Wednesday, 26 February 2020

"Fasting food" is an oxymoron

As we approach Great Lent, the Church year’s longest and strictest period of fasting, we often meet two responses: pride and despondency. While by no means a cure for these two spiritual ailments, I do think a better knowledge of what fasting actually entails is a big help in countering both of these.

Fasting-related pride can either be personal (“I fast during Lent, they do not”) or collective (“The heretics have abandoned fasting, but we Orthodox have kept the way of the Fathers!”). Every Lent, the orthonet abounds with memes expressing the latter sentiment in particular.

In either case, the truth is that the vast majority of Orthodox Christians today do not actually fast. They may abstain from meat, dairy, eggs, fish, wine and even oil, but they do not fast in the strict sense of the word. Fasting means complete abstinence from food and drink, usually until the evening. This is what the Church prescribes for weekdays of Great Lent, and for nearly all Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year: no food until evening. The vegan meal eaten after Vespers marks the end of fasting on that day — the term “fasting food” is an oxymoron. This is why the Presanctified Liturgy is celebrated with Vespers during weekdays of Great Lent, so that the faithful would not break their fast early by receiving Communion and antidoron at a morning service. When the Fathers end a long Lenten sermon or catechetical talk by apologising for wearing out their listeners who are already tired from fasting, they are not apologising to people inconvenienced by veggie burgers and soy substitutes, but to people listening on an empty stomach.

Don’t get me wrong, each person should fast in accordance with their own strength and circumstances, and with the guidance of their spiritual father. I am not calling on anyone to do any more or less than what they are currently doing. But before we boast in our almond milk lattes, let us recognise just how modest our Lenten effort actually is. Let us not take pride in abstaining from meat when our secular neighbour does not, but let us be humbled by how far our ‘fasting’ falls short of what is envisaged by the canons we claim to follow.

Similarly, many people who follow the standard abstinence from meat and dairy, but who have no experience of actual fasting, often complain that they don’t see the point. They feel no different, and they find the idea of not putting milk in their coffee or not eating cheese on certain days of the year arbitrary and irrelevant to their spiritual lives. Now, in our days of abundant choice and instant gratification, even this is a huge sacrifice and struggle for many, and if combined with prayer and a humble disposition, there is no reason why this modest exercise in self-control shouldn’t bring abundant spiritual fruit. I can understand, though, where those who complain are coming from.

The first thing is the way fasting is disconnected from charity. In the 4th century Apostolic Constitutions (XXI), the rules regulating fasting (no food until the 9th hour of the day) are accompanied by a rule that all the surplus of fasting be devoted to God. In other words, all the food and money saved by limiting oneself to a single, simple meal in the evening, should go to the poor. Every act of self-deprivation should be accompanied by an equal and opposite act of charity. Not only does this simple principle prevent fasting being an inward-looking act (which is what the four Sundays of the Triodion introducing us to Lent warn against), but it also allows the faster to see an immediate, positive result.

Even if the way most of us fast during Lent will involve more modest savings than that envisaged by the canons, consciously applying this principle is still possible and still helpful. If you have a habit of getting a cup of coffee from Starbucks every morning, give that up during lent, and make sure the daily saving of £2.50 goes to someone who needs it.

The same goes for time saved during fasting. The hour you save by not watching your favourite show on Netflix should be used to benefit another person in need of practical help or personal interaction, whether it’s volunteering at a soup kitchen or visiting an elderly person struggling with loneliness.

A second reason people might not feel their fasting does much (if it only involves a change in diet) is because they don’t experience the hunger, the fatigue, and the very concrete feelings these rouse in us, not only of sympathy for the poor who experience these things involuntarily, but of our own weakness and absolute dependence on God, the Provider of all things. Simply put, ‘proper fasting’ has effects on our prayer and on our general mood and outlook that veganism just doesn’t. While this kind of fasting may be beyond the reach of many — it should certainly not be undertaken without discernment and the advice of one’s spiritual father — being aware that this is what fasting is, that this is what the saints and fathers speak of when they refer to fasting, will allow people to put what they read into perspective, and not be disappointed and discouraged when switching to veggie burgers doesn’t bring about the results described in spiritual literature.

And simply being aware of where we are in relation to where we should be is helpful in itself. In the Ladder of Divine Ascent, St John describes how many who had not been granted the gift of tears of repentance would weep on account of their lack of tears, thus reaching the same end through other means.

Similarly, if we are not able to fast according to the canons (which is, in any case, but a means to an end, not an end in itself), let the modesty of our effort become a source of the same humility and openness that fasting is intended to give us. Let us, through acknowledging what we are not doing rather than boasting in what we are doing, win the grace of God through another way.

May God grant us all a fruitful Lent, and let our sacrifices — however great or small they may be — manifest themselves in meaningful, outward-looking acts of love.

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