Hello and welcome to “The Opinionated Tailor”. In this podcast, I will continue the series on leading a more disciplined life. Today, we’ll take a look at Fasting.
The topic of fasting can be somewhat confusing: is it going without food and water? Is it abstaining only from a select food? Does it just refer to food? And, even once you’ve had some exposure to the Orthodox Christian fasting rules, the confusion just seems to get worse: Why do the Russians fast from oil, but many Greeks and Middle Easterners do not? Why are some Wednesdays and Fridays fish, wine, and oil and others aren’t? And what is egg replacer, anyways?!
To begin with, it’s helpful to have an overview of what fasting is and quite simply, it is doing without. Now there are all sorts of traditions within the Orthodox Church, but at it’s core, it is helpful to understand that fasting teaches us the skill of doing without. This was really brought home to me my first Lent as an Orthodox Christian. I remember experiencing the heady marvel of Holy Week and reaching the glorious Resurrection service and then, woozy, yet wowed, proceeding over to our parish Paschal meal. I headed straight for the bread and butter, since I hadn’t tasted butter in almost two months, and I can still remember in every detail how that butter tasted. It was like ambrosia; it was a revelation. It was if I was experiencing butter for the first time—every atom of that butter seemed to speak to me. This experience has stayed with me throughout the years because it wasn’t just butter I was truly experiencing, it was the idea of doing without something so that I could approach it after a time in a spirit of wonder and thankfulness.
Being one of the traditional disciplines of the Orthodox Church, fasting is both a gift and a skill. A gift in that it has been given to us, handed down through the ages by those saints who have practiced it to great effect and obtained theosis, or union with God. A skill in that it is something that must become part of our regular, daily existence. Our ability to fast must be honed and in order to do this, we must be attentive to our fasting regimen. In my experience as a khouria, or priest’s wife, in your fairly ordinary, run-of-the-mill parish, I have often found that many people approach fasting as something only monastics or the super-holy do. It’s as if it’s something only for the very spiritually mature and yet what we don’t tend to grasp, is that fasting is one of the primary ways people become spiritually mature. I’ve had parishioners explain to me that they can’t fast because they’re on a weight-loss diet or because they cannot tolerate legumes. Their approach to fasting seems to pre-suppose that fasting is just another church duty, a hoop to be jumped through, and if you’re lucky, you might just get out of it!
But fasting is not a duty, it is an amazing spiritual weapon given to us to help us fight the passions we face daily. Fasting trains us to physical discomfort. I still inwardly sigh when every Wednesday morning rolls around and I stare into my cup of black, cream-less tea, but I know that each sip of that bitter brew reminds me that I am fasting and by fasting, building some spiritual muscle, the spiritual muscle that allows me to embrace discomfort and move forward on my path to greater union with God. In addition to this, Thursday will see me appreciating that cream even more. Fasting teaches us that discomfort is for a season in order to gain a greater good. It toughens us up, so to speak, which in our modern world of luxury, gluttony, and excess, is mightily needed.
Because, at our core, we’re all a bunch of big softies. Our fallen, sinful nature is a weak one, but God in His bountiful mercy gives us a tool by which to become stronger so that we may better fight the passions of anger, gluttony, pride, lust, and covetuouness that constantly attack us. Sitting around in our fallen spiritual state is kind of like expecting a marshmallow to stop a bullet. It just ain’t gonna happen and so we’ve got to turn ourselves from spiritual weaklings into saints. Now, this is a bit of an aside, but it’s good to know from the get-go that our goal in life as Orthodox Christians is to be saints. Whew! Sounds pretty potent, just saying it. Me, become a saint? You’ve got to be kidding! But, read the New Testament or your favorite book of sayings of the Desert Fathers and it’s right there—our job here on earth is to turn ourselves from sinful cream puffs into strong and mighty saints. We’re not just trying to move up one little rung on the ladder of Divine Ascent and then just hang out there until God calls us home. No, we’re expected to keep moving up that ladder, difficult step by difficult step. The goal is to get to the top! Of course, God is always loving and always merciful and some of us hang out at different steps for different amounts of time, but it is crucial to understand that our journey of discipline is one of momentum, not stagnation.
My daughters are just beginning to manage their own home-school schedules, and when they think I might be infringing too much on their independence, be it laying down the law about a math lesson or reminding them to practice piano, they will respond, “That’s not your job!”. As soon as they began using this retort, I began responding with, “Yes, it is. My job is to raise you to adulthood.” Hearing myself say this aloud reminded me of the Big Picture. My job as their mother was to raise them to adulthood and I needed to do anything and everything that moved us toward that goal, regardless of the discomfort they, or I, might feel in the moment. There are plenty of moments as a mother when I want nothing more than to take them in my arms and say, “It’s OK, honey, I know it’s hard, so you don’t have to do it.” But, after all, we are all working toward sainthood, and I know they need consistency and discipline in their lives, just like I need it in mine.
Fasting brings that consistency and discipline to our lives. This is why, in the Orthodox Church, our general fasting tradition is to abstain from all meat, dairy and alcohol on every Wednesday and Friday, as well as our four fasting seasons throughout the year (Great Lent, the Fast for Sts. Peter and Paul, The Dormition of the Theotokos, and the Christmas Fast). We don’t decide what we’re going to give up, like giving up chocolate or bread, we give up what the Church tells us to give up.
This is important for many reasons, but two of the most important are first, Obedience, and second, Community. In our weak spiritual state, we don’t want to do anything anybody tells us to do, or as my youngest daughter used to say, “You’re not the boss of me!” We want our own, selfish way. But by following the fasting traditions of the Church, we are fasting the way the Church tells us and recognizing that we aren’t the boss of us. We aren’t out there, doing our own thing, accountable only to ourselves. And, while the fasting that the Church gives us can feel quite strict (ever tried eating out anywhere besides an Asian restaurant during Lent?), it’s there to teach us through its regularity and consistency to experience and learn to deal with physical discomfort—we always go without meat, we always go without dairy.
We are also sharing our fasting since we are fasting in community. This doesn’t mean we go around complaining about tofu with our fellow parishioners, but rather that we encourage one another to be strong in our fasting. We might offer a recipe or make a little extra of something to share or just give a word of encouragement. Some of my favorite parish potlucks are the fasting ones since there’s a real sense of solidarity at these evening gatherings. We’re in this together and we’re going to succeed!
Because there’s a little secret about human nature and the spiritual life that fasting illustrates beautifully: When something is done in a regular and consistent fashion, it makes it easier to do. I remember my spiritual father once telling me that making up your mind to fast was half the battle. If you get up in the morning and say to yourself, “Today, I am fasting.”, you’re halfway there and you haven’t even taken a bite! Routine is vital to success in the disciplined life and fasting gives us this routine, experienced in a physical and multi-sensory way. When you fast, you’re a little more tired and you might feel slightly run down. You can be a bit cranky, which is another little passion popping up that needs to be battled. But with it’s regularity and consistency, we’re getting lots of practice in laying aside our own self-willed, physical needs in order to draw closer to Christ.
So, at this point, we have to ask, what does all this discomfort achieve? Well, its ultimate goal is to lay aside the self, that part of you that wants only what benefits you and has no sense of a greater community, greater world, or greater gain, in order to be completely filled with Christ.
We begin with fasting by laying aside our wants and needs—we might want and need a dairy-laden chocolate chip cookie on Friday afternoon, but we’ve made a commitment to our fasting regimine and so we go without. Let’s look at the two sides of that scenario: It’s Friday afternoon, you’ve had a long week and you have a weekend full of chores ahead. There’s just not a lot of pleasure in your life at the moment. You grab a cup of black coffee and sit down at your desk and think, “Boy, a chocolate chip cookie is what I need right now.” That part of you that associates chocolate chip cookies with childhood and comfort is longing for some comfort and pleasure—hey, you’ve had a hard week, after all. So, you eat the cookie and have a temporary respite of your feelings of fatigue and frustration. But, a few minutes or an hour later, you’re back where you started—the feelings of fatigue and frustration were just temporarily assauged. Now let’s look at the same scenario with fasting: Same time, same place—Friday afternoon and you’re simply wiped out from the week and there is no relief in sight with your weekend of necessary chores. You grab the cup of black coffee and think about the cookie. But, you already decided this morning that you were fasting and so that butter-laced cookie is just not an option. Your physical self is not going to get its way and here, something wonderful happens: in closing the door to the physical self, it’s as if the door to your nous, or spiritual self, opens up. You realize that deep down, you’re struggling with discontent over your work load and responsibilities and you need some refreshment, so you say the Trisagion or you might quietly pray the Jesus Prayer for a few moments. And in doing so, you are reminded that God in His mercy will give you all the strength you need. You might think of your family and friends and how they are also fasting and you know you can do this. The moment of initial weakness, of physically craving a cookie, has, through fasting, become a moment of spiritual strength.
One of the ways I brought more discipline in my life when my children were quite small and I was struggling with my weight, was to begin weight-lifting. I liked the fact that it was quick and effective—in just 3 or 4 sessions a week in my basement with some dumbbells, I could keep fit and work off that extra poundage. But, I had to learn some new terminology like repetitions, sets, and wave cycles. A basic weightlifting routine is made up of a “set” with a number of “repetitions” or “reps” in each set. For example, if I was doing a bench press, I might do three sets of five reps, which meant I would lift the weight five times, rest one minute, lift again five times, rest another minute, and then lift a final five times. These “reps” were little bursts of strength, done repetively and then followed by a rest.
Now, this scenario of abstaining from the chocolate chip cookie is like a spiritual “rep”—a little burst of strength which in time with more repetitions, makes you stronger. It allows you to exercise greater and greater control over your emotions and the passions. I noticed over time that fasting made me calm—towards the end of Lent, I just didn’t have a lot of energy to get overly excited or angry or frustrated. Fasting made me peaceful and ready to enter into the services of the Church in a more timeless way. I wasn’t arriving at church, harried and stressed. I was mosy-ing in in what, for me, felt like slow-motion, not caring how long the service took or how long I had to stand.
But it’s important at this point to mention that this sensation of calm and peacefulness while fasting didn’t start happening to me for many years. As my husband often reminds our inquirer’s class, fasting is a journey. Some people may begin with fasting from meat or others may fast only two days a week during Lent. Some come to fasting with a built-in “edge”, like the gentleman in my parish who has a dairy allergy—we all thought he’d won the fasting jackpot since he’d been fasting from dairy every day for years! And some of us find fasting harder than others, especially those of us that struggle with issues of gluttony, like myself. For those of us, fasting is one of the spiritual disciplines we should especially embrace because it cuts to the core of the passion of gluttony.
In whatever way you come to fasting or wherever you might find yourself on your fasting journey, it is vital to embrace fasting and to be moving forward in our journey, not just hanging out at our favorite step on the ladder. Fasting is a skill and we want to get better at it, but the only way we can do this is through practice and careful attention to our fasting regimine. Have we gone without meat for awhile now? Then, it’s time to begin abstaining from dairy. Have we followed the full regimine of the fast? Then it might be time to practice small periods of complete abstinence from food. These sort of decisions are best made through thoughtful consideration and consultation with your parish priest or spiritual father.
Because like prayer and almsgiving, fasting is a great gift that Christ gives us. In its discomfort, it teaches, and in its consistent repetition, it strengthens us for the journey, the glorious journey of approaching Christ Himself.