Well, today is 'Clean Monday', the first day of the Orthodox Lent, and the beginning of the great fast always poses something of a problem for me. When I became Orthodox, I was surprised and a little shocked at the extent and severity of fasting in the Orthodox Church. As a fairly wishy-washy Anglican, fasting to me had involved not eating meat on Good Friday, perhaps giving up chocolate for Lent (a shorter period anyway in the Anglican Church) and on one occasion not smoking for the whole of Ash Wednesday: what incredible self sacrifice, the age of asceticism was not dead! Well, how was I to approach the rigours of Orthodoxy?
I have no problem with the idea of fasting which can be justified for a number of reasons. I have discussed in an earlier blog the lack of opportunity to test the strength of one’s faith in modern
Europe. This has, of course, occurred in previous eras and the Orthodox
Church has always acknowledged that asceticism is a form of martyrdom,
represented on icons by the ascetics often holding a martyr’s cross: “If any
man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow
me.” Secondly, fasting makes us conscious of our dependence on God.
Metropolitan Kallistos writes, “If practised seriously, the Lenten abstinence
from food … involves a considerable amount of real hunger and also a feeling of
tiredness and physical exhaustion. The purpose of this is to lead us in turn to
a sense of inward brokenness and contrition; to bring us, that is, to the point
where we appreciate the full force of Christ’s statement, ‘Without Me you can
do nothing’ (John 15;5).” Finally, at least a few times a year, one can feel
some affinity with the vast numbers of people who are literally starving.
Fasting is not a choice for the people of Dafur!
Two other reasons for fasting are somewhat self centred but are nevertheless accepted as valid by the Orthodox Church. Firstly, abstinence actually makes the breaking of the fast more enjoyable. Food never tastes better than when one has been deprived of it for nearly two months. This brings to mind a period in my life when the children were small and we had little money. In order to have a good Christmas we often had to skimp on food for the week before. This involuntary ‘fast’ certainly enhanced our enjoyment of Christmas dinner. In
, the first thing one eats when the Great Lent Fast
ends at on Easter Saturday is the traditional soup –
mayiritsa. Since the recipe goes back centuries, it is remarkable that
scientific analysis has recently shown that the soup contains all the vitamins
and minerals that need replacing after a strict fast. Clever people these
Greeks. One final point; we hear a lot about the 'Mediterranean Diet' as being
responsible for the traditional good health and longevity of the Greeks.
However, there may have been another factor at work – religious observance. A
couple of thousand years before nutritionists made a fortune out of the
‘Californian diet’ and ‘detox’ diets, the Orthodox Church, with its carefully
devised calendar of strict fasts, mild fasts and feasts, laid the foundations
for an extremely healthy lifestyle! Greece
So, the theory of fasting is no problem to me; the practice, however, is a little more difficult. As a relative beginner of 65 years old, I find that the full rigour of the fast takes me beyond the ‘feelings of tiredness and discomfort’ into the realms of severe physical problems. My first attempt at the full ‘forty days’ (actually nearer fifty if one follows the rules rigorously) was brought to a premature end when I caught a severe case of flu and was instructed by the doctor to resume ‘normal’ eating. The following year, I determined to do better and actually managed to stick to a vegetarian diet. Since then, however, I've followed the example of most of the locals by following the strict rules only for the first week of Lent and Holy Week. I say “most of the locals” because I should add that it's the old ladies who put me to shame by suffering the full rigours of the fast for the whole of Lent. Not only that, they also follow the many other fasts during the year, including the first fifteen days of August, two weeks before Christmas and every Wednesday and Friday. As I said earlier, perhaps that's the key to a long and healthy life. On the other hand, among the local villagers there are wide variations in the rigour with which people fast, not to mention some ‘bending’ of the rules. For example, since the rules were laid down in Byzantine times, the proscription against ‘wine’ does not include beer, and on days when 'olive oil' is not allowed, many feel free to use vegetable oil! As for Clean Monday, this is treated as a feast day in spite of the restrictions.
So, to all my Orthodox readers, I wish a “joyful Lent” in whatever way you choose to follow it. To the non-Orthodox, just consider the potential health benefits of an occasional fast!