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. 

A Look at Ramadan from an Outsider

Today marks the first day of Ramadan for Muslims around the world. Ramadan is held during the 9th month of the Islamic calendar and commemorates the time where the Koran was revealed to the prophet Mohammad. Ramadan is a month of fasting and is one of the 5 pillars of Islam, the others being belief in one God, charitable giving or tithe, the call to pray five times a day, and if financially and physically possible, a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.

It is a time of fasting and prayer where Muslims are to abstain from food and drink as well as smoking and sex daily from the time the sun comes up until dusk. At sun down the fast breaks with a special fruit drink and dates, after which a meal is eaten. This ritual is held daily for a month. All are to take part except for the very young, the sick, the elderly and those who are pregnant. Ramadan is also a time when calls for Zakat, or charitable giving, increase.

Just like the diversity of Muslims world-wide, the practical practice of this month-long period of fasting varies from family to family and country to country. I was probably around 9 years old, and had already witnessed several years of the practice of Ramadan when I began to understand a bit of what it meant for those surrounding me in Pakistan. As a Christian white kid, it was an annoyance. Why couldn’t we buy Fanta when we were on a family trip? Why did we have to be careful where we had our picnics, to not eat publicly lest we offend?

As I grew, so did my understanding of this faith tradition and the truth claims of Muslims. When I moved to Egypt I would have talks with our Muslim friends about the significance and discipline of fasting and prayer, a reminder of something bigger than we were. We would be warmly invited to attend the iftar celebrations (breaking of the fast) at sunset, eating, laughing and talking with our friends. While during the day the world surrounding us felt oppressive, once the Call to Prayer signified the breaking of the fast, people would break into party mode, eating special foods and drinks late into the night. Colorful Ramadan lanterns were hung on balconies and trees bringing a festive air during the evening, a stark contrast from the heavy atmosphere during the day.

Update 2021: Rachel Pieh Jones new book PIllars is an indepth look at how an outsider grew in knowledge of both Islam and her own faith by living in a Muslim country. You can purchase Pillars here, and listen to some podcasts with the author here.