According 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.
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.
Thank you for these encouraging words! God bless you in all ways and Glory to God for All Things!
I am currently living at the Holy Assumption Monastery in Calistoga, CA where Mother Melania is the Abbess. One of the sisters recently asked for clarification about the fasting “rules” for the first week of Great Lent. Mother Melania’s response was very perceptive and in line with what you said in your post here Fr. Stephen.
First, she pointed out that “rules” can become our “gods” just like many other things in our life. Then, by way of example, she shared a story that Bishop Irenei Steenburg tells about himself. When he was newly Orthodox, he wanted to do the Great Fast to the letter, but his body got sick trying to do this. His spiritual father told him to resume eating dairy and eggs.
Fr. Irenei protested that he didn’t want to break the “rules” of the fast. His spiritual father told him that if he he did NOT resume eating dairy and eggs, he would be breaking the “rules” that he was now being given! So, his spiritual father essentially put him under obedience to follow a less intense version of the fast much like your future Godfather did for you.
Saint Porphyrios was ordered off the Holy Mountain by his Elders and told to eat animal source foods for his health; yet, he became one of the most beloved saints of the Orthodox Church in modern times. Clearly, he was attending to his soul in manner that was much more “real” than most of us can even fathom.
The Saints are as “real” as it gets, and they show us how to acquire “real” abundance through our connection with Christ and not just artificial abundance through debt and destruction.
“Those who engage in the world as consumer are being consumed by the world in equal measure.” Brilliantly stated.
Forgive me, I slightly misquoted you.
Wonderful thought-provoking post.
In this Lent I am having to relearn obedience to a rule. I have been very good at obedience because I wanted to be obedient. I fasted quite strictly and as a result I ate too many starches and other things and wound up becoming Insulin resistant. My doctor and my priest seconded that order, that I must avoid complex carbs and eat more protein. As a result I have to consume dairy and eggs (these foods decrease insulin resistance) although I have eliminated all meats. I feel like I am loafing but perhaps I am really learning to be obedient which is better for my soul and my longevity than strictly following the “rules.” Like all people I think, I am resistant to changes, so… I am getting an attitude adjustment.
Nicholas – In the 13 years that I have been Orthodox, I have never been able to abstain from animal foods due to severe food intolerances. I am also very negatively effected by carbohydrates; they impair me both physically and mentally. If the foods we eat makes us too sick to function or pray, then there is no point in eating those foods because we are defeating the real purpose of the fast. There are many other ways to fast (not related to food), and – with my priest’s blessing – I continue to strive to work on those.
Your last words, ‘…to make us human’ reminds me of a talk by Fr Thomas Hopko on the ‘abolition of man’, and his talk was on his reflections on CS Lewis’ book of the same title.
You have mentioned before that the way we live our lives, in the process of salvation, we are becoming the person whom we are to become. Indeed to become a person, it seems we have to first become human, to fulfill the nature of being human as God had originally created us. It also seems our culture drives us away from such ends, toward a nonhuman character and toward our non-existence.
In regards to ‘what is human’ I’ve been struggling with the content of talks given by an Orthodox clergyman who publicly disparages certain sectors of this society. I hope that my presenting this doesn’t cause problems here, by describing this behavior. (If so please delete)
He assigns to certain people the cause of the loss of decency (I’m paraphrasing) in this culture. There is a lot of irony for me in this, because his talks sound very much like judgmental rhetoric, in that he doesn’t appear to relate to them as human beings. In the past I would have cited such publically proclaimed rhetoric intended to sway society into divisions and hatred, to be the source of our ‘woes ‘. In the past I would have assigned such thought to Protestant thinking. I was wrong.
What is ‘judging’? The behavior of judging is a sin, but how does one speak about someone else’s judging behavior without themselves falling into ‘judgment’? This has been my struggle of late. I ask for your prayers and reflections. My Lenten fast appears to be heading toward how to control what I think. It’s easier to fast from food.
I understand the struggle and I am always uo for a challenge. Its good for my soul to be shaken awake. My question is, what can you eat? Carbs are in everything vegetable and proteins in meat. I feel your pain and struggle. May the Lord bless you with healing.
Nicholas – The body is perfectly capable of running on fat (the third major macronutrient in addition to carbohydrates and protein) and ketones, as an alternative to glucose (from starch). This is also known as a Ketogenic diet. So, i eat only fatty meat, preferably beef, and at least 75% of my calories come from fat. Basically, I fast from all plant foods all the time. (My priest says my whole life is a fast LOL, just a different kind.) There are a lot of people who eat this way now due to health problems and I would be happy to provide you with more info if you wish. You can easily find me through Facebook.
I was just curious. I cannot eat fat, I have all I need. My doctor wants me on lean and green, which I am fine with except in Lent as meat is taboo. We compromised on dairy and eggs. (Eggs are really boneless chickens anyway)
I wanted to add that this issue with food intolerances and carbohydrate sensitivity is a growing problem. As an Orthodox Christian, I am deeply troubled that the fasting “rules” established by the Church via the holy Fathers is simply not doable for many of us today because of the consequences they produce to our physical and mental health (plant foods can actually make me explosively angry over nothing). I have a hard time reconciling why we would be asked to eat or not eat certain foods as part of our spiritual ascetic practices, and yet be completely incapable of doing so for reasons that we have no control over. Why would God request our participation in something we simply cannot do without dire consequences to body and mind? Perhaps Fr. Stephen can offer some insight or perspective on this conundrum for me (us)?
I became Orthodox because after discovering its existence I soon acquired the conviction on every level of my being that the Orthodox Church was a truth telling thing and that if I disagreed with it, it was I who was wrong. This has made a certain conundrum about the fast very disturbing to me, because its the one thing about Orthodoxy that seems so, SO wrong to me, and I cannot get clear answers about it. Its the ridiculously “unreal” nature of the typical fasting rules. How is it more real to give up locally grown or wild-harvested meats for vegetables, fruits, and other things that are a product of our cultural food complex? It’s precisely the standard of “getting real” that makes me object so strongly to the vegan + shellfish guidelines. It may have made sense in Byzantium, but to subject people in our culture to those guidelines seems ignorant and bioculturally insensitive. For native Alaskan Inuits, a diet of seal blubber, whale, and salmon is “real.” They literally have no plant foods available to them. For the Massai tribe in Africa, a diet of raw milk and blood from their cattle is “real.” For anyone in our culture (like myself and my family, for instance) who are trying so hard to break away from consumerism and embrace the reality of the earth, to grow and forage and hunt our own food, trying to eat a vegan diet actually encumbers that. In our country, you would have to support to industrial food complex to eat by the letter of the Orthodox fast. The people groups who were closest to nature, to reality as you speak of it, were hunter gatherers, who lived primarily on animal foods. Thats not even the half of all my thoughts and questions on this subject, but I have a toddler who needs my attention now. Really liking your last few blogs. Being an Orthodox Christian who struggles deeply with ecological questions can feel lonely, and its good to see someone else digging in.
Ps- did you ever read “A Mind of Your Own” by Dr Brogan? Also, look up Katy Bowman’s work on biomechanics. Her book “Movement Matters” is mind-blowing.
What we see in the rules of fasting are what was quite appropriate for fasting in the first millennium of the Mediterranean Christian world. Orthodoxy has always understood that only the principles of this fast could be applied in some situations, since the local nature of our life prevents living in the first millennium of the Mediterranean Christian world. All food was local then.
An example of how the fast can and has been adapted: When Russian missionary monks were working with a native people who only ate caribou and things derived from caribou (milk, etc.), they sent word to Moscow asking how they could possibly teach the fast. The answer was simple: “When they fast, just tell them to eat less caribou.” The rules of fasting do not describe some mystical meaning of various foods. It is/was quite practical and should be adapted on practical grounds. Teaching otherwise about the fast is a mistake.
Please forgive me for entering a few points of information. The Alaska Native Orthodox people whom I have met do not speak of a hardship of keeping the fasts. Although they tell me they live on canned goods for most of the winter. Some of them do their own canning. They forage greens and dry them for winter eating. They have a long history relative to most Americans in Orthodoxy (outside those who have immigrated). They don’t describe a history of hardship keeping the fasts among their ancestors— at least this is what I understand from meeting them and getting to know them.
I have learned also that the scientists who are trained in Paleontology do not corroborate the meat-centered diet that is frequently presented on the Internet. If you want my sources on this I’ll see if I can find them. I’m not personal involved in the field.
Last, there are local farmers where I live in the northern latitudes, that have coolers to store vegetables that they sell year-round in the local markets.
Fr, thank you for the story about caribou 🙂 my priest forbade me to fast (I am an underweight nursing mom with 5 kids), but that doesn’t mean I can’t use my lent to decrease my reliance on food as a stress reliever! It’s better for me to eat a balanced diet with moderation than to pig out on fast friendly food. And it’s a struggle for sure! I am reminding myself to pray every time I start to think about snacking 🙂
Sunny – I REALLY appreciate your comments and questions. In addition to what I already said, I had wanted to say everything you said, too! It does indeed seem ridiculous to live on fruits and vegetables that are shipped from half way around the world to eat during a season when they do not grow naturally in our own environment. Thank you Fr. Stephen for a sane and balanced view of the matter. That is what I love about Orthodoxy; it is practical and intelligent without compromising the fundamentals of the faith.
“Eat less Carribou” — great summary from wise fathers to a far-away land! It’s about checking appetites rather than proscribing foods.
I believe it is possible to eat local veggies year round without relying on shipping. Certainly in rural northern regions it can be difficult. It depends on growing the right sort of greens that can handle cold, and minimal infrastructures and minimal energy. Lighting can be an issue and costly but LED lighting technology has improved to be energy and cost effective.
There is a great article about fasting in the front of The Lenten Triodian, translated by Mother Maria and Kallisos Ware, 1994 St. Tikhon’s seminary press. First of all, food is only a part of the fast, but as far as the food part of it, what stuck with me when I read the article this year was that The Fathers advise we do not eat to satiety, but always rise from the table feeling we could have eaten more and are ready for prayer.
For those great ascetics who have truly swam in the deep waters of the Spiritual life (both ancient and recent ones), food is perceived quite differently to us moderns. So fasting (and the guidelines of the Church on this) is perceived quite differently too. Of course, when we moderns come to hear of the true details of their fasts, (from our exceptionally self-indulgent and simultaneously “scientifically supported”, [faithless] perspective), they seem utterly unthinkable: Many throughout history would simply do Lent with only Holy communion (except for special occasions when discernment asked for a temporarily change in this), others would meekly assume that ‘if there’s even one child that is forced to survive on next to nothing somewhere, then I ought to have no more myself’. Others still would only eat because their spiritual Father would command them to. Their approach was never lacking in fiery ardour for martyrdom, and their fast fanned these flames higher.
The spiritually sensible key is that we eat, drink and rest only as sustenance to the spiritual life (always according to context) and as this increases, less of the above seem to be required. Besides, one who endeavours to increase their union to God with all they have, (one who hungers to empty themselves of all that is not God and become possessed solely by the One whose will is to abide in us in fullness), will unmistakeably grasp that food, (especially the satiation of certain foods, of frequent snacks, of generous quantities), is a pair of “scissors” that cuts right into this union.
So the enthusiastic war-cry of the Lenten period is understandably welcomed in this understanding.
This is the first time around for me and several months ago, Great Lent looked like a drudgery to endure. It was hard to imagine cutting out so many things and then there was the notion of actually going whole days without eating anything! Clean Monday wasn’t fun, but it was certainly better than not eating due to a stomach virus. I’ve been creative with what’s available and have generally just eaten less. Coffee with phony-baloney creamer isn’t ideal, but I tried coffee with unsweetened almond milk. Don’t. For me, being okay with being hungry is a start. I’ve been able to fall asleep hungry, which isn’t something I would normally choose to do. There are certainly some things I could continue to do when Lent is over just as soon as I smoke a rack of ribs.
Dino I appreciate your presentation of the tradition on fasting. It’s interesting also how the modern mind and body might endeavor to undertake such a fast as you describe. The second Lent I asked my parish priest if I could start cutting out certain meals altogether and he vetoed the idea. His decision on the premise was based on a couple (and perhaps more) reasons that if I would be successful, the success itself could potentially tempt me away from the point of the fast. I suppose if I failed, my discouragement might have also clouded the point of the fast. I trusted his decision and followed his recommendation.
I suppose that what that meant was that in either case, I lacked the spiritual maturity to make such an endeavor fruitful.
Dino, et al
When I was visiting on the Holy Mountain, there were only 2 meals a day – quite simple – though there was always plenty. The meals would only last 10-15 minutes – it was not a big part of the day. That was difficult to get used to. Most of the time I was there, I was hungry. But, I noticed that some part of me began to feel better over the course of the 10 days. One young monk told me that when he first came to the Mountain someone said, “Don’t judge anything for 30 days. It’ll take that long for your body to adjust.” He said it was true. He also was sympathetic to the difficulties I was having.
My parents were born before the Great Depression (both in 1924). So they were 5 when the Depression hit. Their stories (they lived on farms) of difficulties were common during my own childhood. My father’s stories of a single orange as his entire Christmas used to astound us. My mother was one of 12 children. Everyone worked. My father was working in the cotton fields by age 4. Their ability to be grateful for even the least things (we always ate simply) was quite strong. My mother sewed a lot of her clothes, etc. I don’t think my Dad ever had more than 2 pair of shoes – a dress pair and a work pair. He had 2 belts. One for his pants, the other for our backsides! Oh well.
A consumerist culture runs headlong up against the Tradition at Great Lent. The Tradition is closer to what has been normal for most of humanity’s existence.
Thanks again Father. As someone, who’s been trying to observe Lent for the past few years, i personally find the food part easy. Its’s my judgemental nature, the envy, the pride and the anger that make my fasting hollow. But there have been quite a few victories too. And of those, especially sweet are the ones wherein i’ve been saved by some prayer or quote that flashed across my mind at just the right time.
Two of them i can recall now:
St. John Climacus who said:
Fire and water do not mix, neither can you mix judgment of others with the desire to repent.
And the more detailed Lenten prayer of St. Ephraim:
O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.
Amen. Fasting or no fasting, it is a much greater struggle to stop comparing myself to others and judging them harshly and repent before my maker.
Amen. to you both. The food part is by far the easiest. The fast from anger, from judging, from envy – these are a sweet fragrant offering to the love of God!
I have moved so many times as an adult that I have become less and less of a consumer over the years. Things become major burdens when you continually have to move them. I buy almost all my clothes at thrift stores, but I still have more than I actually wear. So on the first day of Clean Week, I decided to go through my (already small) collection of clothes and get rid of any item I hadn’t worn for 6 months, which amounted to about half of what was in my dresser drawers. They are now in bags ready to be given to Catholic Charities and will hopeful be used by someone who truly needs them. It’s amazing how much lighter and “cleaner” I feel having done this. Now if I could just sit down and pray that would be even more amazing!
I appreciated the story of the Russian people who ate caribou, and am glad to hear that the fast can be flexible, though I still wish it wasn’t “one size fits all” by default. I had always been under the impression that there were spiritual reasons behind the no-animal-food rule, that somehow animal foods enflamed the passions *that* is why we abstain during the fast. Are you really sure there is no spiritual reasons behind the fasting rules? There seems to be a tradition in multiple religions of having monastics who dont eat meat in order to heighten spiritual awareness, which even makes sense on a biochemical level because in general plant foods tend to be detoxifying and nourish the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, while animal foods, esp red meat, is full of easily-assimilated nourishment you can’t easily get from plants and supports the sympathetic nervous system…
I don’t like how there seems to be this heirarchy of “most indulgent” to “least indulgent” foods, with red meat being at the top, then dairy, then eggs, then fish, then oil, lastly plants. I trust the wisdom of the Church to lead us into the most wholesome existence for our soul and body, but in this area it seems to be off, sticking everyone into one biochemical mold. All the newest research supports the idea of biochemical individuality. There are some people, because of their ancestry and current health status, who need a LOT of (pastured/wild-caught) red meat to maintain their health and remain disease free. There are others who, for the same reasons, do flourish on almost a vegetarian diet and to whom red meat sounds repulsive. If course there’s everyone in between. Are we really going to subject these people to the same fasting rules? And that’s not even to go into the fact that, for most people (judging from the foods I see at coffee hour every week) the fasting diet consists of all sorts of disease-promoting foods that I personally can’t even eat without getting a flare in my own disease: refined, non-organic, non-fermented grains, gmo sugar GALORE, inflammatory gmo vegetable oils, improperly prepared legumes, gmo soy. How is a diet like this honoring to God? How is a diet of meat and vegetables indulgent compared to “Lenten” desserts and Oreos and chips and white bread? Perhaps it would be more beneficial to have people fast from coffee and sugar and refined grains and eat mostly locally-sourced vegetables and meat.
Dee- I don’t support the meat-centric diet proported by popular “paleo” bloggers. I dont support the idea of ANY one diet because everyone is different. I used the examples of the Inuits and Massai to make a point. Dr Weston Price studied many indigenous people groups and though their diets were all very different based on their environments, they all relied on animal foods (organ meats most especially) for the critical nourishment they offered. They certainly werent subsisting on boneless, skinless chicken breasts and ground beef. They didn’t have an endless supply of meat like we do today. I guess my issue with the fast is that it tries to replicate the rhythm of scarcity and abundance that would be experienced naturally by hunter gatherers, except it does so unsuccessfully, I think.
I fully acknowledge that my thoughts on this subject need a LOT more refining. I’m sorry if any of my comments sound curt or untactful, but we got rid of home internet so I’m typing this out on my little phone screen using some of our data for the month (thus getting “the look” from my husband. I’m the data hog!)
A wise and learned Bishop many years ago, when I asked him what I should give up for Lent, replied, It is not what you might take into your body, renouncing this or that food, but what acts of charity and selflessness you take up and then continue after Lent. These acts are more acceptable to God than the self centred observance of food denial.
There have arisen many spiritual commentaries about why we fast from this or that. But the origin of the fast long predates such commentaries. I suspect that one aspect originally was that meat was a “luxury” food. There are, it seems, health benefits in certain aspects of fasting. But those were not known and did not provide the basis.
One size doesn’t fit all – but one size generally fits most. I regularly, in my parish, give a blessing for various alterations in the fast because of health issues. The “Caribou Rule” is a last resort – but is always possible. An old saying was to push back from the table before you have had your fill.
Monastics during times of feasting, are closer to our fasting, with the exception of eating fish (and even then, many of us eat fish when fasting). They still only eat twice a day – even when feasting. On the Mountain, the only time I could tell that the meal was a “feast,” was there was a little wine on the table. Monastics there, on average, live into their 90’s.
I suspect that many of the food allergies, etc. that we experience here in America would not exist if our diets were not filled with chemical poisons. My oldest daughter lived in Siberia for a year – and had little to no food allergies compared to the US. Their food was not processed or grown like ours.
I write on a phone too! Thanks for your post. I’ve some of the same concerns, read Price also. Yep, most Lenten desserts are super high in sugar…best to pass on them.
Father, thank you for your balanced approach to fasting. It helps. I really watch what I eat. I’m nearing 72. In his 70’s my own father developed dementia and Parkinsons. I have friends whose bishop gave them some lessened fasting requirements past age 70.
Please forgive me if my comment will seem contrary to most of the comments, especially those which seem to justify eating meat, or having fast greatly modified for “health reasons”. Our health is God’s gift, and can be taken away at any time and for any reason, no matter how we eat.
I have come to understand fasting as “eating in obedience” with what the Church expects of us. Any great departure from that obedience will hurt us even if we eat the healthiest foods available.
And speaking about available food, the stories about Alaskan people are cute, but I chuckle when I hear people talk about “giving up locally grown or harvested meat for vegetables grown and shipped from far away”… That may be true for a handful of people, but most of us go to the grocery store and we choose what to buy (and how to eat), most of the time EVERYTHING under the sun is available to us… So if we choose contrary to Churches prescription for Great Lent, that is only our by own will (it always is for me).
In one of my favorite movies, there is this funny line:
“Honey, I hunt, you cook!”
To which Goldie Hawn answers:
“You shot a chicken?!”
I’m sorry Father, I could not resist, please delete my comment if it is inappropriate… 🙂
I agree Agata. I’d go even further perhaps, since we know that fasting is actually the first of the compendium of Lenten practices given us as nothing less than a partaking in “the life-giving voluntary death” that is the only antidote to man’s involuntary death (given to us by the one who Himslef first voluntarily became “dead; and, behold, is alive for evermore” [Revelation 1:18]).
Also, a little gutsy daring, some courage and zeal, can accomplish infinitely more than tons of solid argumentation regarding fasting – a decision makes the seemingly impossible a done deal -, in other words, our Church’s fasting is mainly a matter of the mind, rather than of the body.
Agata & Dino –
Please forgive me, but your comments are dismissive and demeaning to someone like myself who would LOVE to be able to follow the fast as outlined, but who becomes physically and mentally ill when she tries. I am not talking about minor difficulties. I am talking about feeling so bad that I would rather be dead. Are you suggesting that I follow the fasting guidelines even if it results in me killing myself? And no, I am not being hypothetical or extreme here. I agree that all health and disease is either willed by God or permitted by God for our salvation. But who are we to judge if the food intolerances which prevent one from following the fast as prescribed by the Church are not also willed by God or permitted by God for our salvation?
Even Saint Porphyrios could not follow the fasting guidelines and was ordered by his spiritual father, as an obedience, to eat animal foods.
Many years ago I attended a talk at the beginning of Lent where fasting was part of the discussion. The priest began the explanation by describing the experience of a person who enters jail for the first time as being so repulsed by the food that he can barely adjust to the smell let alone the taste. After awhile the food becomes tolerable and the person adjusts. After the person is let out of jail he finds the good food repulsive because the bad food is all they are familiar with. He went on to say that when Lent begins we are being let out of jail. The “good food'” is in front of us. It may take an adjustment but we are now free.
It goes without saying, that there’s a definite space for specific adjustments, despite the broad-spectrum standard. In a certain sense, the instruction of God for specific persons at specific times is the instruction of one’s Spiritual Father.
As I think about my odyssey to Orthodoxy, one the driving forces was the fact that I could not eat a vegan diet. I had been vegan for the better part of 25 years. I was raised by a parent who followed an East Indian Guru who required a lacto-vegetarian diet of his disciples (based on the Law of Karma). As the diet became more and more impossible for me to follow (I got sicker and sicker), I began to question ALL of the teachings of this Guru and eventually rejected him altogether precisely because of his dietary requirements (for “salvation”). So the very fact that I could not follow the prescribed diet was the primary catalyst for me seeking the TRUTH. When I read about the fasting requirements in the Orthodox Church it scared me so much that it took me 4 years to even pick up the phone and call a priest at a local Orthodox parish! If he had told me that I HAD to follow the fasting guidelines even if they would make me sick, I can promise you that I never would have become Orthodox. Again, please forgive me.
Please forgive me everyone for my comments here if they are out of place or seem abrasive, but I feel is is extremely presumptious to think you can put yourself into the mind or body of any other person and know what is best for them. Our priests are sacramentally ordained to be representatives of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ and the advice they give us – especially during Confession – is to be accepted as coming directly from God Himself.
I thought I posted this a moment ago, but don’t see it. If it is still pending and this is repetitive, please delete. Hilary Bethancourt did her Ph.d research/dissertation on Orthodox Lenten fasting. She will be a guest on Everyday Orthodox this coming week: March 1, 8pm. Many in our church participated in the study. Of course I can’t do justice to her findings here, but one teaser: participants who were fasting had a significant drop in “bad” cholesterol. I was impressed by my own results. Also learned that I get more than enough protein during the fast. Tune in to hear more and, I’m sure, there will be more on this in the future. Happy Fast!!
All I can say is, WOW!!! You humble me! What an amazing journey ! May God bless you abundantly!!!!
It is quite interesting how the topics of money (almsgiving) and food (fasting) result in discussions of 50 different ways to do these things…with a whole range of attitudes along with it.
Isn’t it best to follow the tradition and to speak only to our Priest/spiritual father about the difficulties of the fasts one may encounter?
For the sake of discussion, that is, learning from those who know more than us and sharing our experiences…ok. But after a while the discussion gets sidetracked and it’s meaning and intent gets lost in debate.
Why are these such sensitive issues?
As Dino often reminds us, the Church has very strict general rules and prescriptions (for the benefit of all) and yet is forgiving and accepting of individual cases.
Esmee, forgive me, I did not mean to single out anybody, I was objecting to the generalizations.
As I heard in the retreat this weekend, we all are responsible for applying what we learn in the Church only to ourselves, and nobody else. This is why I tried to share an example from my own life and behavior (and constant failures on the path that the Church prescribed for me).
Please, forgive me.
Paula – I honestly wish I wasn’t sensitive, either to food or other people’s comments about food, LOL! I’m a work in progress, that’s for sure. I want nothing more that to be able to sit down at a table with my friends and be able “break bread” (i.e. share a meal in common) with them. I have not been able to do that for over 30 years. I just read a passage in Abba Dorotheos of Gaza where he says – in essence – that all food will be exactly what we need if we but know that Christ has substituted Himself for that food. It may look like we are all eating the same thing, but Christ transforms it into what each of us needs individually. I truly believe this with my mind, but I have yet to embrace this with my heart. Please pray for me that I may come to understand this at a fundamental feeling level.
Dino and Agata – Thank you for your words. I wish I could learn to keep my mouth shut on this topic. You have made me aware once again of where my work lies, and for that I am eternally grateful.
That must be hard Esmee…putting myself in your shoes, that you are not able to share the same foods together with your friends. I had not thought of it that way. If I had the pleasure to “break bread” with you, it wouldn’t matter in the least what you ate. It would only matter that we were together. But thank you…I hadn’t thought of the difficulty from your end.
As to my question of why these topics are so sensitive…our Lord knew very well in our brokenness they would be. I think we are all in our own way working it out. I know “the path” is not easy, though.
You bet, Esmee, I will pray. Forgive my shortsidedness. Remember me too in your prayers….for general purposes, as I wouldn’t know where to begin in my “list of needs” 🙂
Oh Agata….the tatoo’s….LOL!!! I remember!!! I wrote a long one on that too!!!
And yes, I remember you asking for the donation…AND did I donate? um….no. Your friend is right…talk is cheap.
May the Lord have mercy!
Yes, may we have a blessed Lent.
You are sweet, thank you for your honesty… (before all these comments go away too :-))
As the mom of a child with serious food sensitivities to some staples in the American diet (several grains, including oats and wheat and dairy), another adult child who is a body builder, and the primary cook for a family that is not Orthodox, I appreciate your sharing your experience. The Orthodox fast is by no means a straightforward proposition for me either. I learn things every year. Romans 14 and the teaching of the Church on non-judgment of others remain key to participating well in the Church’s disciplines and genuinely profiting from them spiritually—as individuals and as parishes—it seems to me. I’m thankful to have a very diverse parish that excels in this area. Beyond occasionally sharing savored coffee hour recipes with each other and hearing the odd joking complaint toward the end of the fast about tuna or peanut butter, I don’t hear much talk about the fast one way or the other. We all remain more focused on appreciating the special added services. For the opportunity to participate more deeply in the entire meaning of our faith, I look forward more each year to this entire season.
Esmée et al,
fasting -however tailored to each individual- is ultimately an expression of a person’s love towards God.
All ascetic practices are. It’s the language that God understands. If the motives are such, then their individual dialect (and this will include all other ascetcal practices), is never an issue.
“rise from their sedentary spiritual lives, set off in a sprint and fail before the first week is out.”
How did you know, Father? 😄
It appears from the comments that fasting is a test of obedience rather than a diet to follow. We are not told how much of what to eat, simply to avoid certain food groups. I have struggled with some of these restrictions and I see that this was the point. If I accept to struggle with not having milk in my coffee, I might, one day, be given the grace to overcome my obsession with the Byzantine tradition continuation that is PAOK Thessalonika Football Club. Fat chance…
Regarding the dietary arguments, which we cannot settle here, the latest evidence is at odds with claims that we are all different. Genetically linked dieting proved irrelevant to health or weight loss outcomes. Yes, avoid things that make you sick, but let’s not pretend that any of us with access to the internet is having hardship finding enough nutrition in our over-stacked, always open supermarkets.
As Father Stephen said, fast to the point of failure, that will make for a Good Lent. This year’s early failures have truly strengthened my Lenten spirit for the final stretch. So fail early and be humble about it.
I always remember Fr. Tom Hopko saying somewhere (buried deep in one of his many talks) that fasting from food was difficult even for the Saints who had very little to eat (compared to us now)…. That really stuck with me. Just like prayer, true fasting is hard, it’s almost a type of “violence” we do to ourselves. Or rather as you said so beautifully above, “an expression of a person’s love towards God”….
We follow fasting rules out of Love – that’s beautiful!
(Fr. Maximos Constas quoted St. Maximos this weekend, who said that “love is voluntary blindness” – there must be ways to apply this to fasting too…)
If for some reason that doesn’t work (prescribed fasting), or shouldn’t be done as with people new to the faith, or for health problems or age, we do what what our priest or spiritual father tells us to, instead of just trying to make excuses for ourselves (like I do way too much, I don’t have any good reasons not to fast except my own laziness!).
So I go to the store and find nice egg free mayo, or dairy-free cheese from Greece…. btw, don’t waste your money on that, it was awful (with all respect to Greece!)… 🙂
It is amazing that Muslims have been fasting for hundreds of years and still today for 30 days, eating only one meal a day, as well as abstaining from water for the whole day until sundown. Surely, we as Christians could do as well with the prescribed fast for us in Lenten. I am trying, and can do better to keep the fast, as well as to give my attention the our Lord Jesus, his teachings, and practice. To make me a better person for myself and to all I meet or have relations with.
Last night, I realized (with my wife’s guidance) that I need to fast from correcting others, so as to “improve” their thinking. God grant that I might learn how to say, “You may be right,” and let it go.
Two of Fr. Hopko’s maxims come to mind: “Don’t try to convince anyone of anything,” and “Give advice only when asked or when it is your duty.”
God grant that it may be so,
Please pray for me, a sinner.
Good post. I need to say more often in response, “I don’t know about that.”
Not for purposes of growing in godliness, but fasting is a very popular topic today in health circles. In fact, I’m sure it is hard-wired in our DNA. Hunter-gatherers feasted after a kill or after gorging themselves on wild-berries.Then until the next deer, they fasted. I’ve been reading recently on intermittent fasting. Right now, during Lent, I’m attempting to just eat in an 8 hour window, fasting the other 16. But as LTBS noted above, I have to be careful and not “devour” others with my big mouth…any time of day!
Thank you. Perfect words.
I recently read the life and teachings of Elder Sergei of Vanves. He, too, said that we should never give advice to anyone unless we are specifically asked for our input. This has been something I am really trying to pay attention to in myself and work on. I appreciate the reminder. I have been studying diet and nutrition for 30 years and have been convinced any number of times that I knew the truth about what was best for everyone. Well, let’s just say I was wrong pretty much every time! I am sincerely remorseful for all of the potentially bad (and almost always unsolicited) advice I may have given to others in the past. Now I only try to figure out what works best for my body and support others in doing the same for themselves.
I went digging in my emails for the links to some materials related to your excellent question “Why are these such sensitive issues?” (you asked them about almsgiving and fasting).
I hope you have time and enjoy listening to this wonderful recording of John Granger. I have mentioned him and his lovely wife Mary on this blog before…
One last quote about food from Mary Granger…
(from an article titled “Why All Diets Work and Fail”)
I explained the neuroscience behind how we literally become what we think, most obviously in how we think about food. The plasticity of our wiring means that the tightness of the eating-thinking feedback loop – we choose foods according to our beliefs about what foods are healthy or taboo and eating these foods confirms us in those beliefs, three meals a day – shapes how we think about everything in our lives. If our food thoughts are all about our bodies, our pleasure in eating, or about our individual physical heath, finding the perfect fuel for our soul-station-wagons, then it will be hard to take off those food-forged materialist and self-focused glasses when we try to love God and love neighbor heart soul, mind and strength.”
Thank you Agata for the link to John Granger’s talk. It’s given me some more “food for thought.” I agree with a lot of what he says. Our confidence in science and our materialistic mindset has definitely lead us down a very destructive path, not just spiritually but physically as well. My primary disagreement with him is that he uses the materialistic mindset and scientific understanding of the time of the early Church to support his argument which I feel is equally misguided. I, and many others I know, feel way more balanced – mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually – and way less controlled by food (i.e. addictions to sugar and salt) by eating only steak, than we ever did eating a diet of grains and vegetables. But his points are well taken. I would love to be able to completely let go of ever having to think about food again, but I have not yet figured out how to do that. If I could only be fed by the Angels, like Saint Anthony, then life would be groovy!
My goodness…thank you very much for the link to John Granger’s podcast and his wife’s quote! I spent the last couple of hours listening to the podcast and taking notes! I have not heard a teaching on fasting presented the way he did. Very helpful how he ties in the concepts of man, God, the Church, the Logos, fasting and the Eucharist. Also very helpful was how he went into detail about why we fast from animal foods, oil and wine.
Also, I see you made reference to the retreat you went to this past weekend. I’m very glad for you! Appreciate you sharing parts of it with us.
And your advice to avoid the egg-free mayo and dairy-free cheese…now that made me laugh! Really, how can cheese be dairy free and still be called cheese?! Anyway, thanks again, Agata. You are a blessing!
I noticed your comment above after my post.
Glad you liked the podcast as well. I’m thinking that Granger was speaking in general terms and would understand particular situations where some do not tolerate the prescribed fast and that the fast must be tailored in such cases.
Dino’s comment I think very well sums it up, that “fasting is ultimately an expression of a person’s love towards God…the language that God understands.” That our motive, our heart, rightfully “oriented” (another helpful word), is what God sees.
Blessings Esmee! Blessed Lent!
I’m so glad you like it, I remember loving this presentation so much.
But I did not get a chance to listen again today (that “job thing” puts a big cramp on my free time). I know I liked it for the reasons you listed…
Esmee, please forgive us if this feels somehow “targeted” at you, it’s not at all, I hope it helps the rest of 99.99% of us to fast a little better, and understand the meaning of fasting a little better. You have a very particular life situation and Thank God you figured out a way to deal with it. May He help and bless you!
Your comment reminded me how my Mom always complained that she “would be so much richer and have so much more time if we didn’t have to eat, and she didn’t have to cook”… 😊
Velveeta is called “cheese” and yet it, like American Processed Cheese is formulated like latex paint albeit with a different hardener. How do I know? My Paternal Grandfather was a Patent Lawyer and he worked the first patent on American Processed Cheese and he refused to eat it because he knew what it was. My favorite is the “cheese” that comes in the aerosol can for spewing onto crackers. At least they are a little more truthful in the ingredients label because they call it a “Cheese Like Substance.” Yum, yum.
Oh Nicholas…LOL! If I didn’t laugh, I’d cry!
I know what you mean….way back when, when I noticed the labels changing “slightly” first to “processed” cheese, then American processed cheese “food”, I knew this was not a good thing!
But sadly, even the blocks of cheese I buy … or even anything that has a wrapper or container of some kind is processed to one degree or another. It’s no wonder our ancestors lived way into their 90’s !
Mine still do. My Great Uncles on my father’s mother’s side lived to 102 and 104 respectively. I have a paternal aunt and a paternal uncle who are still around in their mid 90’s and still humming along. Aunt Etna (our behind her back name) just got back from a two month working tour to Europe. She leads art tours. I don’t think any of them ever ate a cheese like substance. Obviously they were well schooled by their dad.
I grew up in Poland and in the mid 80-ties, my country received “food aid” from America (distributed through the church even). We called that cheese “yellow plastic”, I distinctly remember it sitting on a shelf in my grandparents house. Nobody was brave enough to eat it and yet we could not throw it away either, as it was supposedly food, and also a gift… 🙂
No, Agata, I don’t feel targeted.
And I agree wholeheartedly with Dino, that it’s much more about the love we offer God through our ascetic practices than the practices themselves.
Need to make more time to finish reading all the excellent comments, but wanted to share what happened in our seniors’ residence – with regards to fasting. One resident in particular, wanted to fast and pray as her heart was heavily burdened specifically for one of her family. Due to many health issues, she should not be fasting! To encourage her, I counselled that she give up watching her favourite shows, (a kind of fast!) and ‘walk and pray’ instead of ‘fast and pray’. Made her a daily accountability sheet for check marks, she can’t write, which she has been keeping for many weeks now! It’s become a sacred habit! She’s over 90 and an inspiration to me, her friend!
Hi, just a few small comments. I am grateful for the theme of God who is everywhere present and filling all things. There is a quote from Schmemann that links that theme with how we treat the bread that will be used in Communion even early in the Divine Liturgy. He explained that in the Garden all food was communion. I have struggled with food over the years and have realized how eating without a sense of God’s presence and love puts us in a dangerous position. One of my very favorite quotes is from one of the first chapters of Acts about the Christian community, “they ate with gladness and thankfulness of heart.” My other favorite quote: “Jesus was eating at the house of Simon the Leper.” Having struggled with eating too much out of loneliness and sadness during college the theme of food has been profound and recurrent in my life. I have the hunch that part of what Jesus meant when he said woe to you who are full is that woe is coming to those who eat to fullness, stretching their stomaches, because more is then needed to fill them to that same level of pleasant fullness again the next time, and the next time, and the next time. Food is contact and we were designed for contact. For the lonely it can be an only source. How beautiful to think of God present both with and within us and within what we eat. I think this is how the fast becomes a ‘joyful feast.’ I also think it is why enough is never enough without God. Back when I was teaching high school a college in his late 60s took his entire literature class out to lunch as a field trip. He came back and I remember him saying “I’ve never seen girls eat like that” shocked by the volume they ate, so much. I knew they were expressing the loneliness of youth, in this time and place and culture. The Lit class was called “The American Dream.” How much suffering our country’s finances will take because of diabetes related illness over the next decades will be amazing to see.
The Gluten Free / Cassein Free diet and Feingold diet my son is now on have become me default as well. Esmee, I appreciate your comments and rejoice that Hinduism is no longer part of your life. How beautiful and what a gift Orthodoxy is. I have been grateful to learn of how plant salicylates negatively impacted my son and I, similar to what you described in your comments. I had to give up 20 years of being a vegitarian but realized it had been a source of pride in me that it is ether to be without.
Really, how can cheese be dairy free and still be called cheese?!
I will say this: I found a “non-dairy Parmesan Cheese” alternative to put on my spaghetti and tomato sauce and it makes a ton of difference! Not because it tastes like cheese (it really doesn’t) but because of the texture! It’s really the only alternative cheese I use during the Fast but it makes a big difference for me!
Food is contact and we were designed for contact. For the lonely it can be an only source.
Food is comfort. I have taken great joy in eating for most of my life as I have never been good at sustaining relationships. It is comforting for the lonely but it tends to create a cycle of depression as our society is not exactly kind to the overweight. I used to joke that eating has been one of the few joys in my life–and God led me to Orthodoxy, where we Fast for large portions of the year! Truth is hard, but good for us.
What you write reminds me of Roy Orbison’s, “Only the Lonely know the heartaches I’ve been through…” I do not struggle with loneliness, since I have a wonderful wife with me. Yet, I do feel for you, for those lonely, perhaps broken-hearted. In the past I have been depressed. Maybe this is akin to feeling lonely, bereft of true close friends. A marvelous thing about Orthodoxy is that we are surrounded by the saints, that great cloud of witnesses. When I put up a new icon of a saint, she/he becomes a friend, a true blessing indeed.
Nicole – Thank you. Salicylates intolerances is the reason i have to avoid all plant foods. I, too, was very self-righteous and prideful (Pharisetical) about my veganism and I truly believe that is why God took it away from me. I was extremely judgmental about what other people ate. Talk about turning food into a god! Most of my life I have tried to find “salvation” through “perfect” diet and “correct” foods. When I step back an look at my terribly misguided thinking over the years, it is both horrifying and hilarious at the same time. Fortunately, it ultimately brought me to the Orthodox faith, proving that all things do indeed work for good for those who believe.
Dean – Soon after I was baptized in the Orthodox Church (2005), I could not find anything to eat and thought I was going to starve to death. I had just read a biography about Saint John Maximovich of San Francisco. I prayed to him and asked him to pray for me. I told him that if God wanted me to be here, then He would have to find me something I could eat. Well, the next day, i tried eating goat’s milk yogurt and raspberries and it worked! I had tried goat’s milk yogurt many times before without success, so this was a true miracle. I went on to eat nothing but goat’s milk yogurt and raspberries for two full years. I have been struggling a lot again for the past few years (for reasons that are too complicated to explain here), and I was in a lot of pain and experiencing weird neurological symptoms every time I ate. None of the doctors have a clue what’s wrong or how to help me. Anyways, my priest did a Holy Unction service for me and a few others on January 24th (Blessed Xenia of St. Petersburg). When I ate that night, my body handled the food better and the next morning the pain was 80-90% less. The difference was absolutely miraculous. So yes, the Saints are our friends and intercessors before Christ. I love being able to read about their inspiring lives and pray before their icons.
I am a seeker/lurker and feel compelled to mention one or two things regarding diet.
My wife and I also eat a ketogenic diet (in conjunction with intermittent fasting – we eat once or twice per day, usually fasting for more than 16 hours between meals) out of necessity (mostly for her sake); she is also restricted from eggs and dairy entirely. The critical threats to her health were healed (as were my less critical threats), but she developed a new set of issues that we could not put our fingers on. Her previously mitigated migraines returned to make her life miserable ~2 times/week. After a great deal of prayer and searching and every doctor being stumped, we seem to have stumbled across the answer due to providence. So what was it in our case? It turns out we were jumping from the pan to the fire.
Virtually every gluten or dairy free food (and many that still contain either!) also contain a variety of gums, usually xanthan gum or guar gum. Both are derived from foods she is restricted from + a bacterial reaction. Eliminating these and returning entirely to “God food” (short version: fish, beef, chicken, and above ground vegetables besides corn) has returned her to health. In going grain free, we unknowingly introduced a large amount of the gums into our diet, and they came with their own problems.
Mileage always varies, but I thought this information may possibly be helpful to Esmee.
Thank you Atreides –
Every single plant food and plant derived ingredients, including gums and oils (like olive and coconut), causes unpleasant symptoms of one kind or another in my body or mind or both. Fortunately, I never went down the path of replacement look-alike foods for bread, cakes, etc. But even whole fruits and vegetables are a serious problem for me, as are eggs and dairy, so I eat primarily fresh meat.
I really don’t understand what these sensitivities are all about from a spiritual perspective. Why are so many people suffering with this problem now? What is causing it? What is the point of it all? Why is God allowing this to happen? Is there something I’m supposed to be “getting” from this experience that I’m not understanding? Etc., etc., etc. Even if there is an external material environmental cause, which is the most logical scientific medical explanation, is there also a higher spiritual/soul reason that some of us are carrying this particular Cross? Or do all Crosses (though individually chosen for us by God) lead us all to the same place (i.e. Christ)? Just thinking out loud…
Recently, I told the Abbess of the Monastery where I am living that I wish I could figure it all out, and her response was very comforting. She very wisely said, “I don’t think we are supposed to figure it all out. We are just supposed to live it.” Now, if I could just let go and allow it to be what it is – God’s will apparently – and not beat myself or anyone else up about it…
Again, my message wasn’t posted from about an hour ago. Maybe it was the phone. Anyway, we recently watched an Amazon Prime documentary called, “The Science of Fasting.” It is just one hour and is pretty fascinating. For many people studied over a number of decades (primarily in Russia), fasting according to the very strict regimen in clinical settings seems to do a grand “reset” on their bodies. It appears to be especially helpful for chronic conditions of all kinds. Research in the US and Europe is increasing. Pretty fascinating. One comment that was intriguing is that it seems 40 days is the outside limit of their type of fasting (basically just water). But research in this country seems to indicate that even a 48 hour fast prior to chemotherapy improves outcomes. One take-away in the film is that our bodies do better with deprivation than abundance.
A dear friend of mine recently told me she is on a ketogenic diet. She has some serious, uncommon, health problems, the type that seem to have appeared in modern times..or perhaps now having a higher incidence. I didn’t know what to make of her situation, although it doesn’t matter what I “think”, because I like her a lot…she’s a friend. She is kind, caring, compassionate…the kind of person anyone would want as a friend. So I tucked in the back of my mind the oddities of her ailments…and truthfully I suspected much of it was psychogenic. Why am I telling you this? Well, because those were my very thoughts when I first read your website (quite a while ago). I didn’t understand the intolerance of every single food source except meat…and the drive you had to get answers. Then I met my friend. Similar problems, same frustrations. I gave her your website address. I also told her what I just told you about my doubts. She was sweet…she said it is good to question things and that she understood. Even though a good amount of time has passed since then, I still have very little understanding of it all, but I am learning, through her and yourself, the very thing that your Abbess told you, using slightly different words: “I don’t think I have to understand it all. I am just supposed to love.”
Through my friend giving of herself in sharing her experiences and through your sharing here and at your website in hope that it may help others, if it is any consolation, any help to you, has helped me . Please be patient…especially with yourself and also with people like me who at times just does not “get it”! I know that’s asking a lot. May God grant you the Grace.
Is there any other area of Orthodoxy that garners so many comments? Lord Jesus Christ, forgive me a sinner.
Yes. There are others. This conversation has continued, I think, mostly because I haven’t posted another article in nearly a week. I’m correcting that right now.
I’m Catholic and hope my comment in know way derails the thread.
I also have a very damaged digestion, and have had issues most of my life. I have celiacs and “IBS-D” and I only discovered recently that I have the least symptoms when eating a meat-based diet. I have definitely preferred sugared, carbohydrate-rich food all of my life, but through difficult trial and error I discovered I have severe problems digesting vegetables, grains, seeds, etc. though some fruits are okay.
Some of fellow parishioners will partake of cookies, pizza, etc. during the fasting/abstinence days (because, technically, it follows the rule). I do not think it is spiritually beneficial for them to eat sugared junk food while being technically allowed, and it appears to me to violate the spirit of the rule.
Those junk foods were my favorite foods, and I used to eat them daily, but now I’m left in a permanent fast from them (for life?), though on our abstinence days I still must eat foods like eggs, fish, and cheese for adequate nutrition. I am also attempting to water fast for a full 40 hours during those times – but I am weak in this.
Stephen Anderson – Hell.
I am still amazed at the sensitivity of the subject of food. Why are we so obsessed with it? And at the same time tire of speaking about it. Learning, you even go as far as to say too much talk about it is “hellish”. I find that even more interesting. Thanks to a couple of people here, I found a book online by Elder Aimilianos that was of a help to me. He begins with the Fall and expounds on the subject of shame and repentance:
I hope those of you who are interested are helped by it as well. It’s not just about food and fasting, by the way.
I am so happy for you, you found one of the best books EVER written (and then translated into English so beautifully, by Fr. Maximos who I mentioned above). Enjoy, you are in for an amazing treat.
Could I ask you a question? It is somewhat related to this theme and conversation, so I hope you don’t mind, and are able to give some general pointers (along with all other commenters, please).
As I am listening to a few more talks available by Fr. Maximos, I came across his presentation on the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian. At the onset, he mentions the prostrations and how they are an integral part of this prayer. He refers to all the passages in St. Paul about praying with the body, glorifying God with our bodies, and even how St. Paul says we should offer our bodies as a living sacrifice to God.
Would you be able to say a little more about that? It feels to me to be very much related to the fasting theme.
Fr. Stephen will answer you much better than I. However, one of the things that brought me to Orthodoxy was that it involved my whole being, not just my mind/spirit. Every one of our 5 senses is involved in worship. At the monastery we do full prostrations, we can sing softly with the nuns, we hear the chanting and the bells on the censer, we inhale the sweet incense, we kiss and see the wonderful icons (I just thought that the liturgy would speak loudly to even one deaf or blind since the other 4 senses are involved, let alone one’s heart). We taste, literally, and see that the Lord is good in the Eucharist. Oh marvel of marvels, heavenly worship, yet on earth, as we see in the Revelation and in Hebrews 12, as well as Isaiah and other scriptures. We feel the beeswax candles, the blessed bread, and one could continue. Thank God that we do not sit lifeless in some cold auditorium on plastic seats. We worship God, as you cite Agata, with our bodies, with all that we are, so that we can prove what is the good, acceptable and perfect will of God.
Origen (yes, Origen) once said that the soul will follow the body. That teaching was relayed by Evagrius Ponticus and later passed into general Orthodox knowledge and practice (I quote Origen because people should know that he said some very good things). But it is utterly the case. Our soul and body are welded in a manner that makes them one. If you would humble the soul, then humble the body. Fasting, prostrations, vigils, weeping, humble soul and body.
But, remember that everybody is a bit different – and what works in one case is not always true in another. I generally do my daily prayers sitting down – it is simply what works best. Others have different experiences.
Today I spoke in Kentucky for 2 sessions, and then drove home. I’m tired tonight and keeping my answer short. Be blessed!
Thank you so much, and sorry for taking the time away from your rest.
(was your talk recorded, and might it be available for the rest of us to listen to?)
Dean touched upon all the aspects of our Orthodox worship that relate to the 5 senses.
But I have a feeling that there is more to the “internal” aspect, as opposed to what I would consider “external” (chanting, hearing, smelling, tasting, seeing, kissing, bending down)… You listed fasting, prostrations, vigils, weeping… Is me attending the beautiful Vigil service on Saturday night at church considered a vigil, or is that something only true Saints in caves and monasteries when they stay up all night in their cells, after they attended the services? And I will not even ask about weeping…
St. Mary of Egypt is one of my favorite Saints and I often think about her: what did she *do* all this time in the desert? – she was there for years, all alone! What did her prayer look like (she did not have any memorized when she crossed the Jordan, did she)? She had no food to eat (not much at least, and her story does not convey, even indirectly, any kind of preoccupation with finding food). We hear she fell to the ground and prayed when passionate thoughts assaulted her, at least in the beginning. But later her prayer had to be different.
Somehow I feel she has the answer to that question about what it means to offer our whole body as a living sacrifice to God…
The ‘small’ aspect of what Dean explained, hides a great deal!
Regarding St Mary, my thoughts, based on St Isaac the Syrian, are that St Mary’s repentance was perfect and it is most difficult to even try and conceive of such a complete decisiveness for most people. Even a small part of it would be beyond what can be maintained ‘in the world’ (as opposed to ‘in the desert’) –unless you are a fool for Christ. The perfect do not approach each virtue acting partially, but all-inclusively, embracing its entirety all at once. They dive in the deep end in their divine foolishness and fervent zeal for nothing less than the martyrdom of the Cross. St Mary would have the zeal to be burned like St Polycarp of Smyrna – and with the continuing steadfastness of a long lifetime… But her inconceivable life is based on an internal decision!
They do not follow the “royal road” which is the security of the middle way and the discernment of exact ‘economy’ according to all factors surrounding a person.
These are the rare giants of the Spirit whose hope has become a fire that has utterly inebriated them and if they were to be burned ten times a day for the love of their brothers and sisters (for perfection, though attained through love for God, is outwardly manifested for all to see as love of neighbour), they would still remain insatiable. We see this in Moses and Paul and the other apostles.
What is noteworthy is that martyric zeal is always manifested first through a desire to not want to partake of the world, of food of sleep, a kind of fervour towards God alone that makes one want to become “hesychastic”… “Activism” (so prevalent nowadays) is a sign of spiritual despondency while hesychasm, a sign of spiritual ardour. This hesychasm is all fire, a fearless dive into the [still dark] abyss of God because the hidden hope of His Light has inebriated the person. How else do you explain the complete offering of St Mary (body and soul) or of St Ignatius and all martyrs?
Truly those who are steadfast in truth (as St Isaac clearly states) are known from their embrace of tribulation and avoidance of comfort. We are quite far from that… So we start small however, with personal (as opposed to communal) vigil at night, and fasting, unceasing watchfulness etc …these are the firewood.
I should add to the ‘small start’, putting up joyfully with the harsh words etc of the day… the list of spiritual firewood can be expanded.
Dino – W O W – thank you for sharing your beautiful insights regarding Agata’s excellent question.
I do, however, have a question about your comments Dino. Was is really an internal DECISION that propelled Saint Mary of Egypt to give her life to God? A decision is something we make of our own volition. Are any of us really capable of making such a momentous decision? It seems – at least from my very weak perspective – that these deep transformations of metanoia must be mostly gifts of grace more then anything we ourselves can generate. Saint Mary had a very profound inner experience of not being allowed in the Church by the Mother of God. Similarly, Elder Amilianos had a very profound inner experience that caused him to commit his whole life to Christ. Without these inner experiences, it seems unlikely that their lives would have unfolded the way they did?
These aren’t my insights, they’re St Isaac’s. I could simply be wrong in linking them to the above issue…
Regarding the decision issue: it is Elder Aimilianos, in fact, that claims this preeminence of decision (more than anyone else I can think of), as the mark of genuine-permanent metanoia. Elder Sophrony also claimed that God bestows His great Grace in accordance with a person’s response to it (which response [steadfast decision] He knows from before). This response is the part that is in man’s ‘court’ – it is the faith / decision / steadfastness he asks of us.
As a side note here, it is worth noting that if we read through it carefully, God had a clear expectation of nothing other than this ‘faith / decision / steadfastness’ of His people in Exodus. In fact, this ‘expectation’ God had of His people, was to such a degree, that it seemed that nothing “angered” Him more than the lack of this faith / decision / steadfastness that He expected, even though some might claim that it is a “scandalous” extent of expectation that God has of His people. E.g.: there’s nothing to eat or drink, they’re surrounded by enemies stronger and more numerous than themselves, and yet He demands this utter faith (the ground of permanent decisiveness) based on the remembrance of His previous wonders.
So the beginning and end of everything is God’s grace, but the middle part always has space for man’s will.
St Nektarios says that salvation starts with God’s grace, continues with man’s will and is perfected again with God’s grace – another take on Sophrony’s three stages of the spiritual life.
Dino – Thanks again. I guess that supports Mother Gavrilia, too, who made a decision to be moneyless and gave her well-being over entirely into God’s hands. She followed Christ with her whole heart and was always taken care of. Why do we find this so hard to do?
Agata – this excerpt from Saint Porphyrios speaks to your question of involving the body in our prayer…
Bodily exertion causes the body to protest and complain… but it is unable to make the soul lax in prayer… By intensifying the prayer, the prayer neutralizes the weariness. Before complaining about your bodily exhaustion, start praying. Because when you complain, grace departs and you are left with your own strength. If you say, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me,” three times, you continue joyfully. God sees you and stretches out His hand to help you. From that moment, true communion commences. When bodily exertion — prostrations, vigils, sacrifices — takes place with love, with passionate Eros, the body is not harmed. When this effort is made freely and with love towards the loved one, towards Christ, you show how much you love Him… The person with faith displays his love, his devotion, and his adoration of Christ in tangible ways. That’s why bodily exertion is made. That’s why we make prostrations. Not to gain anything, but because your love for Christ doesn’t allow you to do otherwise.
Perhaps someone will say, “I have love in my heart.” That’s all very well, but prostrations and all other exercises are still required because, although they are external forms, through those formal actions we are able to penetrate to… the heart of the matter… God takes no delight in these things. Nor do we add anything to Christ with the worship we offer Him. It is we who receive the fruits of our efforts. We have need of these things… When prostrations are made for Christ, grace works directly on the soul and brings patience, serenity, peace, and joy. But these things come with divine grace and then the body benefits also… With our prostrations, we demonstrate that we are humble servants of God. We acknowledge our lowliness and display our respect in a tangible way. With prostrations, the Christian is humbled, and this helps for the grace of God to come upon him. When grace comes, his heart is set on fire. The fire of love makes sacrifices. Prostrations are a sacrifice and offering, an offering of love and worship. And the whole person participates in the worship, body and soul. Don’t take pity on your body… You need to make sacrifice, exercise — spiritual and bodily exercise. Without exercise nothing is achieved. Subject yourself to… a rule of prayer and do not diverge from it. Don’t put it off for tomorrow. Don’t abandon it even on account of illness…
Do you see how body and soul participate in the worship of God? Mind and heart are with Christ and the body, too, is with Christ. Make the prostrations with piety and love and don’t count them. It’s better to make ten good prostrations, rather than a large number without zeal, without worship, and without divine Eros… God demands that what we do for Him be done “with all the soul and all the heart.” (Mark 12:30, 33 and Luke 10:27) …And — even though we shouldn’t think of this at all — there is no better gymnastics for the abdomen, the bowels, the spinal column. It’s highly beneficial… When this exercise is done for the worship of God… the soul… is filled with joy and becomes calm and peaceful… At the same time, it also benefits the body… Peace and calm come to the soul and good functioning is ensured for all our bodily systems — circulatory, digestive, respiratory, and endocrine — all of which have a direct relation to our soul.
~Saint Porphyrios, Wounded by Love, p. 168-170.
Thank you, this is wonderful!!
I read this book in the past, but did not remember these details. Thank you so much for typing it in here!
This passage confirms so much what Dino said earlier, about how all we do should come from our love for Christ, our humility before Him and our care to not sadden Him by our sin.
P.S. I especially love this part:
“And — even though we shouldn’t think of this at all — there is no better gymnastics for the abdomen, the bowels, the spinal column. It’s highly beneficial… When this exercise is done for the worship of God… the soul… is filled with joy and becomes calm and peaceful… At the same time, it also benefits the body… Peace and calm come to the soul and good functioning is ensured for all our bodily systems — circulatory, digestive, respiratory, and endocrine — all of which have a direct relation to our soul.”
I am a classically trained Pilates (not to be confused with yoga!!) instructor and have always thought about prostrations as a “perfect exercise for the human body” when we discussed the method’s principles (of “control, centering, concentration, breathing and flow”). In a proper prostration, major joints (ankles, knees, hips) bend through their full range of motion (which lubricates them and keeps them mobile, along with keeping the surrounding muscles and tendons in optimal shape), the spine rounds, the internal organs are massaged, the lungs empty with a contraction on the way down and fill back up with the expansion on the way up… and on and on… How wonderful to hear St. Porphyrios enumerate those points and benefits. 🙂
Paula – Stephen Anderson asked if any topic garnered as many comments as the topic of fasting. The point of my comment was to suggest that the topic of hell also generates a lot of commentary. I did not mean to say that fasting is hellish. Fasting is not hellish for me, although I am just a beginner and therefore a light faster. Sorry if my comment caused any confusion. It was not much of a comment, anyway. In fact, it was meant to be a joke.
I certainly did misunderstand…and thank you for the clarification!