As we begin the season of Great Lent, one of the most common discussions I have with parishioners and spiritual children has to do with the dietary aspect of fasting. People want to know how they should fast, and typically, they will give reasons as to why they can’t adhere to certain dietary rules. They already know what they can and can’t do based on their limitations, but for some reason they still want to have the conversation. Some individuals are unable to follow all the rules due to health reasons. Parents are concerned about making their children fast according to the rules because their kids are either unwilling, or they’re simply are unable, due to the number of calories they’re burning through extra-curricular activities or just normal growth and development.
I always find it interesting how much anxiety revolves around the dietary rules of fasting for people. Some who are unable to fulfill the dietary rules are often apologetic because they just can’t do it. Often, when people come to confession, the first thing out of their mouth is how they’ve broken the fast. There is such a concern over what they have eaten or drunk, typically accompanied with feelings of guilt and a sense of failure to follow the rules. It points to a mentality of “I should have been able to do this, but I failed.” For some, it even results in a sense of shame. Remember that guilt is about what you’ve done or not done whereas shame is about who you are as a person. Some people actually feel ashamed if they’ve broken the fast. They see their “failure” as a reflection of who they are as a person!
People, have you not read, “It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man” (Mt. 15:11)? Abstaining from certain food products – fasting as we have come to call it – is a tool, a means for us to exercise self-control, an opportunity to cut off our will, a chance to deny our flesh its wanton desires, so that we can redirect our attention to the spiritual, to the adorning of the soul with virtues. Abstaining from certain foods, however, is not the only way we can exercise self-control, cut off our will, and redirect our focus. There are many other ways we can do this. For example, by not asserting our will, by abstaining from music or television shows or social media or gossip columns. Whatever our addiction, that is where we have the opportunity to cut off our will. In fact, for some people, abstaining from certain foods is not at all difficult, but abstaining from other things, things that didn’t even exist when the fasting rules of the church were established, are where the real sacrifices will take place. So, let’s say you can fast from meat and dairy for forty plus days, but you continue to expose yourself to the things I mentioned above, all of which distract you from redirecting your attention to the spiritual, to adorning of soul. What good is it that you can boast at the end of the fast that you “did it,” you followed the fast completely as prescribed to the end? If you have not changed, have not drawn closer to Christ nor had even the slightest transformation in your heart and soul, then all that fasting was to no avail.
Fasting is important, but only if done with the right understanding. We will not live or die if we are able or unable to follow the dietary aspects of the fast. There are many who will never be able to follow the dietary aspects of the fast, so what are we to say about them, about their salvation? St. Porphyrios is a perfect example of a man who was unable to follow the dietary rules of the fast yet ascended, by God’s grace, to sainthood in the Church. If he was physically able to follow the rules of fasting, he would have – but he was unable due to health issues. So, if we are able to follow the dietary aspects of the fast because we don’t have any health-related issues preventing us, then great. If we are somewhat limited in what we can fast from and can only follow the guidelines partially, then fine. No matter what our capacity is to follow the fasting rules of the Church, we all have the opportunity to spiritually grow during this period of time. We all have opportunities to give, to forgive, to show mercy, to weigh our words more carefully, in essence, to live more Christ-like lives in our day-to-day interactions with others. So whatever your ability is to fast this Great Lent, try focusing on showing more love and kindness to others, including your own family. Be more consciously aware of your thoughts and strive to be less judgmental of others. After all, we don’t want to say at the end of Great Lent “I did the whole fast as prescribed” but rather, “I surrendered myself just enough to become a little more like my Lord: Glory to God.”
Fasting is not meant to be stressful, but helpful. In fact, fasting is not what’s stressful, it’s the meaning we attach to it that makes us stressed out. So the solution is not to do away with fasting, so we feel less stress, but to change the meaning we attach to it. I hope this article will help change the meaning some of you may have adopted, which has led to the stress you experience around fasting. My hope is also that you seize the many other opportunities that exist for you to accomplish the same goal as fasting, where your capacity is not limited by how much you can eliminate in terms of food and drink, but where the ability for you to grow in love is limitless!
Blessed Great Lent!