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February 15, 2010

Today Lent begins on the Eastern calendar.  I don’t pretend to understand the intricacies of the debates about the placement of Easter (although Western and Eastern calendars align in that regard this year) or the calculations for Lent (although, had I judged this to be a topic of consequence, I could have looked this up), but this year I’m on the Eastern calendar.  Those of you on the Western calendar have another two days.

I’m on the Eastern calendar this year because I’m going to be practicing the Orthodox Great Lenten Fast.  I already broke one of the rules: don’t tell people you are fasting.  However, I broke this rule because this is a theology blog and talking to people about the fast seems appropriate here.  In essence this fast includes two periods of prolonged complete fasting (no food), and a ban on the use of oil, wine, or products from vertebrates (meat, eggs, dairy).  On weekends (except the one weekend of complete fasting) this is relaxed some (oil and wine are allowed) and on two special feast days fish, oil, and wine are allowed.

But the point isn’t to describe the fasting practices (although I’m happy to direct you to better resources if you decide this would be a good practice for you, too), but to think in general about fasting and Lent.  As I’ve already mentioned you’re not supposed to talk about your fasting.  The reason for this appears to be a general rule against having your fasting become a point of pride or an imposition on others.  If you go to someone’s house and they, not knowing, serve you prime rib you eat the prime rib.  Don’t go for seconds, but kindness trumps self-righteous holiness.  The purpose of fasting is inwards.

I won’t pretend to be an expert on the Eastern Fathers, but I can tell you why I chose this fast, and in doing so I hope to prompt useful thoughts in you as well.  I say useful, not instructional.  What is good for me may not be good for you, which is why I’m talking about how I came to the decision more than what the decision was.

First, I chose this fast because it’s hard.  I love meat.  I go to barbeque places and routinely order a pound of takeout on a plate, and eat it in one sitting.  I’ve eaten five hamburgers at once.  The only thing that really stops me from eating an entire cow, pig, or flock of chickens every week is the expense and health hazard.  I try to keep my meat-eating down to a reasonable level, but it’s a wonderful treat.  And pretty much everything else I love has dairy or eggs in it.  Scrambled eggs, baked pancakes, pizza, ravioli, even fresh pasta.  What’s left has oil, and most of my attempts to make what’s left tasty would involve oil if they could.  Frying without oil?  It’s possible, but not easy, or very effective.  And that alone should tell you something: I know a bit about cooking, I love to cook, and food is something I look forward to.  I plan dinner as a celebration.  What will I eat tonight?  What would taste good?  What would make me happy?

Frankly, the Orthodox Lenten Fast sounds terrible.  And that’s why I want to do it.  See, this is the important second point, it’s something people have done for centuries.  So it’s doable.  It’s not hard and dangerous (although I did check with my doctor to make sure, since I have some additional medical concerns most people don’t), it’s just hard.  Actually, it’s a lot like what poor people ate most of the time for most of antiquity.  But even though it’s doable, traditional, and I’ll be joined by literally millions of others, it’s still hard.  I’m going to get bored of bean paste, peanut butter stew, and soybeans for protein.  I’m going to really look forward to those feast days with fish.  And that’s the point.

I went and looked at a well-made calendar of feasts and fasts in the Orthodox Church that one of my friends pointed me to.  I was impressed.  There are fasts regularly.  There are feasts regularly.  There appear to be special periods in which fasting is not allowed, although I may not have understood the labeling there.  All of this requires discipline.  I lack discipline.  I’m a Protestant, and I come from a Congregationalist background.  My ancestors once banned Christmas for being too fancy and liturgical.  Christmas.  And so I have no tradition of fasting.  I have no tradition of deprivation, except that which is forced on me.  I have no tradition of discipline, and, being undisciplined, haven’t managed to erect some framework of discipline on my own.  No wonder I can’t sit still to pray.  No wonder I can’t focus in the quiet moments.  No wonder I can’t keep the reign on my passions I want to.

I am, if this blog has not already alerted you, a thinker.  I love learning and contemplating and finding new things.  But I’m also deeply convinced that this is not the way to move closer to God and to the likeness of His Son.  There is no magic knowledge that makes you perfect.  I’m not a Gnostic, or even one of the Gnostic-denying gnosis-pushers I occasionally run into.  Christianity is hard because there is no magic button.  There is no silver bullet.  There is obedience and transformation, there is the power of the spirit, but no matter how charismatic or Calvinist one might be it is observably true that being holy as our Father in Heaven is holy is not, by any stretch of the imagination, easy.  And discipline is the key to doing things that are not easy.

I have found myself deeply atrophied in the muscles of discipline.  The Church, East and West, with a wisdom that spans centuries, has declared Lent a time of fasting.  It is a time to contemplate our desperate condition, the evil that destroys us and reaches from us to destroy others.  It is a time to be disciplined, to set aside some luxuries, to think hard and to grow.

I am not your spiritual mentor, for a number of good reasons.  But I hope that if you have not already decided on a Lenten discipline or given it thought that I have provided a starting place.  I don’t know what would be good for you, but feel free to respond and share.  After all, on the Western calendar you’ve still got two days to decide.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Jay permalink
    February 15, 2010 8:54 am

    Eric, I don’t believe it’s wrong to tell people you are fasting, because if you are doing it for the right reasons you won’t want to tell anyone anyway. Believe me, it’s possible to fast for the wrong reasons and at the end you just feel stupid…but if you do it to seek God’s face, it can help you get into the very presence of Almighty God. I began fasting last year from time to time and God did far more with it than I expected.

    So, for what it’s worth, I support your Lenten fast decision 100% and pray that God will use it to establish a greater devotion and discipline in your life. I don’t know yet what I will be doing for Lent, but it will probably involve fasting at some level.

    As a final note, when I decided to start fasting, I found the following site helpful:

  2. Eric permalink
    February 15, 2010 9:07 pm

    Interesting site. The advice about breaking a complete fast slowly is good. Since I’ll be, in essence, doing two three-day fasts back to back this week (separated by a single meal) I’m wondering if I shouldn’t split dinner into two parts. I actually already have a normal-sized portion of bean and vegetable stew, but maybe I should eat a bit of it before the Wednesday evening service and finish the rest when I get back.

  3. February 19, 2010 2:31 pm

    Certainly doesn’t sound like a good fast for a pregnant lady or someone who has dealt with eating issues.

    Personally, I long to bring some discipline in my life but lack the discipline to do so. For that reason, I can definitely see the benefits of doing something as a group or yearly practice. Every time I try to instate some sort of structure, I get way too prideful and make the practice about me rather than seeking God’s face.

  4. Eric permalink
    February 19, 2010 2:56 pm

    There’s a lot of health caveats in the Orthodox fast. I was warned several times to check with my doctor, and the Deacon who told me about the fast said that in addition to the normal reasons not to judge others this was a fast that might have variations for reasons like those you cite and so it would also be impossible to judge someone else’s fast without being their spiritual mentor.

  5. raywerksstudio permalink
    February 19, 2010 4:03 pm

    Eric, this is “Conifer” from the RelevantMagazine forums. Thanks for inviting me to check this out.

    This following excerpt from your post is me completely.

    “I lack discipline. I’m a Protestant…. and so I have no tradition of fasting. I have no tradition of deprivation, except that which is forced on me. I have no tradition of discipline, and, being undisciplined, haven’t managed to erect some framework of discipline on my own. No wonder I can’t sit still to pray. No wonder I can’t focus in the quiet moments. No wonder I can’t keep the reign on my passions I want to.”

    Not only did my Protestant evangelical tradition not observe Lent, the only time it was mentioned was to disparage it as yet another example of the shallow, salvation-by-works modus operandi of the evil Catholic Church (the Eastern Orthodox not even showing up on the radar). Except for Christmas and Easter, my church was seemingly completely unaware of the entire Advent calendar. It’s as if these two holidays popped up quite at random and there was nothing to connect them except that one celebrates Christ’s birth and the other his death and resurrection. So, I have a lot of catching up to do to learn and understand many of these traditions to which I was never exposed.

    I had a very good exchange with a Catholic in my office regarding Lent and mentioned to her how I had always heard it portrayed in a bad light growing up but had very much changed my mind on the subject.

    It seems to me that I need to look into this further myself, as well.

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