Lent is upon us. If you want to make an Orthodox Christian commit the sin of pride (and thus, in theory at least, to have to go to Confession), then mention how hard it is to remember your decision to “give up” chocolate, or to complain about having to eat fish on Fridays during Lent.
By contrast, Orthodox Christians observe four extended fasting seasons per liturgical year—Advent (or the Nativity Fast); Great Lent; the fast before the Feast of Ss Peter and Paul (usually in June); and the Dormition Fast, which commemorates the falling asleep of Mary, the Theotokos. (Orthodox tend to hedge the question of Mary’s assumption into heaven, although I know of at least one Orthodox Church of the Assumption.)
That adds up to more than a third of a year. During this time, Orthodox are asked to abstain from meat and dairy products, as well as alcohol and even olive oil, depending on what day of the week or month it is.
Even during “regular” seasons, the faithful are asked to abstain from meat and dairy on ordinary Wednesdays and Fridays—Wednesdays as a reminder of Christ’s betrayal and Friday in memory of His death.
The sheer amount of time on the calendar is the ironic reason why, when Orthodox tend talk about fasting, they almost always end up talking about eating instead: If you’re “doing the Fast,” as we tend to say in casual parlance, you often are thinking about what you can eat, rather than what you cannot.
Another irony is that observance of the Fast need not condemn the faithful believer to tasteless or unhealthy food, especially if you take advantage of the Mediterranean cooking traditions of Greek and Arab parishes.
I cannot say enough about the sheer, simple gratitude to God that I have felt on those Lenten days when I have heaped my plate with tofu and chickpeas and spinach, and felt that vitamin-laden food—exactly what no less a secular authority than Mark Bittman of The New York Times prescribes as the most healthy diet—hit my stomach after a long day. Not enough to be stuffed, but just enough to be sustained, to have the strength to do good work and love others better and to increase prayer.
For as much as I may sound like a Victorian moralist decrying the sensuality of a bared ankle, I think there is indeed something spiritually dulling—decadent, even—about the grab-it-and-go, meat-and-cheese laden diets that most of us tend to eat. At the same time, while the incredible attention that is currently lavished on cutting back animal products, eating fewer carbohydrates, etc., can be undeniably good for one’s physical health, without an overarching spiritual context, aren’t these exercises just another consummate act of vanity?
But spiritual dangers can lurk as well for those who heartily enter into fasting discipline. In an effort to “get the Fast right,” many Protestant converts to the faith, I’ve found (because I was one), get hung upon on the letter, rather than the spirit, of the observance. They scan food labels for the word “casein,” which would denote the presence of whey, and therefore milk, as an ingredient. Or, because spineless seafood is paradoxically included by the rubrics, they make a show of ordering lobster because it is permitted, never mind its exorbitant expense. I’ve seen at-home mothers cry trying to put together endless meals with pasta, tomato sauce, and peanut butter.
And these True Believers are often impatient and scornful when they discover that a fair number of cradle Orthodox do not observe the fasts very much at all—as though the children of the very immigrants who brought the faith to these shores are not “real Christians.” Less rigorous ethnic Orthodox, on the other hand, often wonder about these tiresome zealots in their midst.
Among my Orthodox friends who are not especially diligent about fasting, I’ve found that there is usually still a heightened awareness of the discipline’s value and importance. The Fast exerts its influence, even when it’s not being observed—not unlike those Jews who do not keep kashrut, but hold its principles in their minds every time they remember to wash a roasting pan in extra-hot water.
In the nearly fourteen years now that I’ve been Orthodox, I’ve been on both sides of this dichotomy. After one stint in a particularly scrupulous community—where debates about such topics as whether beer constituted alcohol or “bread” actually took place—I deliberately attended a large congregation where fasting was greatly de-emphasized, and there was no danger of an inquiring acquaintance at coffee hour peering in to my coffee cup to see whether I had added milk.
While I was grateful for the acceptance and mercy in all that freedom, ultimately I found that something also was lost. For without the Fast, the feast is not the same.
Last year, great with child, I waddled through Lent munching on bacon, and ate steaming fajitas on Holy Saturday, the night before being induced on Easter day itself.
This year, I’ll sift the pan of dried beans for tiny stones before setting them to soak overnight, and spoon bits of iron-rich spinach into my daughter’s mouth.
This year, I’m ready.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Caroline Langston
A native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, Caroline Langston is a convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church. She is a widely published writer and essayist, a winner of the Pushcart Prize, and a commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered.