Well, it’s Great Lent again in the Orthodox Church (I rant about our stupid inability to get on the same calendrical page here). This is a period of more focused spiritual reflection, of “fasting, confession, and prayer,” all three of which I suck at.
Yes, I have a fasting discipline. No, I am not going to talk about it. One spiritual vice I struggle with is pride. I want people to notice me and say “attaboy.” Actually, I want more than an “attaboy.” “Attaboys” are normal and appropriate. We would all be nuts without them. What I want is a Wow! You are amazing! OMG I want to be like you soooo much. Can I touch your hair? My goal when I fast is not for anybody else to notice that I am fasting. I think there is something in the Bible about this.
Fasting is not just about food. In fact, I am going to venture to say that it is mostly not about food.
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? (Isaiah 58:6)
As far as food goes, fasting is supposed to help us do those things. We humans like to believe we are the center of the universe. I call this our whiny inner child. Fasting teaches us that we are not. Little tummy rumbles become reminders that other tummies rumble worse than ours. Some of our prayers before meals include, “Lord Jesus Christ our God, You blessed the five loaves in the wilderness and fed the multitudes of men, women and children. Bless also these Your gifts and increase them for the hungry people in the world.” That is why we “give thanks.” We do not thank God because we think God has granted us special favors (the “I’ve been blessed” Prosperity Gospel bullshit). We thank God because we are, well…thankful.
Fasting helps us remember our own fragility. When I think about what I am not eating, I think about how stupid it is that I am not eating it. My desire for food becomes a reminder of my own excesses, of how much more I take than I need, and for no other reason than that I want it (says my “inner child”). “Mine!” That is what our little tummy rumbles help us remember. The tummy rumble is a reminder to tell our tummies to shut-up, of sending our “inner child” to the corner.
And then there is our failure. One of the things I appreciate most about the fast is how much I hate it. Like I said, I suck at it. I fall down, and then I get up. Fall down. Get up. Repeat. That basically sums up the Christian life. Even my failures, and they are many, are reminders of God’s grace and patience, which I most definitely do not deserve. My inner child? He has Oppositional Defiance Disorder. My inner child is a little bastard!
Fasting is not like child abuse, though. It is more like refusing to spoil your child—of telling her, “No. You can’t have that toy truck right now.” (Pretend it’s pink if that makes you sexists feel better).
Then the child screams, “But I need it.”
“No you don’t!”
“Yes I do! I DO! I DO!”
“No sweetie. You just want it. There is a difference.”
“But I have to have it.”
The trick with the whiny inner child, as it is with all children, is not to become exasperated. Our failures teach us to be patient with ourselves, to remember that grace takes time. Holiness is a process. It is a journey into God, who is infinite, and thus never finished.
There is a time for fasting, for abstinence and self denial. And there is a time for feasting. The Feast will come. I know it feels like forever, but it will happen in about forty days. Just be patient. If it helps, take a time out.