Few things are as difficult in the modern world as fasting. It is not simply the action of changing our eating habits that we find problematic – it’s the whole concept of fasting and what it truly entails. It comes from another world.
We understand dieting – changing how we eat in order to improve how we look or how we feel. But changing how we eat in order to know God or to rightly keep a feast of the Church – this is foreign. Our first question is often, “How does that work?” For we live in a culture of utility – we want to know the use of things. Underneath the question of utility is the demand that something make sense to me, and that I be able to ultimately take charge of it, use it as I see fit and shape it according to my own desires. Perhaps the fast could be improved?
Our modern self-understanding sees people primarily as individual centers of choice and decision. A person is seen as the product of their choices and decisions – our lives are self-authenticated. As such, we are managers.
Of course there are many problems with this world-view from the perspective of Classical Christianity. Though we are free to make choices and decisions, our freedom is not unlimited. The largest part of our lives is not self-determined. Much of the rhetoric of modernity is aimed towards those with wealth and power. It privileges their stories and mocks the weakness of those without power with promises that are rarely, if ever, fulfilled.
Our lives are a gift from God and not of our own making. The Classical Christian spiritual life is not marked by choice and self-determination: it is characterized by self-emptying and the way of the Cross.
When a modern Christian confronts the season of Lent – the question often becomes: “What do I want to give up for Lent?” The intention is good, but the question is wrong. Lent quickly becomes yet another life-choice, a consumer’s fast.
The practice of the traditional fast has been greatly diminished over the past few centuries. The Catholic Church has modified its requirements and streamlined Lenten fasting (today it includes only abstaining from meat on the Fridays of Lent – which makes them similar to all the other Fridays of the year). The Protestant Churches that observe the season of Lent offer no formal guidelines for Lenten practice. The individual is left on their own.
Orthodoxy continues to have in place the full traditional fast, which is frequently modified in its application (the “rules” themselves are generally recognized as written for monastics). It is essentially a vegan diet (no meat, fish, wine, dairy). Some limit the number of meals and their manner of cooking. Of course, having the fast in place and “keeping the fast” are two very different things. I know of no study on how Orthodox in the modern world actually fast. My pastoral experience tells me that people generally make a good effort.
Does any of this matter? Why should Christians in the modern world concern themselves with a traditional practice?
What is at stake in the modern world is our humanity. The notion that we are self-authenticating individuals is simply false. We obviously do not bring ourselves in existence – it is a gift. And the larger part of what constitutes our lives is simply a given – a gift. It is not always a gift that someone is happy with – they would like themselves to be other than they are. But the myth of the modern world is that we, in fact, do create ourselves and our lives – our identities are imagined to be of our own making. We are only who we choose to be. It is a myth that is extremely well-suited for undergirding a culture built on consumption. Identity can be had at a price. The wealthy have a far greater range of identities available to them – the poor are largely stuck with being who they really are.
But the only truly authentic human life is the one we receive as a gift from God. The spirituality of choice and consumption under the guise of freedom is an emptiness. The identity we create is an ephemera, a product of imagination and the market. The habits of the marketplace serve to enslave us – Lent is a call to freedom.
A Modern Lent
Thus, a beginning for a modern Lent is to repent from the modern world itself. By this, I mean renouncing the notion that you are a self-generated, self-authenticating individual. You are not defined by your choices and decisions, much less by your career and your shopping. You begin by acknowledging that God alone is Lord (and you are not). Your life has meaning and purpose only in relation to God. The most fundamental practice of such God-centered living is the giving of thanks.
Renounce trying to improve yourself and become something. You are not a work in progress. If you are a work – then you are God’s work. “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in” (Eph 2:10).
Do not plan to have a “good Lent” or imagine what a “good Lent” would be. Give up judging – especially judging yourself. Get out of the center of your world. Lent is not about you. It is about Christ and His Pascha.
Fast according to the Tradition instead of according to your own ideas and designs. This might be hard for some if they are not part of the traditional Church and thus have no fasting tradition. Most Catholics have differing rules for fasting than the Orthodox. If you’re Catholic, fast like a Catholic. Don’t admire other people’s fasting.
If you’re Protestant but would like to live more traditionally, think about becoming Orthodox. Short of that, covenant with others (family, friends) to keep the traditional fast. Don’t be too strict or too lenient, and if possible keep the fast in a manner that is mutually agreed rather than privately designed. Be accountable but not guilty.
Pray. Fasting without praying is called “the Fast of Demons,” because demons never eat, but they never pray. We fast as a means of drawing closer to God. Your fasting and your prayer should be balanced as much as possible. If you fast in a strict manner, then you should pray for extended periods. If you fast lightly, then your prayers may be lighter as well. The point is to be single – for prayer and fasting to be a single thing.
To our prayer and fasting should be added mercy (giving stuff away, especially money). You cannot be too generous. Your mercy should be as invisible as possible to others, except in your kindness to all. Spend less, give away more.
Eating, drinking, praying and generosity are very natural activities. Look at your life. How natural is your eating? Is your diet driven by manufactured, processed foods (especially as served in restaurants and fast food places)? These can be very inhuman ways of eating. Eating should take time. It is not a waste of time to spend as much as six hours in twenty-four preparing, sharing, eating and cleaning up. Even animals take time to eat.
Go to Church a lot more (if your Church has additional Lenten services, go to them). This can be problematic for Protestants, in that most Protestant worship is quite modern, i.e. focused on the individual rather than directed to God, well-meant but antithetical to worship. If your Church isn’t boring, it’s probably modern. This is not to say that Classical Christianity is inherently boring – it’s just experienced as such by people trained to be consumers. Classical Christianity worships according to Tradition and focuses its attention on God. It is not there for you to “get something out of it.”
Entertain yourself less. In traditional Orthodox lands, amusements are often given up during the Lenten period. This can be very difficult for modern people in that we live to consume and are thus caught in a cycle of pain and pleasure. Normal pleasures such as exercise or walking are not what I have in mind – although it strikes me as altogether modern that there should be businesses dedicated to helping us do something normal (like walking or exercising), such that even our normal activities become a commodity to consume.
Fast from watching/reading the news and having/expressing opinions. The news is not presented in order to keep you informed. It is often inaccurate and serves the primary purpose of political propaganda and consumer frenzy. Neither are good for the soul. Opinions can be deeply destructive to the soul’s health. Most opinions are not properly considered, necessary beliefs. They are passions that pass themselves off as thoughts or beliefs. The need to express them reveals their passionate nature. Though opinions are a necessary part of life – they easily come to dominate us. Reducing the need to express how we feel about everything that comes our way (as opposed to silently weighing and considering and patiently speaking what we know to be true) is an important part of ascesis and self-control.
I could well imagine that a modern person, reading through such a list, might feel overwhelmed and wonder what is left. What is left is being human. That so much in our lives is not particularly human but an ephemeral distraction goes far to explain much of our exhaustion and anxiety. There is no food for us in what is not human.
And so the words of Isaiah come to mind:
Ho! Everyone who thirsts, Come to the waters; And you who have no money, Come, buy and eat. Yes, come, buy wine and milk Without money and without price. Why do you spend money for what is not bread, And your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, And let your soul delight itself in fatness (Isa 55:1-2).
“Let your soul delight itself in fatness…” the irony of Lent.
(Photo: Brueghel, Feast of Fools)
I love this. Lent is a call to freedom from enslavement to the marketplace. Wonderfully put, thank you. And “Get out of the center of your world. Lent is not about you. It is about Christ and His Pascha.” So much good wisdom here. And I am loving Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame. Just got started last week . . . love the part about putting on Christ . . . our garments . . . our identities, etc. Thankful to you for sharing your gifts with us.
Thank you, Father, for this wonderful and needful reminder!
Hitting the nail on the head repeatedly here! Thank you!
Haha, reading this I was thinking of my dear (Catholic) mother who is exempt from fasting requirements due to her extreme age, who nonetheless every year says she’s going to give up chocolate for Lent, I guess because that’s a popular thing with her Protestant friends…except she never eats chocolate…
Fr, what evidence is there that the long tradition of the 40 day lenten fast was passed to us by the apostles? I’ve read claims that Irenaeus described the fast that was “from the time of our fathers” (i.e, for him, that would be the apostles) as being one day, or two days with no real standard or judgment about it. He wrote that some keep their one day fast for 40 hours, believing it to be the amount of time the Lord spent in the tomb. This fast was a total fast.
Then years later, a guy named Rufinus translated Irenaeus’ description from Greek to Latin for the bishop in Rome and got it messed up, making 40 hours into 40 days.
Additionally, coming from a low-church, Protestant background but now Orthodox, I still don’t understand the “why” of it all. Every time I read someone write about what we should or could be doing during Lent, I think, “Shouldn’t we be doing all these things every day? ” Why do we need a special season to think about being a Christian and doing Christian things? I just can’t help but see this as an ancient practice geared toward getting the ‘christianized’ citizenry of Rome out of their secular slumber and into some sort of devotional life. I.e., it seems like the drawn-out version of the the crisis-theology of the holiness movement in 19th Century Protestantism, with the same aim to convert the unbeliever. But again, if we are Christian, don’t we do these things anyway–fasting, giving alms, praying, being compassionate, crucifying our fleshly desires and passions, etc.?
there is ample information on what you ask in the Greek language but, due to my Greek background, I don’t know what equivalents there are in the English language.
The ancient/apostolic establishment of the official fasting periods of the Church, the variety involved in the various early topical Churches, the connection to the establishment and evolution of early Ecclesiastical Service cycles, (and some sources) are exceedingly easy to find in Greek (Google the greek word for lent : ΤΕΣΣΑΡΑΚΟΣΤΗ).
I am afraid I can’t help much, but, I’m sure someone else can!
Thanks Dino, I appreciate your input, but my Greek is not that great. I have googled and read resources within my Logos / Faithlife app. Even wikipedia claims the monks “gradually increased the time of Lent”.
I don’t understand how to integrate statements like this at Wikipedia:
While wine and oil are permitted on Saturdays, Sundays, and a few feast days, and fish is permitted on Palm Sunday as well as the Annunciation when it falls before Palm Sunday, and caviar is permitted on Lazarus Saturday, meat and dairy are prohibited entirely until the fast is broken on Easter. Additionally, Eastern Orthodox Christians traditionally abstain from sexual relations during Lent.
… with these from St. Paul:
Colossians 2:8 (RSV2CE)
See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.
Colossians 2:16–17 (RSV2CE)
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath. 17 These are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.
Colossians 2:20–23 (RSV2CE)
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things which all perish as they are used), according to human precepts and doctrines? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting rigor of devotion and self-abasement and severity to the body, but they are of no value in checking the indulgence of the flesh.
One key notion on all this, which Father brilliantly alludes to, is that this type of Fasting (ie: not ascetic, individual, ‘extra’ fasting, but merely Church-canon-established periodic lenten-fasts, emulating Moses, Elijah, our Lord and the Apostles) is actually connected to the deep ‘sacrament’ of Obedience.
We don’t really look for utilitarian explanations for all its details (although you can find these), it rather suffices that the Sacred Tradition of the Church and its holy saints “traditioned” such a thing to us and it has become utterly ingrained in it.
A predisposition of heart for this ‘obedience’, is actually the “sine qua non” for the assimilation of the Holy Spirit which continuously animates it and is hidden in it (ie: in Holy Tradition). A person with this predisposition becomes [in a nascent degree] a ‘copy’ of the ‘Obedient One unto death’– Christ, Who is this predisposition’s ultimate benchmark.
Fasting, in general, has, of course, myriad supporting things written for it, (from miracles against demons to non-Christian tradition support), but what has stayed with me is Elder Aimianos’ words that it is like a ‘rope’ (an”Ariadne’s thread”) that connects man to God, so much so, that without fasting being a part of a person’s life, such an individual cannot even start to have the most basic taste of genuine spiritual life.
My understanding is that the 40-day Lenten fast was bound up with the catechumenate, those preparing for Holy Baptism at Pascha. It became universal as the rest of the Church joined them in that practice. I am not an expert on this detail of the Church’s history. However, the fast of Wednesday and Friday was certainly of Apostolic origin, cf. the Didache. It is possible, of course, to practice the fast in a manner that is not very helpful. However, having practiced the Lenten Fast for many years, I can say that it brings benefits that can only be seen when it’s practiced for a stretch of time (like 40 days).
It is, of course, just “Christian” to fast, pray, give alms, etc. But as an Orthodox Christian, we do not merely act as pure individuals. Learning to be part of a corporate life is perhaps even more important than fasting itself. It is, I fear, a failing of low-church Protestantism, that it nurtures too much modern individualism. Give it time.
The verses you cite in St. Paul describe a sort of fascination with Judaism and its laws of “clean” and “unclean.” These are not fasts, but are a complete disdain for certain kinds of food. Orthodox fasting, which as you’ve cited, is simply the regulations for monastic fasting (providing some direction for the monks) have nothing to do with clean and unclean. We do not disdain to eat anything. St. Paul is thus speaking about a completely different matter.
There is, however, a tendency among some to treat the fasting practice of the Church as if it were a Jewish clean/unclean thing. For me, when I hear of someone reading labels on processed foods to see if there are any milk products in them – I rebuke them. That’s just silliness and nurturing a fastidiousness that is beside the point of the fast. It is a sign (especially of converts) that we do not understand what we are doing.
The popular fast, kept by the laity of the Church, is a modification of the monastic fast (and various monasteries observe the fast in a different manner). Some cultures, even, commonly eat fish throughout Great Lent. The “rules” that you’ll find described evolved largely in the Mediterranean and reflect practices well-suited to the foods available there.
One missionary in the extreme North wrote to his bishop that the people only ever eat Caribou. Ever. He asked what to do about the fast. The bishop wrote back, “When they fast, simply ask them to eat less.” We are not under a Law.
In my own ministry, I have always directed catechumens, who are learning the faith, to take up a modified fast. We discuss various ways that might look. Also, the fast is adjusted according to age and health.
What we should do in fasting – is ask our questions of our parish priest (rather than books or wikipedia, etc.). Books state rules. A well-trained priest will pay attention to the need of a soul and answer accordingly.
Books state rules. A well-trained priest will pay attention to the need of a soul and answer accordingly.
Thank you! A very beloved Greek Orthodox priest once said to me, “We have tools, not rules.” it’s good to remember that.
Father, I went to my priest and am doing what he told me. Healthiest approach to the fast ever.
Over the years, with our growing parish community, I’ve learned a few things about the fast. First, American mainstream culture is a stranger to fasting. My dear Southern mother, who could deep-fat fry anything, had no idea of fasting. She had no such recipes. Although, I would gladly sit down to a meal of her rich vegetables any day of the week!
What I’ve noticed though in my parish, where there is a sizable Romanian and Moldovan and other Eastern Europeans contingent, there are cultures that have been cooking with the Fast in mind for nearly 2,000 years. So, at our coffee hour on Sundays during Lent, there are often delicious dishes that I’ve never seen or tasted – that are simply time-worn meals in those very rich cultures. No doubt, restaurants in those countries adapt their menus during the fasting seasons.
This is to say that Americans (like myself) are culturally ill-suited to Orthodox fasting. We are dedicated meat-eaters. My wife loves Mediterranean food and would gladly eat it all year. I feel like I’m starving in the face of it. On a pilgrimage to Israel some years back, I think I survived on Peanut Butter – the South’s hummus.
All of this should be taken into consideration as people “learn” to fast.
In traditionally Orthodox countries like Greece or Romania, many people of a certain age remember they knew –or had- some granny who kept all fasts all her life. And they did the rather ‘top’ version: a single vegan meal without oil after 3pm (plus a coffee perhaps later). They kept other traditions like the three-day fast at the start of Lent without even water. A radically different world to our mollycoddled existence where many of us subsists on processed meat three times a day.
The funny thing is that such stories sound pretty intense nowadays, almost unacceptable (as a fast-for-God), but if someone comes to it from some yogi tradition or from a fitness-guru autophagy-type theory, then everyone accepts it and wants to maybe give it a go.
There is actually an element of fear, fear of taking the plunge, fear we will not make it, with fasting. Bravery is a very big part of strict fasts. But, obviously, a century ago in such countries, (where, I kid you not, even school meals and national army service meals all adhered to the Church calendar like monasteries) things were easy. If someone humbly and bravely keeps even a semblance of a fast (for the Orthodox reasons) in the midst of, say, Silicon Valley, they are probably doing something greater.
An archimandrite on Athos, I don’t know if he is right, once said that if you search for saints that didn’t die as martyrs, you will find it almost impossible to find one that ate even meat if you examine their life. …I have little hope… 🙂 🙂 🙂
I will observe (not for the first time) that Greek tradition loves stories of extremes – it has long been a “heroic” culture – from long before its Christianization. Here in the West, hunger was treated like an unconquered frontier. It was not unusual to see as many as 3 meats on the Sunday table, especially if there was company. Commercialization (which has become ubiquitous) is creating a globalized culture of sorts to the detriment of all.
I will confess to a frustration with breakfasts in Greece. While in Thessaloniki, looking for eggs for breakfast, I was (a) told to go to a grocery store and (b) directed to a single hotel down by the harbor, that catered to Americans and Brits. There I found a wonder “Full English Breakfast” by which I began my recovery from an extended visit on the Holy Mountain.
Every culture has its strengths and weaknesses. Our houses are made of glass.
Dino, what an interesting take you note, about bravery! This year I was full of trepidation. I had fasted prior to Christmas for the first time, and found it difficult. For the past several months I have also started doing vegan Wednesdays and Fridays. (Probably as much for health reasons as others; I thought in addition to spiritual reasons, it would help my cholesterol!) Also, in my home there are two competing traditions, one Eastern and one Oriental Orthodox (my husband is Greek, my family is Armenian), so I get basically two Easters and two Christmases to think about. Anyway, I really delayed making a decision until basically the Western Ash Wednesday this year, (middle of the two starting points of Lent for both EO and OO traditions), and then I began the vegan feast. I personally cannot give up olive oil, so my fast continues with that at this point.
However, the strange thing was that as soon as I finally started what I had delayed as long as I felt I could, I felt so much relief! So the “fear” you name really played a role for me this year. Fasting has been a joy, to my strange discovery. As for reasons to fast, I suppose I have found it is another way to “remember God,” besides the host of things I have yet to understand.
The other thing nobody talks about much is that in the tradition of the Church, feasting is as important as fasting. So when it’s time to celebrate, that’s every bit as essential!
I offer these thoughts only as my own point of view at this stage of my spiritual life. I welcome correction and edification
typo: “vegan feast”
But you really have to see all the Lenten dishes in a Greek or Armenian church to understand how that is an inadvertent truth!
these are very traditional remnants of a world that rapidly disappears in favour of imported Northwest European and American influence. In my youth it was already only some schools and only some army bases that still kept this.
Going further back quite a bit, (St Nectarios’ youth days), before the (largely unknown and swept under the carpet) barbaric dissolution of the monasteries in Greece by Metternich, society was so intertwined with monastic life that it was rather common, just as people go on hols to the beaches nowadays, females of a family would go to a female monastery and males to a male one. Spectacularly different world, even considering life in the fifities…
the “joy point” is germane.
There is ample evidence that the periodic Church fasting is inextricably connected to great joy.
The hymns of the Church also speak of it with a excited language that is reminiscent of the zeal of a heroic soldier that cannot wait to joyfully jump into the spiritual arena.
Thank you for this father! Perfect timing at this mid point of Great Lent. Finding myself ever in need of refocusing on why I’m doing what I’m doing and what it’s all about.
Rural Romania probably has the most integrated parish/monastery/home environment still in existence.
Father, if you go to Greece again you have to find one of those hotels that caters to the tourist trade. They have giant breakfast buffets that are part of the price of the room. There is a tradition of eggs with breakfast but that tends to be soft-boiled eggs, although I have been in cafes that will make fried eggs on demand (with olive oil of course). By now I assume kids eat the same sugary breakfast cereals we know.
Dino, yes, in the agona! I guess that sort of goes to Father’ s point. But you know, in that part of the world, the past does not die, it becomes transfigured. One of my favorite churches is the Aghia Dynami (Holy Power, one of the traditions of the Virgin Mary) underneath the old Education Ministry bldg (now a modern hotel) in Athens. It is built atop the ruins of what was a temple dedicated to Hercules. Interestingly, in the war for independence, there was a long cave underneath, possibly going to the sea (?), in which it is said munitions were made to supply independence fighters.
As someone who had a faith-based fast before I got to the Church, I have always found what seems to me a lot of cognitive dissonance about fasting. Gradually over the years I fasted less and less. Which created a cognitive dissonance in my own head.
Not surprising because even the Apostles.
The only clear pronouncement on the fast is “don’t carry on as if you are fastening.
Then there is the difference between cultural fasters(which can include Americans); those who ignore the Fast; those who take it seriously and practice it with repentance; the confused.
I have been each of the four.
Then there are occasional meds that come into play
….oh and then there is the type of food that pops up here in my part of the country: Tex-Lebanese
I think actually among the Orthodox traditions I know, fasting is making a kind of comeback. For the Armenians of Anatolia, the monastic tradition was in great part wiped out by the end of the 18th century by the Turks. I’m not really certain how strictly the full fast was kept, although traditionally non-meat meals were still easily made from traditional cuisine. In my family there was the Sunday School “give up something for Lent” that we did, and my parents did not emphasize fasting. But I can still recall the year I gave up chocolate ice cream. I think I was 12 or 13. I remember because it really taught me something. I was surprised that by the end of Lent I didn’t care so much if I ate chocolate ice cream after dinner, where before it was a “must have.” It created a sense of detachment where there wasn’t one before. So the discipline remains a very important lesson today for me, one I am still learning through the fast. I think it’s actually an indispensable lesson, and I don’t think it would be quite such a learning experience otherwise. Food is so connected with survival, and yet one remains “okay” by either delaying or eating less. Plus we Americans are inundated with “requirements” and “food tables” from the time we’re small, which also seem to change with time. Plus they really don’t seem to me to reflect the amazing adaptability of the human body, or even the idea that one might “make up” for something at one time, and not have it during another time period.
For my health, over the past couple of years I’ve also practiced what’s called intermittent fasting, and is very popular. (That is, eating within a certain window of time every day.) But the Lenten fast remains a different experience.
Father, thanks for this outstanding article.
Near the end, you mentioned “News” and propaganda, and opinions. That reminded me of this great post from years ago:
I read a book this year in January by Alan Noble called You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World. I appreciated the points he brought up and I see that you are also showing us how we wrestle with these topics. Thank you for giving me more to contemplate, especially from an Orthodox / Ancient perspective, which Noble’s book does not have.
I’ll have to look that book up. There are scattered voices out there who are thinking through the consequences and habits of modernity, and, as a consequence saying some good, and similar things.
Reading this through a second time and realizing how my brain snags on the sentences:
“ Renounce trying to improve yourself and become something. You are not a work in progress.”
“ Do not plan to have a “good Lent” or imagine what a “good Lent” would be. Give up judging – especially judging yourself.”
These are so extremely difficult for me to grasp with my heart, right up there with something akin to “stop breathing” or “stop thinking”. How does one do that?! The best I can seem to do is starting a few steps back at”I’m willing to be willing”
Fr. Stephen, thank you for writing your book Face to Face. It’s a beautiful book that I will re-read several times and share with anyone who might be ready for it. I especially found the last 2 chapters (“The Shame of Gratitude” and “Going Forward”) very moving. Many of the truths in this book will take some time for the coin to fully drop.
Fr. Stephen, thanks for your replies. I am trying to reorient my brain to the passages in Colossians. I am already aware that the context is not the same, but it’s hard to say ‘for sure’ about that even, because we lack too much information in the passage.
I’ll accept that my frustration is not with Orthodox fasting, but with the way it is often treated and talked about—as rules or decrees. I have already talked with my priest about it, and his instruction is a lot like yours, for which I’m thankful.
Brian, I have had that exact question before. When you read it, it sounds like a blanket statement, i.e., it covers all ritual observances. Questions that I have asked myself are the following: Is Paul warning against fasting? Is the apostle saying we should have no rules or traditions governing how we fast or how we worship? OR is the apostle saying that the Church is not a mere extension of Judaism? The Church isn’t an offshoot of Judaism. The Church is fullness of all isms especially Judaism. Making Jewish customs mandatory, at the very least, creates confusion regarding Christian identity and the nature of the Church, and at most it implies the insufficiency of Christ.
“The way it’s often treated and talked about…” Yes. That is a frustration. Much of what I see in our information overload (the internet), makes far too much of fasting “rules” – and mis-states things. They fail to convey the inner practice of fasting and concentrate on the outward – creating a terrible distortion. My thoughts in this article were a small attempt to pay attention to the inward purpose and practice.
As to St. Paul, I think it likely that he had the Jewish kosher rules in mind, but there were other practices in his time. Pythagoreans famously did not eat beans. He was pressing his readers towards the inner freedom that is ours in Christ. Even the Orthodox fast is only ever an exercise in freedom. Those who speak of it in any other way are failing to understand and are creating a distortion.
To add a complicating wrinkle – I think much of the distortion that we see is driven by shame. But, I could write a book on that topic…
I’ll accept that my frustration is not with Orthodox fasting, but with the way it is often treated and talked about—as rules or decrees.
I think the key part of this statement (and the other on “self-judgement”) is “rules and decrees”. I suffer a great deal from this mindset and it is difficult to move beyond it. When praying for forgiveness I have a tendency to only see my sins and not God’s mercy. I think this is just a lifetime of habit formed by the legalism that is the primary foundation of Protestant theology. It takes a long time to really move past one’s sins and on to the truth of His mercy (while still being repentant). Difficult needs that can become more difficult during Lent. By God’s grace, we continue….
A key issue with the broad, blanket statements that needs to always be kept in mind is that there is a difference between the ‘public word’ and the ‘private word’. The first generally provides the exactness and perfection of the benchmark, and the second mostly provides the fine-tuned, dispensational target intended only for one specific individual.
This is not just for fasting but also for everything.
I specifically remember a novice disciple of Elder Aimilianos getting awfully frustrated until this was explained to him. It occurred when he attended an evening (general) homily in which the Elder was making fiery blanket statements, that “you can’t even have water after Compline and call yourself a monk” and straight after, upon entering his office to get his blessing before reposing, the same Elder offered him his favourite dessert to take to his cell going totally against his own word!
Being scandalised he posed the question and the answer was given that just as at an astrophysics lecture, the lecturer gives you the full relativity theorem but then when you go to him after class and explain you hardly even know how to square a number he sits and offers you what is right for you at that time, with the faith that you will eventually move to a greater understanding, so too, the high statements of some Church cannons are to be applied personally via a discerning Spiritual Father. Hearts vary in capacity as much as stars.
“economia is a discretionary deviation from the letter of the law in order to adhere to the spirit of the law and charity. This is in contrast to legalism” (excerpt from Wikipedia)
Dino, does not the Elder’s discretion come from his deep knowledge of the heart through the mercy of Jesus Christ?
Just a side note: In Chemistry, pedagogical models are constructed to help with understanding, not so much to be strict adherence to ‘reality’. However, our perception of reality is an ever-moving target. Even the so-called experts (priests, monks included) have to modify their understanding as they go deeper into the unseen Realm.
Janine, Michael, Dee,
well said indeed!
I recall a bishop once saying, “We are only saved by economia. The whole of our salvation is in the economy of God.” In one of the Sunday Troparia, we sing, “Glory to Thy dispensation, O Lord!” In the Greek, this is “Glory to Thy economia.” The same bishop said, “We never sing, ‘Glory to Thy akrivia (strictness), O Lord.”
Even the strictest practice of fasting, is only ever economia, at best. There can be no perfectionism in Orthodoxy (perfectionism is just a manifestation of toxic shame). Jesus taught us, “At the end of the day, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants.'”
Father, et. al;
…and yet the door to the Kingdom is always open.
As I age, I become more and more thankful for His mercy that permeates every part of Creation.
Mercy is alive with Jesus and so immanently available: closer than hands and feet.
He created us. Yet there is a lot of voices out there that say that we created God.
The “I Am” is not subject to entropy and only my sin subjects me to it, yet He interpenetrated His Creation and voluntarily subjected Himself to the worst of it.
Not in any sense is the Cross a sign of the Law or strictness.
I think Simon, the Cyrene does not get enough attention.
Father, is he not an archetype for our shame?
Thank you Father! It is so true. Sometimes I feel our whole faith is really about learning to approach the whole world with economia, like the desert monks with hospitality that even took priority over prayers
I think that, as Father has noted before, topical considerations are extremely significant regarding all this.
“Economia” comes to the foreground when the Church is in the midst of diametrically-opposed-to-it world.
In traditionally Orthodox countries, – prior to the all consuming western secular corrosion-, a person wouldn’t even think to say e.g.: ‘I am fasting’, to explain themselves at a dinner invite, they would invariably say ‘it is a fast’.
It is a significant difference.
Thank you for a very helpful article.
“We obviously do not bring ourselves in existence – it is a gift.”
I understand that demanding a utilitarian purpose is off, but where there is no seeming logic connected to a practice, there is less than luke-warm participation. And in almost every conversation I’ve had with someone about the Fast, it is this disconnect that turns the Fast into an annoying diet. (I’ve leaving aside what seems rarely mentioned, that the Fast is connected to the catechumen.)
I believe in terms of logic, the fast is to reinforce your sentence above. It makes participation necessary, as it is clear that fasting is necessary fuel/food for faith. Our problem is forgetting ourselves to be creatures. Creation Ex Nihilo needs to make a comeback IMO. We treat existence as an eternal thing that everyone borrows from but is also somehow ours. We take for granted existence, that is until our sense of contingency is brought to bear on our minds and bodies. This most of us don’t experience regularly unless we abstain (or are forced to in illness or tragedy) from food, material/bodily comfort, from thinking of the Creation as a given instead of a gift. We fast to remember what we already know, that God is our Provider and Gift-Giver. Our bodies tell our minds of our contingency on God, but often only when the body seeks a survival need. The Christian realizes, or tries to realize, that survival is no longer an issue following the Resurrection, but the body continues to operate as if survival is all there is. The mind and body are obviously often at odds. But when the body cries out (and you would cry if you were an infant) our faith realizes that prior to the food or necessity (its existence, which is a good gift) that dulls the pain of hunger, there is a greater hunger for the Creator of the food and all other things. How you would feel this, remember this, without hunger of some sort? You forget you are created when you never feel hunger/pain. Hedonism is a refusal to feel hunger in a sense. The Prodigal’s hedonic descent leads to hunger. Money is the means of hunger dulling. Prayer is the result I think, which means it should attend us at every step, of realizing contingency. When you’re flat broke and probably going through some nasty withdrawal in a pig farm, you remember contingency and return to the Source.
Hebrews 11:3, “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not brought into being from anything observable.” It’s telling/interesting that in the introduction to the Faith chapter, this is mentioned. If this is a precondition for faith, or what it means to have faith in part, then reinforcing/shoring up that same faith won’t seem odd. Self-denail isn’t for discipline in itself, but for freedom in contingency on/in Christ.
I think this is why we pray Psalm 103/4 at every Vespers, it’s all about the giftedness and goodness of Creation. Verse 27, “These all look to you, to give them their food in due season.”
A wonderful statement by Hieromonk Gabriel on the Fast:
This is the meaning and the purpose of all of our Christian struggle during this holy season of Great Lent. We must always remember that the measure of “success” in our struggle during this Fast is not the quantity — or even the quality — of our ascetic efforts. The only true measure of success is our love.
I am open to being corrected and if this was stated previously, please, forgive me. I would think it would be fair to say that intention is important with regard to fasting. In other words, if you come from a very rule oriented religious background, then maybe the priest would tell you, “Don’t fast. Put it out of your mind.” With the priest’s understanding of that person’s history, compulsions, and best interests at heart it may only do more harm than good to ask someone to engage in an obedience that would trigger religiousity rather than spirituality. The strictures of cults and authoritarian religious structures against any kind of disobedience would not be capable of such understanding. A person with that background may have the wrong behaviors triggered.
What do you think?
Hieromonk Gabriel is correct of course but love in this season is about The Cross is it not?
That being said, the discipline of Fasting has always been difficult for me. This Lent, working with my priest, I am fasting less, but still in obedience.
I have begun to get the warfare fasting is. A bit daunting, but also motivating.
Hieromonk Gabriel is correct of course but love in this season is about The Cross is it not?
There is a great deal more in his post, which is indeed about the Cross (title: The Comfort of the Cross). That quote jumped out at me and I thought it appropriate here.
I would think it would be fair to say that intention is important with regard to fasting.
I might use the phrase “the state of the heart” instead of “intention”. There are certainly many possibilities for what you’ve outlined. I think it safe to allow one’s Priest to consider the best avenue for each individual (and/or group).
Byron, et al
If the heart is right, then even “failing” in the Fast can be a “beneficial” as “succeeding.” There is an intended softening of the heart and nurturing of humility within the Fast. Perfectionism would be self-defeating. Over the years I’ve often recommended to people a fast that is “slightly beyond reach,” in order both to stretch a little, as well as to fail occasionally. Both are good for the soul.
In the sort of tradition of Elder Aimilianos, even though he himself was an inconceivable faster, the “failing” thing, didn’t quite come into it for his disciples, as any failure to abstain here or keep a fasting meal there, was always treated as, “we forget the past and move forward”, no pondering on what happened, but always focused forward, on a childlike, positive renewal, to move ahead.
Since I am, in a sense, under a directive not to fast at times, I want to fast more . Not strictly out of willfulness but to overcome my (not failure) but my limitations and the rebelliousness of my heart clearly shown to me in the not fasting.
Thank you for returning to this topic that you eluded to in a previous post. I am curious why you say–if you are Catholic, fast like a Catholic (who hardly fast at all, considering they call a fast eating 1 meal a day) but if you are Protestant think about joining the Orthodox faith. It seems you are dissuading Catholics from joining the Orthodox faith—-Why?
It was not my intention to dissuade anyone from becoming Orthodox. Sorry I gave that impression. I do not generally write articles with the intention of “converting” anyone, though, over the years, I have received notes from many who said that my writings were important in their conversion. We do not convert through arguments and persuasion – it’s much deeper than that. My somewhat humorous comment directed to Protestants in the article – was simply noting that there’s not a Protestant tradition of fasting (as such).
Hope that helps explain my comments.
Dino, you wrote Elder Aimilianos’ instructions that they were akin to “we forget the past and move forward.” Although I tried to study a lot, my movement (for want of a better word) in faith has at its core the mystery in experience and prayer. This attitude of love has consistently been what I have found in prayer. Even when I have made a mistake, the correction I can remember is all about learning and going forward, and one attempt at redressing the past was a loving instruction simply to apologize. In this distinguishing love, I cannot help but think it is so related to Father’s work on shame, Even on bearing a little shame (just apologize) vs avoiding toxic shame
my own assessment of the Elder’s advise is that (just like Saint Sophrony) he never wanted one’s “left hand to know what one’s right hand is doing”, he would rather that one has the childlike simplicity that leads to the positive decisiveness of true repentance, not one that ponders on past failings, (although this can lead to contrition), but one that focuses on God’s will. You would need to write things down to confess them and bare whatever shame there is, but the writing down would be actually needed because otherwise, if you have no great ‘falls’, you wouldn’t even remember your daily sins, so focused on moving joyously Godwards at all times.
Of course if God’s Spirit generates a deep repentance, you would witness immense contrition, but it would not be about particular sins, but rather, about the ‘sinfulness’ in general, lurking around the heart.
Disciples of his that are living this out still, (I know at least of one) have one care alone: how to please the Lord from now on. In a certain sense, it does not matter for them if things are going well in the world or atrociously, it makes no difference if they’re healthy or suffering with illness, what matters is that in each and every setting they demonstrate their will to do what might please God most. It produces a sort of stable spiritual joy that is not of this world.
My Archbishop (Alexander Golitzin) was a disciple of the Elder Amelianos (he was tonsured by him). In a recent talk on priestly identity (interestingly), he said, that when asked “who he was,” he said he normally replied, “I am the servant of God, Alexander.” That seems to have that simplicity about it.
I remember when I was a young adult a girlfriend gave up a certain brand of store bought chocolate milk. When I saw her drinking another brand of store bought chocolate milk I wondered if she thought it was good enough to give up a brand! I love Lent, a period of abstinence of the things I love most. Thank you for this wonderful message.
Thank you, Father, for many excellent insights and suggestions, and thank you everyone for an interesting and edifying discussion.
One of the greatest challenges in taking up Orthodox fasting was, not having come from a family with a vast inherited catalog of lenten recipes, I just didn’t know what I was supposed to be eating, and was intimidated by the thought that I was supposed to be learning a whole new cuisine. Things got simpler when I realized that the best way was to look at what I already liked to eat, and modify it for the fast (you can wrap up anything in a tortilla!).
Yes. Fasting in an Orthodox manner is a huge challenge (I think) for those who have to do food preparation. I have go-to things (like peanut butter and canned soups) when my wife is not around to cook. I also make a mean banana sandwich.
It’s funny that the immense help that the (weird fusion of secular “values” with far East) veganism craze has unintentionally brought to orthodox fasting is criticised pretty intensely when I go back to Greece by traditionalists who were brought up with expert grandma’s cooking. 😊