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Monday, February 11, 2008

Fasting: East and West

Our priest has told a story of growing up in his Assemblies of God household (which does not observe Lent) and of their church leaders declaring a day of fasting and prayer for some purpose or need. When that day arrived, his mother and sisters and he prepared for their daily work, and did not eat or prepare breakfast. His step father came to the table and asked what happened to breakfast. They reminded him of the day of fasting, perhaps thinking he had forgotten, and he said, "Oh no, I'm having a spiritual fast!"

What do you think of when you hear the word fast? How do you define a fast? Would you think one full meal and two snacks that don't add up to a full meal?

That is the new definition of a fast in the West. You can see why we wished to go with the older definition. You know, not eating any food and not drinking anything nutritive. Since we fast for the whole 24 hours (really more, because we don't stop eating at midnight and break our fast again at midnight), we do drink water.

When you think of eating meatless (aside from the fact that fish is not categorized as meat), would you think you would get hamburger gravy on mashed potatoes? Because that is now permissible according to the Western definition of a meat fast. Meat cannot be the main ingredient. This is only for Fridays during Lent in the West. Again, it is understandable that we wanted to use the older understanding.

This is not because we are super holy, or because we are particularly ascetic, but because it seems dishonest to call it fasting when I eat in the manner not too different from the way I normally do, or meatless when we're just not gnawing on a hunk of roast. Also, eating meatless on every Friday used to be the standard, which is a practice that goes back to the first century Apostles and early Church, and during Lent, eating meatless was supposed to be a daily practice. If we really wanted to be ascetic, we would go with the Eastern rite dietary rules. We're still eating meat on most days of the week, for instance. This is a practice that we are growing into.

As I understand it from when we first researched it, not only is there no meat (on all days of Lent), but there is no fish, no dairy, no eggs, no oil or wine (I believe the oil and wine have some exceptions, like it is permissible on Sundays, someone who is Orthodox or Eastern Rite could correct me). To be fair, these rules are slightly more flexible, as in the East a greater emphasis is placed on spiritual direction, and one would determine the level of observance with the aid of a spiritual father or mother. Also, they ease into it a bit, with a week of meat feasting, and the last Sunday one is able to partake of meat, and a week of dairy feasting that is likewise closed with a Sunday.

I understand that in the West the emphasis is on the bare essentials, making Church restrictions as simple as possible and encouraging people to a deeper observance. The problem with this seems that people do not often rise above what is expected of them. That's just a sad fact of human nature. You see this with the all you can eat fish frys on Fridays, which while following the strict rules, kind of miss the point. This is supposed to be a sacrifice which allows us to suffer with Christ, do penance for ourselves and stand with the poor as the Church herself does. Something that has stuck with me from a few Lents ago was the idea that we should be getting up from the table before we are full, regardless of what we are eating, especially during a time of fasting and abstinence.

In the East, it seems that the rules are particularly monastic, and with spiritual direction one may moderate them. The problem with that is that it almost seems like if you can't do all of them, you just can't hack it. Since fasting is also supposed to be a physical discipline that prepares us for spiritual discipline, it creates a sort of tiered spiritual standing for those observing the fast. Also, it seems like there are so many restrictions that one could get caught up in following the rules and miss the growing closer to God. The fast isn't the whole point, though it is a good practice. It is a means to repent and mourn one's transgressions, but through prayer, should also direct one to the hope of forgiveness offered by Christ.

Our Old Testament reading on Ash Wednesday particularly pointed to this. It is possible to fast for the sake of fasting, and ignore the holy life that God seeks for us, and the path to Him that he intends it to be. Our priest spoke about Lent being a time of great humility, as we reflect on our sinfulness, our wretchedness, but also a time of great hope, as we are promised, as it said in the collect for Ash Wednesday, that God hates nothing that He has made and forgives the sins of those who are penitent. That He enables us to have new and contrite hearts so that we can lament our sins and acknowledge our wretchedness, and obtain from Him perfect remission and forgiveness. If we were stuck only at the point of recognizing and mourning our sin, there would be no hope. There would eventually be no point, really. But God, in His perfect mercy, provides a way to return to Him, to wholeness.

This is what our fast should point to, not a fast from food which does not bring to mind anything about God at all. Christ Himself taught that there would be a time for fasting after He was taken away, and from as early as the Apostolic period this was practiced, so I'm not saying that the fast itself doesn't have any meaning at all. It is possible, though, to fast because you're supposed to, and not because you are approaching God. If that is the case, then it is not working to make you holy, it's just a deprivation, which can possibly do you harm.

Our priest quoted St. John Chrysostom this past Sunday. I've been looking online for the entire sermon, but so far haven't found it all. If I find it I will quote it all here. These excerpts below outline what a holy fast entails. St. Chrysostom's words have lasted over 1630 years, and are just as striking and meaningful today.

When the fast makes its appearance, like a kind of spiritual summer, let us as soldiers burnish our weapons, and as harvesters sharpen our sickles, and as sailors order our thoughts against the waves of extravagant desires, and as travelers set out on the journey towards heaven. Lay hold of the pathway which leads towards heaven, rugged and narrow as it is. Lay hold of it, and journey on.

I speak not, indeed, of such a fast as most persons keep, but of real fasting; not merely an abstinence from meats; but from sins too. For the nature of a fast is such, that it does not suffice to deliver those who practice it, unless it be done according to a suitable law. “For the wrestler,” it is said, “is not crowned unless he strive lawfully.” To the end then, that when we have gone through the labor of fasting, we forfeit not the crown of fasting, we should understand how, and after what manner, it is necessary to conduct this business; since that Pharisee also fasted, but afterwards went down empty, and destitute of the fruit of fasting. The Publican fasted not; and yet he was accepted in preference to him who had fasted; in order that thou mayest learn that fasting is unprofitable, except all other duties follow with it.

Since then the danger in fasting is so great to those who do not know how they ought to fast, we should learn the laws of this exercise, in order that we may not “run uncertainly,” nor “beat the air,” nor while we are fighting contend with a shadow. Fasting is a medicine; but a medicine, though it be never so profitable, becomes frequently useless owing to the unskillfulness of him who employs it. For it is necessary to know, moreover, the time when it should be applied, and the requisite quantity of it; and the temperament of body that admits it; and the nature of the country, and the season of the year; and the corresponding diet; as well as various other particulars; any of which, if one overlooks, he will mar all the rest that have been named. Now if, when the body needs healing, such exactness is required on our part, much more ought we, when our care is about the soul, and we seek to heal the distempers of the mind, to look, and to search into every particular with the utmost accuracy.

I have said these things, not that we may disparage fasting, but that we may honor fasting; for the honor of fasting consists not in abstinence from food, but in withdrawing from sinful practices; since he who limits his fasting only to an abstinence from meats, is one who especially disparages it. Dost thou fast? Give me proof of it by thy works! Is it said by what kind of works?

If thou seest a poor man, take pity on him!

If thou seest an enemy, be reconciled to him!

If thou seest a friend gaining honor, envy him not!

If thou seest a handsome woman, pass her by!

For let not the mouth only fast, but also the eye, and ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies. Let the hands fast, by being pure from rapine and avarice. Let the feet fast, by ceasing from running to the unlawful spectacles. Let the eyes fast, being taught never to fix themselves rudely upon handsome countenances, or to busy themselves with strange beauties. For looking is the food of the eyes, but if this be such as is unlawful or forbidden, it mars the fast; and upsets the whole safety of the soul; but if it be lawful and safe, it adorns fasting. For it would be among things the most absurd to abstain from lawful food because of the fast, but with the eyes to touch even what is forbidden. Dost thou not eat flesh? Feed not upon lasciviousness by means of the eyes. Let the ear fast also. The fasting of the ear consists in refusing to receive evil speakings and calumnies. It is written, “Thou shalt not receive a false report,” (Exodus 23:1).

Let the mouth also fast from disgraceful speech. For what does it profit if we abstain from fish and fowl and yet bite and devour the brothers and sisters. The evil speaker eats the flesh of his brother and bites the body of his neighbor. Because of this Paul utters the fearful saying, "If you bite and devour one another take heed that you are not consumed by one another" (Gal.5:15). You have not fixed your teeth in his flesh, but you have fixed your slander in his soul and inflicted the wound of evil suspicion, and you have harmed in a thousand ways yourself, him and many others, for in slandering your neighbor you have made him who listens to the slander worse, for should he be a wicked person, he becomes more careless when he finds a partner in his wickedness. And should he be a just person, he is tempted to arrogance and gets puffed up, being led on by the sin of others to imagining great things concerning himself. Besides this, you have struck at the common welfare of the Church herself, for all those who hear you will not only accuse the supposed sinner, but the entire Christian community.

And so I desire to fix three precepts in your mind so that you may accomplish them during the fast: to speak ill of no one, to hold no one for an enemy, and to expel from your mouth altogether the evil habit of swearing.

For as the harvester in the fields comes to the end of his labors little by little, so we too if we make this rule for ourselves and in any manner come to the correct practice of these three precepts during the present Fast and commit them to the safe custody of good habit, we shall proceed with greater ease to the summit of spiritual wisdom. And we shall reap the harvest of a favorable hope in this life, and in the life to come we shall stand before Christ with great confidence and enjoy those unspeakable blessings of which, God grant, we may all be found worthy through the grace of Jesus Christ our Lord, with whom be glory to the Father, and to the Holy Spirit unto ages of ages. Amen!

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I can see how the relaxation of the meatless rule would come about. It's easy to imagine buying vegetable soup, or some packaged rice mix, or some top ramen, and not realizing that it's made with chicken broth.

A Catholic vegetarian friend of mine has trouble with the no-meat-on-Fridays during lent because she never eats meat. So it's an awkward observance. (She often goes vegan for lent.)
Interesting thoughts on fasting. I agree with some of your points. Coming from the Catholic tradition, I loathe the idea that going out for an ACE fish fry or a big lobster or shrimp dinner is an acceptable observance of Lent. On the other hand, I struggle with the idea that I'm not giving my all to that observation if I stay home and eat a small amount of leftovers in my fridge that happen to contain meat (I hate leftovers; it's a feat for me to eat them) on a Friday. I have an internal crisis over this every year.

My largest problem with fasting on Ash Wednesday (aside from now taking medications that require me to eat with them, so very strict fasting is no longer an option) is that unless I take a vacation day from work, I still need to be sharp and on my game that day, and not-eating will result in a migraine. So now I observe the two-snacks-and-a-meal for both Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (another work day), and ensure they are all fairly small and humble - peanut butter toast for a snack, grilled cheese and tomato soup for supper.

Combine all of this internal churn with the fact that my husband does not observe Lent, nor does he eat fish, and it turns out to be a rather difficult time of year for me.
I do understand the difficulty of fasting while working, or someone who is a vegetarian seeing giving up meat as not quite a sacrifice. I think the solution of going vegan is exactly on target, it is thinking about the normal and making a sacrifice that goes along with the spirit of the fast as well as being well within the guidelines of it.

Also, where there is a medical reason not to fast, I think the Church, both East and West, has always made it clear that it was not required. For instance, I am pregnant, and not required to fast. I think nursing mothers would be exempt from that requirement as well, though I usually fast anyway, since full fasts are usually one day at a time, rather than multiple days in a row. Children are not required to fast, those on medication that is necessary to them do not have to stop taking it, and if they have to take food with it, that is permitted. I wouldn't argue with any of that.

As for the general realaxtion of the rules, making them more individualized rather than corporal. I do have a problem with it, as it just seems to reduce the practice rather than make people take a look at themselves and the meaning behind the practice. There was a really interesting article in First Things a few years ago. That probably speaks for me better than I could.

However, the relaxation of the requirement, regardless of how much I agree with it or not is not what strikes me as dishonest. It is the redefining of fast and meatless. It seems like a joke to call it a fast when it is just eating lightly. I eat like that on many days, just because of how busy I am, or now, being pregnant, not having much of an appetite. Calling something meatless, when it involves the broth from meat, and bits of meat throughout the food just isn't true. We can get into the whole fish != meat thing, too. As far as I understand it, it comes from which language the canons were written in. In the West, of course, it was Latin, and carne specifically refers to the flesh of land dwelling (and I think warm blooded) animals. Whereas the Greek does not share this distinction (though it looks from Chrysostom's account anyway, that the earliest practice did forbid fish as well).

I guess, to me, it seems like the fast is supposed to be inconvenient, disruptive of our normal life and even difficult. I know that the early church did not have the choice, as we do, of taking a day off of work if it was a fast day (or day of abstinence), which means that most people fasted while working, and doing so in extremely harsh conditions. I know that the people with whom I discuss this kind of thing work in all sorts of jobs, and observe the fast anyway.

I'm not trying to say that anyone should or shouldn't, or who specifically should. I think that is actually a benefit of the East's emphasis on spiritual direction, as your individual circumstances are viewed in the light of the life of the Church. It is really that the general expectation of such an observance is no longer common. It is no longer seen as a distinctive part of what it means to be a Christian, or even more specifically, a Roman Catholic. It still seems to be emphasized in Esatern Rite Catholicism and in the various forms of Orthodoxy, but I don't know how the general practice is, so I won't try to romanticize it.

For me, it just seems dishonest to say that we are entering a period of fasting and abstinence, when we redefine what those terms mean. Better to say it is a time of reflection and repentance and leave it at that. Since I have such a hard time with what I see as the spiritual dishonesty in modern day Protestantism, and I know I can be quite critical of it, I feel like I cannot ignore it in the places that are more like home to me.
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