I have to admit that for years, when I even thought of fasting, I thought of fish sticks. I grew up in Southern California and the public schools always served them on Fridays. Being raised Protestant, I had no idea why they only had them on Fridays. I liked them. I remember seeing those Gorton Fisherman commercials, too. I never connected why they would show up at the time of year they did, but I use to sing along. Occasionally my mom would even serve them!
Flash forward 40+ years and here I am, a Byzantine Catholic who fasts. My kids cut out a comic strip for me and hung it on our refrigerator, not saying a word. The gist of the cartoon is one of the sons is poking the Thanksgiving turkey and the mom dead-pan answers, “No, it’s not tofu.” My boys thought that was hilarious. At one point in time, my family thought I was taking fasting to the extreme. They dreaded anything tofu! They often referred to it as “mystery meat” and during Lent made a game out of guessing if it was “real food” or a tofu concoction. I don’t regret diving in with both feet. I was given some amazing recipes and I will still serve them, even when it is not a fasting period. Diving in also gave me time to realize my talent level with cooking and preparing fasting foods, define my limitations and the limitations of my family’s desire to try new things, and I lost the fear of fasting.
Why do I mention fear? I think it is because we all fear something we are not used to. When I shop, if I see a deal on “pretend” meats, I pick them up and put them in the freezer. You would be amazed at how many times I serve chicken strips on a salad and the family eats it up, only asking if it was tofu after they are done. And more often than not, it was tofu! I can fast all year long without stressing about it, without focusing on the cheeseburgers I am missing. (We actually found a brand of pretend burgers that we like, so it’s no longer an issue). We need not fear fasting but embrace what fasting really means to us.
Have you ever met someone who is totally cranky during Lent, moaning about this or that they have given up? Or complaining loudly that they can’t eat something because they are FASTING? And I did caps on purpose. It almost seems like a shout, when the complaints are non-stop. But let’s examine it in the USA. The Bishops in the Roman Church and many of our eastern brethren (Ruthenian, for example) have relaxed fasting rules so much, you pretty much don’t find it too much of a hardship. They ask you to restrain from full meals on Wednesday and Friday, and when you do eat, to refrain from meat. Every year there are internet discussions about what is permittable under the fasting rules. But the relaxed fasting expectations laid out by these Bishops are not the total picture of fasting. Bring on the fish sticks every Friday, but enjoy them with mac ‘n’ cheese, mashed potatoes, salad with ranch, rolls with butter, soda (“but no chocolate, I gave up chocolate”). Not much of a hardship, is it? We had a friend who used to stop daily at a market and get gourmet water in the largest bottle he could buy, and a loaf of freshly baked bread. He would eat that and drink that all day and feel like he was fasting. He was, in essence, but I think he missed the point. Anyone can eat bread and drink water all day if you eat gourmet bread and drink gourmet water. That is not what the Bishops of the West, nor most of the Eastern Bishops, would like people to do. They offer their guidelines as just that – guidelines to help you achieve a minimal participation in Lenten fasting traditions. Not to be haughty, but to offer another example, lots of Roman Catholics, and most Eastern Catholics, fast like that every Wednesday and Friday all year long. When Lent rolls around, they increase the discipline.
For us in the Melkite tradition, we are encouraged to attempt to keep the full fast. For that, you abstain from all meat, fish, dairy, olive oil, and wine. But that is keeping the strict fast, because the expectation is that you do that for the full 40 days… not just Wednesdays and Fridays. Our Bishops encourage us to participate as much as we can. The same norms apply to those who cannot fast due to age/health, or other reasons. For example, in an area where fish is the main diet, how do you fast from fish? Up here in Alaska, our diets are more narrow due to availability and expense. In the remote villages, fresh fruits and vegetables are very expensive and hard to come by. People eat mostly fish and game, supplementing with frozen or canned fruits and vegetables. We garden and “put up” what we can grow ourselves, but nonetheless, it is a different problem here. So the Church encourages us to do what we can.
We need to look at fasting as an opportunity to take stock of how we feed ourselves, our desires. Our culture has become so hedonistic. It has become a culture of “I want it and I want it now.” How often do parents buy their children a toy in the store to keep them quiet, rather than instilling the discipline of proper behavior, because it’s easier at the moment? How many parents do not attend evening services during the week, and often miss Divine Liturgy, because their children are not behaving, rather than bring them and give their children an opportunity to learn to be still and to appreciate other environments? How many parishes make those same parents feel comfortable and safe enough that they know they and their children are always welcome, even on bad-behavior days? How often do we stop and wait in a long line because we are craving a latte? Trust me, here in Alaska, there are coffee vendors on every corner and I have been fighting a craving for a “Venti Breve Latte, two shots, one Splenda.” I have literally been thinking about the taste during the day, and avoiding it because for me, it is an example of my gluttonous nature and hedonistic desires (I want it and I want it NOW!). In addition to that, a Venti Breve Latte has 700 calories in just 20 ounces. And this is all a part of fasting. God is giving us this opportunity to rein in all our passions, including our deep attachment to the pleasures we get from food and drink.
Fasting is something to embrace. It means we pay attention to the bites of food and sips of drink we put in our mouths. We make a very conscious effort to control how much and what we eat and drink. But that is just the food portion. What about fasting from the portions of our nature that are not so God-like? Nasty behavior we automatically turn to, out of habit, when someone cuts us off while driving? What about talking behind the backs of others? Slandering others? Not giving others the benefit of the doubt about their behavior before ASS-U-M-Ing they are in the wrong? Just embracing silence (not watching TV, listening to the radio, going online all the time, texting ad nauseam)? Reading more, praying more, attending Church more often?
Fasting is just so much more than fish sticks on Fridays. And I don’t want to be afraid, ever, of embracing or trying more. I know books that beckon to me, and I know each Lent I peek inside and learn something new. I know prayers that long to be said, and I recite them, feeling better as I do. I know there are foods in my pantry and drinks available at Starbucks, but I know that by ignoring them/fighting that craving and instead focusing on my walk with God, my fasting will be something I can do all year long, but with renewed vigor during Great Lent. And as I fight the urge, even right now, to get that Venti Breve Latte, I will instead reach for my glass of water with Lemon Oil in it. At least this time, I am victorious. We have a long way to go until Pascha, when we celebrate Christ’s victory over death. Let’s do this together, one day, one prayer, at a time. Blessed Lent.