Below is an article I wrote for my church newsletter. Readers should know that the Eastern Orthodox church calculates the date of Pascha (Easter) by a rubric different from Protestants and Roman Catholics. I'm not sure what the difference in the calculus is, but EO churches have not yet started Lent. It begins on March 16, and Pascha follows forty days later on May 1.
In the western rite of the Eastern church (that's not an oxymoron), the general rule is to eat one and one-half meals a day during Lent. Meat is allowed except on Wednesdays and Fridays. The rule is suspended on Sundays. The eastern rite of the Eastern church (not a redundancy) allows for three meals daily but prohibits dairy, flesh meat, sweets, and alcohol (among other things, I think). As always, any comments on this post are welcome.
Lent is upon us, and to most of us Lent means fasting. Have you ever wondered why we Orthodox Christians fast? It may seem a little strange when you think about it. What does food have to do with our spiritual lives? Well, the church has told us to fast, and so our first response should be to trust that there is something good about fasting. What follows are some simple observations that have helped me to understand why we fast and what good it does.
First, we should note that fasting is what is often called a discipline. But what is a discipline? Here are two ways to think about discipline. Usually when we think of discipline, we think of parents disciplining their children. If a child misbehaves, then a parent punishes him; this is discipline. We know that good parents do not punish their children for no reason; there must be a reason why they discipline. Good discipline is used to correct a child’s behavior, to teach the child not to do things that are wrong. This is one sense of discipline.
The second sense of discipline will take a bit longer to explain, but the concept is fairly simple. It is training ourselves to be able to accomplish something that we could not accomplish if we just tried to do that thing directly. Let me explain. Consider people who practice something, say an athletic game or a musical instrument. When athletes practice, we say that they are conditioning their bodies. It’s important to note how they do this. If you ever watch a basketball player practice, you’ll notice that he will practice things that look strange. For example, the basketball player might stand under the basket and repeatedly toss the ball off the backboard and catch it. What is he doing? He’s practicing the skill of rebounding. Of course, it is important to know how to rebound in the game of basketball, but when is the player ever going to need to perform these actions in a game? He’s not. In fact, if he repeatedly tossed the ball off the backboard during a game, his coach would take him out of the game. Then why did he perform those actions in practice? To learn the skill of rebounding.
To take another example, consider the piano player who practices her scales. She practices her scales in order to become a better piano player, but only very rarely will she need to play a whole scale during a song. Then why does she practice her scales? To learn how to play better. It’s important to remember that neither the basketball player nor the piano player could become better by just trying to become better or just by wanting to become better. They have to practice specific actions in order to become better.
In both examples, we see someone practicing a certain action, one that they will never use in a performance, in order to perform better. This helps us understand the second sense of discipline. The piano player who practices her scales is trying to become a better piano player, and she does this by practicing her scales. The same goes for the basketball player. What they are doing is practicing a discipline in order to become better at something.
I hope you can see that the same is true of fasting. When we fast, we do not fast for the sake of fasting, just like the piano player does not play scales for the sake of playing scales. We fast in order to become better at something: keeping our bodies under control. In order to live a holy life, we must be able to control our bodies. The piano player cannot become a better piano player without practicing her scales. So we cannot become better at controlling our bodies without practice. It’s very important to see that we cannot keep our bodies under control just by trying to or just by wanting to keep our bodies under control. The piano player could not become better this way, and neither can we. We both need to practice the small things, the things we have direct control over, in order to get better at the big things, the things we don’t now have direct control over.
If we put together the two senses of discipline (parents disciplining their child, and performers practicing a skill), I think we get a pretty good picture of the discipline of fasting. In the first sense, fasting helps to correct us; if we are gluttonous, it chastises us. In the second sense, fasting helps us to get better at keeping our bodies under control by practicing something we have direct control over.
One last thing about fasting. I don’t know about you, but in my experience I tend to become grouchy, and sometimes downright mean, rather quickly during Lent. Even the littlest things provoke me. What has happened? I thought fasting was supposed to help me become a better person, not a grouchy, ill-tempered person. Well, the Holy Fathers say that what happens is this. When we fast, and I think especially if you follow the Western rules of fast, we tend to be hungry more often. Normally, when we feel hungry we eat some food, and this helps us feel better.
But during Lent, we are not to eat more than the rule allows. When we become hungry we do not have recourse to our usual way of making ourselves feel better. This is one of the tests of Lent: How will I treat others when I do not feel kind and when I can’t use my usual way (i.e., eating) of changing my feelings? Will I treat others with kindness even though I feel grouchy and mean? You see, fasting forces us to both realize that we are often kind because we feel satiated and choose to live a holy life despite the fact that we feel, for example, grouchy and unkind. Furthermore, this choice to be kind even though I feel grouchy is one over which I have direct control, and the Holy Fathers tell us that if we make this right choice enough times (even though it may take a long time), eventually we will be able to live a holy life. We will be able to directly do then what we cannot do directly now, and this will be possible because we have disciplined ourselves, like the basketball and piano players, in the little things we can control now.