Get Real for Lent

broom makers sepiaAccording to St. Basil, God is the “only truly Existing.” Our own existence is a gift from God who is our Creator. None of us has “self-existing” life. We exist because God sustains us in existence – in Him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).

Sin is the rejection of this gift of God – a movement away from true existence.

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Much of our attention in the modern world is engaged seemingly with things that have no “true existence.” We engage with illusions, with digital constructs. Our economy allows us to escape the normal necessities such as seasonal scarcity or other mundane concerns. We are increasingly removed from the very environment in which we naturally live.

It is said that astronauts, after spending a prolonged time in space, have lingering effects of zero-gravity. Our bodies are made for gravity and require its constant pull for everything from muscle tone to bone density. But we now live in situations in which many forms of natural “gravity” have been reduced or removed. What effect does the long-term ability to have almost any food at any time of year have on the human body? As someone who has spent the better part of my life at a desk, I can attest to the effect of a sedentary existence. My lower back, my range of motion, the flexibility of my joints are all consistent with the modern white-collar worker.

What effect do such things have on the soul? For the soul requires “gravity” as well. Plato stated in his Republic, that all children should learn to play a musical instrument because music was required for the right development of the soul. We give far too little thought to such things, assuming that no matter what environment we live in, our inherent freedom of choice remains unscathed and we can always decide to do something different, or be something different.

I could decide to run a marathon tomorrow, but I know that the first quarter-mile would leave me gasping for breath and exhausted. You cannot go from 40 years at a desk to the demands of a marathon – just because you choose to do so.

And so we come to Great Lent.

Some see this season of the year as a spiritual marathon. They rise from their sedentary spiritual lives, set off in a sprint and fail before the first week is out. The failure comes in anger, self-recrimination, even despondency.

The first year that I “chose” to fast in the Orthodox manner (it was 4 years before I was received into the Church), the priest I discussed the fast with said, “You can’t keep the fast.” I argued with him until I realized his wisdom.

“Do something easier,” he told me. “Just give up red meat.”

“What about chicken?” I asked.

“Nope. Eat chicken. Eat everything except beef and pork. And pray a little more.”

And so I returned to my Anglican life, a little disappointed that my zeal had made such a poor impression. But my family accepted the proposal and we ate no red meat for Lent. It was, in hindsight, the best Lent my family had ever had. No longer were we musing over “what to give up for Lent,” and instead accepted a discipline that was given to us.

In subsequent years that same priest (who is now my godfather) increased the discipline. And we were ready for it. It is interesting to me, however, that my first experience of an Orthodox fast was being told not to be so strict. The “strict” part was learning to do what I was told. That is sometimes the most difficult fast of all.

Lent is a time to “get real.” Not eating some things is actually normal. In our modern world we have to embrace a natural “gravity” that we could easily leave behind – at least, we have to do this if we want to avoid an atrophy of the soul.

In 2000, the average American ate 180 pounds of meat a year (and 15 pounds of fish and shellfish). That was roughly a third more than in 1959. Scarcity is not an issue in our diet. Our abundance is simply “not real,” and the environment frequently shows the marks of the artificial nature of our food supply. But we have no way of studying what is going on with our souls. What I know to be true is that – as goes the body – so goes the soul. Those who engage the world as consumer are being consumed by the world to an equal measure.

And so we get real.

Getting real means accepting limits and boundaries. Our culture is a bubble of make-believe. It rests on an economy of over-consumption. The crash of 2008 came close to a much greater disaster and could have easily gone into free-fall. Many fail to understand just how fragile our lives truly are. In the season of Lent (and on all the fasting days of the year) we embrace the fragility of our lives. We allow the world to say “no” and take on extra burdens and duties. It is worth keeping in mind that such things do not make us spiritual heroes, first they have to make us human.

18 comments:

  1. Last year’s Lent, I think I was the worst faster ever. And that was attempting to follow a less strict, no meat no dairy Wednesdays and Fridays rule. OOPS! Ate BOTH Wednesdays AND Fridays! A little cream in my morning coffee, a little slice of pepperoni pizza for lunch, etc. I’ve figured as of recently that it’s not so so bad to goof up on fasting and it is probably a worse sin to fast and take pride in it than it is to miss a day of fasting. I suppose some might disagree and I might be wrong with that philosophy so I would ask that someone give me guidance. I’m from a tradition where Lent wasn’t really observed that much.

  2. Wonderful insight, Father! I have been looking into fasting during this season (too late I realized I have a large pot of leftover spaghetti and meat sauce yet to eat, which I have chosen not to waste) but cannot find any real “guide” to what *can* be eaten. There is a long list of fasts on the Orthodox Wiki (and elsewhere) but I cannot make much sense of them (I’m not good with statements such as “don’t eat fish with backbones”).

    Do you know of a simpler way to enter into the fasting that Orthodoxy requires (I use that term loosely, as I understand that the fast is a means to an end, not a goal in itself)? Some simple guidelines, not just for Lent but for general fasting, would be helpful.

  3. Some observations:

    I called my brother on Monday to share mutual forgiveness. I asked how he was doing and he said: “I’ve just started Lent. I’m hungry.”

    Hunger for food, or other gratifications of the flesh can often mask our true and righteous hunger for God.

    I am not good at fasting. I’ve long struggled with reasons for fasting, etc, etc. The plethora of “Lenten Cookbooks” that all seem to miss the point. All that I have read has seemed artificial almost gnostic in the attempt to spiritualize the fast or trivialize it. I often justified my disobedience by the confusion.

    For one reason and another, I ignored most of the Nativity Fast–on purpose, willfully. I paid the price. Learned a lot. Went to confession in the last week before the Nativity Feast and was told: start fasting. I did, relatively easily and was able to celebrate the birth of our Lord in communion. I obeyed.

    As Father Stephen noted, here and elsewhere fasting is simple obedience (perhaps difficult, but simple). Our Lord said: “When you fast….”

    So, to those who are looking for guidance on the fast, talk to your parish priest or confessor. Follow what you are told. Don’t make it complicated. Don’t have itching ears for better direction. You are either fasting or you are not. If you listen, you will know.

    When you fail, go to confession, not just for the failure to fast but for all the hungers you feel are more important than God and life. Sin is the path of death.

    Before coming to the Church I was bedeviled with the temptation to commit suicide. By God’s Grace, that went away when I was Chrismated .

    What has not gone away yet is my romance with death through my embracing of sin. The fast allows me to turn my heart to my first love and embrace Him and His life.

    Fasting from my own will alone is the devil’s fast. It creates anger and an insatiable hunger. Altering the parameters of the fast on my own (loosening them or making them more strict) does much the same thing.

    Fast today. You can’t fast for tomorrow. You can’t fast for yesterday or make up for your failure. You don’t fast for 40 days, you fast today.

    Rejoice in all things especially as you eat.

  4. Fasting is a wonderful gift.

    When I was 22, I found myself broke. This was not the usual college-aged poverty; I was living on a couple hundred dollars a month (with rent, utilities and food, I think it was about $250 a month). I ate eggs, oatmeal, potatoes, dry lentils, black and pinto beans, and brown rice, apples and carrots. Coffee and tea, but not both on the same day. I also made tortillas with masa flour from the local Mexican grocer, because I couldn’t afford the pre-made ones. Every meal was a feast. Even now, writing this, my tears well up with the intense gratitude I feel for every grain of rice I was blessed to eat during those months.

    Today, I have a level of wealth which causes me great distress. Most Americans would consider me “only” middle class, but I probably waste more than $500 a month. The excess in my budget is now more than what I lived on not too many years ago. On what I make, if I set it my goal, I could save enough to live a monk’s life on the interest in probably only a year or two. Meals, and food in general, are something I rarely give a second thought.

    With Lent, I return to the diet I once was forced into, and again with every bite, come the tears of thanks. Mixed with those tears is repentant sorrow that I had been given such a precious opportunity at such a young age, but rather than embrace the poverty and follow Christ, I allowed myself to be seduced by the world.

  5. It is right and true.We live under the mercy of our heavenly Father.Let us look for this mercy through prayer fasting and almsgiving thus Pillars of Lent.

  6. Thank you Father, your blessing. This rung so true to me given I have had 3 woeful days at the start of the Lent. My ego is bruised, my zeal curbed and I am a lot more conscious of my addictive, untrue nature. The best gift, it appears, is that which humbles the proud Christian Orthodox.

    The priest at an Orthodox parish in Oxford said something to that effect on Sunday. As a born Orthodox I am also humbled that converts realise and live so much more of the true life because they have tasted a transformation. Woe to me and those like me who feel entitled, safe and honoured by the fact they were baptised and go to Church (late) on Sundays and great feasts.

    Thank you again for the blessing of humility and the true vision of the a great Lent.

  7. Here is real. I already have major stomach discomfort only a few days into lent.

    Pray for me to fast wisely.

    Thank you,
    Randi

  8. What is a little discomfort, alittle, but to struggle to gain over passions to focus on the real reason of Lent. Fr…I enjoyed your podcast last Sunday on AFR with Fr Barnabas on repentance.

  9. Lent is such an invaluable opportunity to emulate the Saints who fasted incessantly. They understood profoundly that this blessed hunger of fasting, in truth, is a uniting cord that attaches us directly to Christ. This connecting thread is undoubtedly severed to some degree when we become satiated. Even when we retain genuine gratitude towards our Provider, our sated prayer has far less power than it does on an emptier stomach.
    Once on Athos, the Annunciation feast happened to coincide with Great Friday and two devout monks were uncertain whether they should keep the fast of Great Friday or eat fish on account of the feast of the Annunciation. Their Elder blessed them to do whatever they felt instinctively most comfortable with. One ate fish gratefully in honour of the Mother of God and the other ardently kept the fast. That same night the Mother of God appeared to both of them. She said to the first, “thank you for honouring me!” and to the second one, ““thank you for honouring me. I owe you!”
    Lent is such a privilege!

  10. Indeed the practice & discipline of Fasting in the Orthodox Church is not one of athletic feats of body but ascetic exercise of the soul by taming the flesh. This eventually leads us to the goal of spiritual purification or gradual ontological transfiguration towards an increasingly closer relationship to & with God (theosis). It is our hope therefore that we can say: ‘as goes the soul so goes the soulbody’!
    –Monk Symeon of Syracuse.

  11. Thank you Father. This post is timely and helpful.

    I’d love to learn more about the connection between fasting and life in the garden where Adam and Eve lost innocence. Direct to the point, how is fasting a restoration of paradise?

    fwiw I read Fr. Schmemman’s “For the Life of the World” including the appendices. Incredible!

  12. Father Stephen, forgive me for wandering slightly off-topic (though the subject of my question was my Lenten reading last year, so…)

    I was listening to your recent interview with Fr. Barnabas on repentance, and in it, you mentioned some commentary Fr. Hopko had done on a poem by St. John of the Cross. I was wondering whether you could point me in the direction of Fr. Hopko’s commentary (book, article, podcast?) Was the poem “Romance on the Gospel text ‘In principio erat Verbum’, regarding the Blessed Trinity” or was it another? I know that Orthodox tend to look askance at some of the medieval Catholic mysticism (with good reason, I think, in some cases), but I’ve found St. John’s writings to be immensely helpful in lighting my spiritual path. I’d be interested in hearing an Orthodox thinker engage with some of St. John’s work. It’s hard to imagine a more lapidary description of the interplay between the incarnation and theosis than lines like:
    In perfect love
    this law holds:
    that the lover become
    like the one he loves;
    for the greater their likeness
    the greater their delight.

  13. Tim,
    It was on a DVD that he did in the 90’s. I’m not sure which one. Fr. Tom, unlike a lot of Orthodox, was/is fearless. In truth, good, healthy Orthodoxy should never fear the sources it draws from. It should be fully conversant with theology – including Catholic and Protestant, as well as contemporary science, history, etc. I point to one of the giants of the 20th century, Fr. Dimitru Staniloae, a Romanian priest, scholar, and confessor (imprisoned by the Communists). His knowledge of contemporary theology was encyclopedic and his mastery of Patristics was second to none. That’s the kind of Orthodoxy the world needs. There is so much knee-jerk silliness out there, people quoting the Fathers as if they understood what they had read, it is very sad and doesn’t serve the Church well.

    St. John is worth reading, for sure.

  14. Some time ago, it occurred to me that those things the Church asks me to refrain from eating during the fasts consist of either comfort foods or the main ingredients of comfort food. The fact is the diet of the fast is a healthy one which actually benefits the body. I then realized that the childish part of me doe not like facts; he likes pizza and ice cream. Moreover, if I deny him these things, he whines and complains. He resorts to pitiful pleading and devious evasions (Yes, I’m supposed to be fasting but I forgot and took a big bite of that pizza and when I remembered I wasn’t supposed to eat it, it was already chewed up and swallowed. I’m sorry, Fr. It won’t happen again.) I also began to realize that it is my childish self that whines and complains about everything it doesn’t enjoy or otherwise find gratifying, from standing in church to sticking to the prayer rule, to attending all of the church services, to confessing sins (all of them!) and, of course, fasting.

    One Sunday during the liturgy the children, who were usually well behaved and quiet, collectively grew restless and playful. At the first opportunity, Father came out from within the altar and quietly but firmly said “Parents, rule your children”. Having come to see that the child in me is the seat of self-pity and disobedience, I have decided to gently but firmly rule my child. His desires and demands, his whining self-pity and complaining, and his corrupting influence on my intellect permeate every aspect of my life, and are the real obstacles which hinder my ability to authentically participate in the spirit of this blessed season. He’s a good boy and I love him but I’ve had to gently and firmly curtail his interfering in my spiritual life. Together we will learn that the consolation and comfort of Christ our God is way way better than pizza and ice cream.

  15. Yes yes YES. Father Stephen, sometime I would love to hear your take on GMOs and biotech companies “patenting” seeds and other life forms.

  16. Also, I don’t know how much you are into bringing sustainability into your own kitchen, but a cookbook that you may like is “The Nourished Kitchen” by Jenny McGruther. It is all about eating with the seasons and traditional foods people made before the industrial revolution. It is a beautiful book with truly beautiful recipes and, though I am unsure whether the author is a Christian, it takes a truly Christian approach to eating.

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