Monday, 30 July 2012

Again?! Yet another fast is upon us

Cell at Katounakia, Mount Athos
Falling only shortly after the two lengthy fasting periods of Great Lent and the Apostles' Fast, the Dormition Fast beginning on the 1st of August is often met with grumbling. This is hardly a surprising reaction when we continuously present fasting as something burdensome, tiring, and difficult. A time of don't's rather than do's. But is it?

I remember the first time I visited the Holy Mountain. I had spent a night at St. Ephraim's Skete at Katounakia, a small gathering of cells situated on steep hills at the very edge of the peninsula, and was making my way back down to the port after the morning services and breakfast. When I had made it about half way down the seemingly endless steps, a tiny old monk from one of the other sketes, to whom I had briefly been introduced the day before, came running towards me shouting "Norwegian! Norwegian!". He wanted to remind me that the day after next was one of the feasts of our Lord. "Tomorrow," he said with a big smile, "you must remember to fast strictly, and only eat bread and water at the evening meal so that you'll be ready for the Feast the following day!" While what he was telling me was certainly strict by any measure - exceeding even the akrivia of the Church's fasting rules - his words contained no trace of prescriptiveness, but were said with an infectious joy and enthusiasm. He was simply excited about the Feast and wanted to let me know so that I didn't miss out on anything. I wonder if we shouldn't also imagine the Church Fathers as having had the same radient faces when they wrote the words that to us in the 21st century often sound harsh and overly demanding. 

Perhaps if we observed the fasts and discussed the topic of fasting with the same excitement, enthusiasm, and love for Christ as this simple monk, those around us might come to understand that fasting is not a burdensome obligation, but a privilege and opportunity to be longed for and greeted with joy not reluctance. 

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