We are coming to the end of the Dormition Fast (I talk about this in a Religion Moment). It is a fast, that I must confess, I have not kept well. This is partly due to circumstance, and partly due to my own neglectfulness. Yet I also wonder if fasting itself is not something that the Orthodox Church needs to rethink for the modern, American context. There is something about the “rules” of fasting that do not mesh well with the modern world. Some traditionalists might say that’s exactly the point, and I get it. But I must also point out that strict adherence to the letter of the fasting guidelines may violate its spirit.
Consider what is not “allowed” during a typical fast: meat products (including dairy, eggs, and cheese), olive oil, and wine.
But what is allowed during the fast? Lobster!
The purpose of the fast is threefold. First, we are to hedge back our appetites, to allow ourselves to be a little hungry as a spiritual discipline, so that by denying the urge to eat we might learn to deny the urge to sin. (See my Huff Post piece on fasting.) Second, we are to give ourselves more time. Preparing simple fare means we spend less time in the kitchen so that we can focus on prayer and attend extra services as we are able. Finally, because we are, in theory, spending less money on food, we are to give the extra to the poor. In the Shepherd of Hermas, which some early Christian churches considered Scripture, the angel says that the money we do not spend on fasting must be given in alms. This is consistent with what the prophet Isaiah writes:
Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;
When you see the naked, that you cover him,
And not hide yourself from your own flesh?
(Isaiah 58:6-7 NKJV)
Fasting was on my mind on Sunday, when I ran by the store to grab some grocery items for this week. I was thinking to myself how difficult it is to get foods that fit the guidelines offered by the church and my own budget. Later that afternoon, I read the following words in Fr. Michael Plekon’s book, Hidden Holiness
Fr.Lev Gillet…noted that fasting might better take the form of eating simple, cheap food rather than that allowed by ancient Eastern Church fasting rules such as lobster, shrimp, scallops, caviar, which are now quite expensive. (A Greek friend tells me that such seafood was considered to be fit only for the poor or fasting, even in the mid-twentieth century.There are other, less convincing theological explanations too.)
Plekon goes on to write that maybe the best way we can fast is to do whatever we can to slow down, to give others the gift of our time. I agree. So often, periods of fasting feel like more busy-ness. Part-time veganism takes significantly more energy than a frozen pizza.
Of course, I am not in a position to change the rules of my church. I suppose I could add that a fourth purpose of the fast is to learn to fight self-will. So eating soy burgers instead of the cow kind may be useful, even if it is expensive. I might also add that going meatless forces me to change other eating habits. I tend to buy more vegetables, especially during the Apostles Fast in the early summer. If fasting encourages spending time outside in the garden or in the kitchen experimenting with new fare, then that’s good too. It was during Nativity Fast several years ago that I discovered that the lentil soup I make is both cheap and nutritious. I have also learned how to make it into lentil burgers, and usually I end up splitting the batch with friends and neighbors.
Still sometimes I think the fasting rules make the purpose of the fast too difficult to fulfill in 21st century America. Let me be clear that I am not wanting to do away with the fast; I am only suggesting that perhaps my venerable hierarchs should ask themselves if Lobster should be an acceptable food for those of us who live about 12 hours away from the ocean. Maybe instead we should be required to eat only what the poor eat: hot dogs or bologna with a side of dry, off-brand Rice Krispies.
But I am not in a position to change the rules, nor do I have the pastoral expertise or wisdom to know if they should be changed. I do think that Fr. Lev Gillet’s advice makes more sense, especially if the alternative to cow is lobster, leaving the poor to go hungry. So…could someone from SCOBA get on this please?
The fact is that life does get in the way of the fast, through no fault of my own. Most evenings, I get home by 6:00, and I have very little time to spend making lentil patties or chopping up peppers for my vegetarian chili (another winning recipe that I would not have discovered without the fast). I think sometimes I might make it to vespers more often if I could just swing by Chic-fil-a on the way to church, skipping the fries and drink for myself, so that I can give my change to the guy selling the Homeless Paper on the curb. That seems more practical and, frankly, more Orthodox