The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 4 “On Fasting”

It’s when I taste the bitter coffee that I’m most aware I’m heading into a Fast Day, for I like my coffee rich, sweet, and creamy. I get lost in my one-time-a-day, o-so-sweet, pleasure coffee. My strong as death, sweet as love, black as hell coffee.

It is with this small sacrifice that I bow my head in thanksgiving that God helps us to see and know sacrifice first through the small things, those human things that have little significance in eternity, but seemingly great significance in the now. And after these small things, faithfulness to sacrifice the small things, he moves us on to that which is far more important.

Fasting is a hallmark of this ancient faith dating back to Jewish tradition and Jesus. As with all things Orthodox I have to search to find the significance of the fast being on Wednesdays and Fridays. I find out it is because Christ was betrayed on a Wednesday and crucified on a Friday.

Fasting in the Orthodox church is considered “grace-bestowing and life-giving”. 

I am not familiar or used to fast days and extended fasts like the Lenten Fast. I am familiar with the “giving up chocolate for Lent” sort of sacrifice; the “Lenten fast from soft drinks”. This is not the same. 

I search farther and find that the fast is not a ‘complete’ fast, rather it includes no meat, no dairy products, no fish. This is the weekly fast. The Nativity fast and the Lenten fast are separate and take more thought, more discipline.

Fasting is mentioned many times in the Holy Scriptures, over seventy times at least. Jesus and his apostles regularly fasted. Fasting accompanied by prayer is clearly something important in this journey of faith. As I read and ask questions about fasting, I find myself tensing in frustration and rebellion. ‘How legalistic’ I think! ‘Jesus came to abolish the law, yet all these rules?’ Yet are they rules? No one will know if I don’t fast. No one is looking over my shoulder. I’m just being encouraged to do so, with the support and comfort of the Church behind me and thousands of years and examples of saints who have done the same.

Why my tension over something considered “grace-bestowing” and “life-giving”? For a long time I have walked a spiritual path void of discipline, doing what I want when I want, making excuses in my heart and living them out in my body. I know myself. And I know that I want excuses. I need excuses as to why this won’t work for me. Saying ‘no’ to food, ‘no’ to sweet, creamy coffee, ‘no’ to self – this is not comfortable. Our journey into the Eastern Orthodox church challenges me in ways that I did not know possible, I find the heart of much of what I do spiritually to be about self. Learning (slowly mind you) to fast, learning to accompany that fast with prayer, learning honesty as I kneel before God with the words that are slowly becoming familiar to me “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, Have Mercy on Me” — all of this pushes me gloriously “further in, further up”.

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now…Come further up, come further in!”CS Lewis in The Last Battle

I’m back to another sip of my bitter coffee, the bitter coffee representing a discipline leading me closer to the One who sacrificed all – for me. 

7 thoughts on “The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 4 “On Fasting”

  1. As I’m sure you know, there are many writings about the purpose of Orthodox fasting and how to go about it – but I just wanted to say, I have found the podcast series “Food, Faith, and Fasting” quite helpful. I had been first focusing just on getting used to the pattern of fasting days, and developing go-to items to eat, just the practicalities of it, and sticking to it. I was also using a lot of substitute foods, like soy milk, butter alternatives, etc. Not saying that is wrong! But with something about the way the podcast explained that when we fast, with the food rules and the time periods and the concept of not eating till we are stuffed, it is normal to feel some hunger, we are supposed to have cravings unmet, etc….this was very difficult for me, I’m a natural glutton, also an emotional eater. But the podcast links it to prayer – which I had heard previously, that fasting must be tied in with prayer, otherwise it’s not really a spiritual fast (and fasting from vices, too of course). But I had been thinking about it as…like, making extra sure I say my morning and evening prayers consistently during fasting periods.

    It finally has started to get through my thick skull that the hunger and cravings can be like a bell ringing to let me know to turn to God in prayer right then and there, for bread from heaven, and to get me through pangs. It’s not that I am depriving myself to some extreme or anything, it’s just from not letting myself just eat whatever I want whenever I want. (And when I look at people who are truly poor int he world, I realize that what I am experiencing comes nothing near to their true hunger). So this process increases the frequency of my prayer while also pushing me to rely upon God through prayer in this simple way…..still a novice at it all, but finally a light bulb has gone off in my head and I really see the beauty in it! And of course, the hunger/prayer process gives us opportunities to remember the reason we are fasting – whether it’s Weds, Fri, or a Lenten period. And, I think also I heard this in the podcast, linking the fasting period to the feasting to follow – the idea that we are fasting now, partly so that we will feast later – with the Lord, all of it to the glory of God! So fasting for God – and then reserving our feasting for God. So beautiful :-)

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  2. So what does it look like for you Marilyn? On Wednesdays and Fridays you drink black coffee, avoid meat, dairy (oh! That’s why the black coffee!) and fish? What type of fasts are typically done at Advent and Lent? I’m so curious….! It’s like you’re giving us glimpses into a new culture that I’m unfamiliar with…. I’m so curious and I’m loving it!

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    1. That’s exactly what it is Robynn — entering a new culture. At one point when someone was asked if America was ready for the Eastern Orthodox Church the reply was “Is the Eastern Orthodox church ready for America”. Services that go til 3am, a commitment that stretches way past what I am used to. All of this is like a new culture. So Nativity and Lent are a whole other conversation. I’ll be writing about them more and post some links to others who are not new to this. Thanks so much for following along. So much unsaid in these posts…..

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  3. This brings to mind Robynn’s post about Christians today seeing God as a holy therapist, with a faith that has no depth, no conviction, no substance. I love that you are sharing this journey with us, Marilyn, as you seek to grow further in and further up. We can always find excuses for the things we don’t really want to do. It’s a lot harder to push through and just do them, and do them willingly, seeking His face and His will. Thank you for sharing.

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