful thing is you’re absolutely right: throughout the year there is a tremendous amount of time of fasting that allows us to just take some time to pause, rest, reflect, to think about not only why we’re fasting but to connect more towards Christ. I think at the core of all this is that it’s about connecting more to Christ and his Church. If people are yearning for that, if you’re desiring to grow closer to Christ, this is a tool that the Church, through Christ, has offered. It allows us to do that. It’s so beautiful that, as you say, it actually gives us days specifically for that.
I love the fact that in our society, in our world, we need that discipline, because life is constantly pushing and pulling us in different directions, and we almost need that time throughout the week that allows us to say: Okay, this is Wednesday; this is why I’m fasting today. Today our Lord was betrayed. Sometimes in our own walk of faith, do we not betray him in the way in which we live and say one thing in one setting and act something totally different in another setting? Just as we as humans all fall short of God’s glory, but to be reminded of that. And then on Friday, as I heard one of the Church Fathers, I read somewhere that he said that we’re each and every one of us is one of the nails as they are putting the nails into Christ, that we, as collectively, we’re part of that crucifixion. I think that one of the challenges that we do, as long as we tie it back to the importance of us recognizing that this fasting apart from the Church, apart from prayer, reading Scripture becomes, if we’re not careful, becomes just a diet or some sort of external practice.
Dr. Louh: I’m so glad you mentioned that, Nick, because I do feel like for some it has become such a ritualistic thing that you don’t do, and then people feel guilty or bad about themselves if they’ve had meat on a certain day. It almost seems to sort of lose its importance and its significance. Does fasting God to be more pleased with us or affect him in any way, or is it mostly strictly for our own spiritual benefit in our walk of faith?
Fr. Nicholas: Rita, if you’d like to answer that… if you want to, you can start us out, then I can conclude it. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Ms. Madden: Oh, go ahead, Father, please.
Fr. Nicholas: Well, I think that, to answer the question, as I was mentioning earlier, if we approach it as a tool and not a rule—and when I [say] the word “rule,” I mean that it becomes simply an external show or an external thing that we just have to do—if we realize that what God is yearning… in the practice and in the discipline of fasting is that God is yearning for us to seek him first. I love that in the gospel of Matthew, what Christ says, to seek me first. In this fasting, in whatever tool that we’re using, if it allows us to draw closer to him, then, yes, God is pleased with the fasting. But the alternative, just like in anything that we do, tools—some tools can be dangerous. A drill is helpful to drill a hole, but if you’re not careful with it, it can cause you some personal injury.
So the challenge that we have to do is not to abuse this tool or to make it some sort of an external show where we lose the importance of it. I was talking to a woman in our church the other day that said, “Father, I took my medicine this morning and I had to eat, and therefore I could not take communion.” I was telling her, “I appreciate your effort and your desire to want to deprive your body of food and that you had to take this medicine, but God understands that.” I was telling her there has to be a level at which we say that we don’t allow it to become so much of a ritual that it deprives us of receiving the Eucharist, because that, to me, is almost losing its entire purpose. The purpose was to draw closer to [Christ]. Maybe you could add more to that, Rita.
Ms. Madden: You know, it’s something I would like to just tag on with that being said, which is just very edifying. When we enter these fasting periods, I always liked the analogy that it’s like a journey. Any journey that we’re going to go on, any trip that we’re going to go on, we pack our suitcases and we’re ready to go. We kind of do that with our fasting, too. We pack our bags with our prayer ropes and the foods that are fast-friendly. Maybe we plan what type of volunteering we might be signing up for during this specific time of year. I think that because God desires for us to be in communion with him so much, God knows what we need, and so during the fasting periods, many times, to help us not become so prideful about it or just so fixated on, again, the rules versus it being a tool, he will present situations for us to have to break the fast, out of showing brotherly love.
That’s a big thing I hear in my workshops, too. How do you maneuver that? I think that’s when, when we’re fasting, we’re truly trying to humble ourselves to God’s will in our life. We start to realize: I’m not breaking this fast because I really want to eat this amazing piece of smoked meat that this person has smoked for twelve hours and they want to share with me. They’re trying to show me hospitality, and it would be wrong for me not to partake in this gift because of what I think the rule is all about. I think we start to have that wisdom revealed to us about why… God always knows our intentions. He knows our hearts. We start to go through that discerning process more: Am I trying to use this to be the “Get out of jail free” card, or am I really trying to become a vessel of God’s love? I think sometimes during the fast, people beat themselves up, they get frustrated, but it’s like: maybe God’s using that as a teaching tool, in a way.
Dr. Louh: Absolutely. It does seem like, with fasting, there are parameters and there are boundaries, but it is not supposed to be taken as such a specific regimen with which one must comply, which I like, because to me it sounds like, again, what you’re saying: it’s a tool and not a rule. If anything is bringing me closer to Christ, it is a fast. If we are moving away from the tempting foods and moving into more bland foods so we can connect more with our spirit, that is a start to fasting for somebody who’s new to it. I think for some it is so tough to look at it: I’ve never done it before. I now have to launch into this extreme black-and-white notion of fasting, and if I don’t do it right then I shouldn’t do it at all. What I’m gathering from [what] both of you [are] saying is that there are steps we can take toward embracing the role that fasting can provide for us in our lives by taking small steps.
Even on days—I discuss a lot with my patients the idea that food is nourishment for our bodies; it is medicine for our physical bodies so that our souls can do the real work in the world. Food doesn’t always have to be exciting; it can sometimes be just bland nourishment because we sometimes just need to get through our day. Sometimes it’s exciting, and sometimes it’s not. Even during a fasting season, if we’re not eating such exciting food—we’re not having Oreos and we’re eating more wholesome from the earth—that is a start to fasting, is what I hear you both saying. That could be an initial step for somebody wanting to plunge into the Advent season, right?
Fr. Nicholas: Right, and I think the key is that as long as you’re fasting from food but you’re feasting on God. The key is that if we’re making sure that it’s not tied back to God—in other words, I think it’s so important, and the Church Fathers talk about this all the time, and that is that there’s this self-reflection, there’s the season of Advent, the season of Lent—these are self-reflective times in our life that we can just look at ourselves in the mirror and say: Look, I’m Nick. How do I line up with what God teaches me in the Scriptures? How do I line up with what the Church Fathers have taught about God? What are areas of my life that I’m struggling in, that I need to own, that are just me, myself, and I? That becomes part of this fasting, because what it allows you to do during this fasting season is that it allows us to pause and to reflect on our life. One of the ways that we can pause and reflect is through fasting. Another area would be prayer. Another area would be reading the Scripture. Another area would be helping and caring for the needy, to be a difference-maker.
I think that what we don’t want to do, because our brains tend to do this, is that we tend to kind of hone in on one thing and that it has to look this exact same way. Well, as Rita beautifully stated, not only on the show but also in her book, Food, Faith, and Fasting, there’s a conversation that needs to happen between the individual and their spiritual father to see where they are, what are their struggles. If you’re not a big meat-eater, fasting from meat is not really so much what you’re going to be struggling with.
Dr. Louh: That’s not going to help you connect more with your spirit. What about a total fast, even just for a few days? Is that physically harmful, Rita? What would you say to those who want to take it to the next level and want to fast wholly, even for just a few days? Is that harmful to the body?
Ms. Madden: It’s all about, like Father’s been saying over and over and over, it would be: what would be the intention of this? It’s absolutely not harmful when it’s done properly. There’s many—again, look at the current scientific research. There’s research that says a three-day just-water fast is almost like a reset button for your cells to kind of clear out unhealthy cells and regenerate healthy cells. They’ve even actually tested fasting in this form for people that have finished chemo treatments. I’m not making any prescriptions here, but I’m just saying there is concrete research, scientific-based research to show that a complete fast can be very beneficial physically. Again, it depends on where the person is spiritually. I’ve heard spiritual fathers see people wanting to try that, and they knew it was just too big of a temptation for them, and they’re like: No. They told them no. And other people are absolutely ready for that in their spiritual journey. Again, I would caution: Tell someone to talk to their spiritual father, just to see where they’re at with that.
Dr. Louh: I love the word “intention” that you used, because, again, with the weight-loss cultural phenomenon that we live in, I think so many people: “I’m detoxifying my body, but the side-effect is that I’ve lost 20 pounds, and I’m really excited about that.” Are we getting more in touch with our spirit or are we trying to lose weight? I do think the intention sounds like is what makes the fast a functional tool or not.
Fr. Nicholas: Well, Rita, thank you so much. Just so that all of you know, again, we’ve been talking to Rita Madden. She wrote a beautiful book that we highly recommend. It’s called Food, Faith, and Fasting. You can actually find it on ancientfaith.com. It’s a great, great read, especially during this Advent season. Rita, we thank you so much for your time. Thanks for being on our show. It’s been a pleasure just to get some insights and some words of encouragement, some nuggets of truth about fasting.
We want to also invite all of you to remember that our next show will be on Tuesday, November 28, at 8:00 p.m. We’re beginning a two-part show series that is going to be talking about coping. Especially during this holiday season of Christmas as it approaches, a lot of time people struggle with coping with the stress of Christmas. In fact, sometimes Christmas can be a Christmess. So we’re going to spend some time talking on one show just dealing with the stress: How do we deal with the stress of Christmas? And the second one, I think some of you will be able to relate to, and that is: How do you cope with just dealing with family that you may not always agree with? How do you deal with difficult relationships? So we hope that you’ll be part of those two shows. Invite friends to be part of those shows. That’s November 28, and then the second Tuesday also in December for the second part of that show.
We also want to take this opportunity to encourage you to join our Facebook page. If you haven’t joined our Facebook page or our Instagram page, go to “Healthy Minds Healthy Souls” and be part of our team. We’d love to have you part of our family. Once again, thanks to the amazing, amazing people at Ancient Faith: John Maddex. Thanks to our church family of St. John the Divine that allows us to do this ministry. We look so forward to seeing all of you and hearing from all of you on Tuesday, November 28. God bless you and stay strong in your walk of faith.