In honour of it being the last week of Lent, I decided to explore a classic lenten practice this week, fasting. There are many different approaches to fasting, from total abstinence from food on certain days, as is common in some evangelical circles, to the giving up of a favorite food during the season, which is popular in many Mainline Protestant churches and has framed the popular conception of “giving something up for Lent.” For the purposes of this week, I chose to undertake the traditional Orthodox practice, which I’ll describe more fully below, for its simplicity and balance.
In the Christian tradition, I think it’s safe to say that fasting is among the most common yet most widely misunderstood sacred practices. It’s often thought ‘on the street’ to be about penance or punishment for sins, or about self-sacrifice. Thus, fasting is often looked at with suspicion. And certainly, if one assumes fasting is about sacrifice or punishment, then that suspicion is very justified from a Christian perspective. But that isn’t what fasting is about. We do not fast because it pleases God — in the words of one ancient hymn, “neither does the devil eat.” Nor do we fast in order to suffer — for God does not delight in seeing his creation in pain. Nor do we fast as a way of atoning for sin — for salvation is a gift of God’s grace, not something to be earned. Rather, fasting is about training in self-mastery, about freeing oneself from inappropriate attachments.
It’s no accident that our relationship with food is the preliminary focus of this training in freedom. As a Q&A on the Orthodox Church in America (OCA)’s website very helpfully points out:
In our culture especially, food dominates the lives of many people. … We have eating disorders, diets galore, weight loss pills, liposuction treatments, stomach stapling—all sorts of things that proceed out of the fact that we often allow food, which in an of itself cannot possibly control us, to control us. We fast in order to gain control, to discipline ourselves, to gain control of those things that we have allowed to get out of control.
Yet, while food is an appropriate battleground, it is not the ultimate battle. Food is not sinful. A proper fast recognizes that food is only symbolic of the real fast from sin. When we fast, we should be mindful of fasting from slander and gossip, from envy and theft, and from any unhealthy attachment. Because fasting is about freedom, and freedom is ultimately about bearing good fruit, fasting is also about turning toward goodness, mercy, and grace. In the words of the prophet Isaiah:
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
What is it?
In the tradition within which I fasted this week, the lenten fast includes full abstinence from meat (including fish), eggs, dairy, alcohol, and heavy oils. Meals should be simple and portions reasonable.
Further points to keep in mind:
- These rules of fasting are guidelines and should be relaxed for those who are elderly, in poor health, or pregnant.
- While eating meat and dairy is not sinful, wasting food is. Take extra care not to waste food when you fast.
- Normal rules of hospitality also still apply. If you are visiting a friend and they serve you meat, eat the meal they have prepared for you. The same would generally apply if your food is prepared in a cafeteria or you otherwise of little control over your meals.
- To echo the words of the Apostle Paul, “The kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14.17) — any fasting rule you use should be applied with grace and joy.
- In all things, moderation is best. To be too strict or unbending in fasting is just as much an unhealthy attachment around food as gluttony.
- In our culture, with its many vegetarian-friendly meat substitutes, it’s easy to keep the letter of the fast while breaking its spirit. There’s nothing wrong with these necessarily, but try to remember to keep foods simple.
- At the risk of being flippant, fasting is a lot like Fight Club: the first rule of fasting is not to talk about fasting. As Jesus said, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full” (Mt 6.16). To talk to people around you about your fasting defeats the point — it would be as counter the spirit of Jesus’ teaching as going out into public with ashes on your forehead on Ash Wednesday. So, don’t.
Because it was just one week, and I had planned for it intentionally, the week wasn’t all that difficult. Two slip ups come to mind, one intentional, the other accidental. Both are in their own way instructive. On Sunday I decided to have lunch out after church to watch some basketball at a pub. While there was a vegetarian option on the menu, I noticed it had double the calories (Ontario has a law stipulating that caloric content be included on menus) as an option that had a bit of meat. This represented one of the main quandaries of the traditional fasting diet in contemporary Western society: whether it’s a greater breach of the spirit of the fast to eat meat, or to eat a gluttonous vegan meal. In this case, I went with the smaller meal. On Friday, I attended a conference and had chicken with my lunch. Ordinarily I wouldn’t consider this a breach of the fast since it was what was served to me, however there was also a vegetarian option and it didn’t dawn on me to choose it until after I had scooped the chicken onto my plate. Oops.
I have to preface this reflection with the recognition that fasting for one week is very different than fasting for six weeks. In a way it’s even easier than the normal Wednesday and Friday fasts that Orthodox Christians keep throughout the year, since this week I just didn’t have meat and cheese in the house.
Because of the short duration of this fast, the cravings for rich foods weren’t bad. I remember, though, from longer fasts I’ve done in the past, just how intense they can get. You don’t know just how attached you are to food until your entire consciousness becomes obsessed with eating a cheeseburger during the fourth or fifth week of a fast!
So, I think the brevity of the fast this time around meant that the main benefits weren’t in actually challenging my attachment to foods as much as it was in spurring me to be more conscious of my relationship to food: I had to prepare and plan my meals for the week in a more intentional way than usual. The practice brought a different set of questions to restaurant menus than my normal concerns of cost and what I feel like eating. The practice also reminded me to be thankful for what I have, to give to charities that feed those less fortunate than me, and to support political causes around food security, which even in parts of my extraordinarily wealthy country is still a big problem.
In light of all this, by way of assessment, I would say that while fasting really does its work over a longer period than the week I did it for this project, even a short term fast can be helpful in providing a reminder about the importance of food and our relationship to it.