A New Approach to Fasting?
lost opportunities from our unfocused approach to Lent
Dn Jason Ketz
Lent is once again upon us. Now is the season for renewed dedication in our prayer life, our almsgiving, and our fasting. So how are we to approach the fast? How are we to change our diets, and then let our ensuing hunger change us, shape us, lead us toward Christ? The Lenten fast is an authentic Christian experience, and one which deserves renewed focus. All too often, the fast is presented to the faithful in a surprisingly disjointed manner. And this organizational confusion is a source of frustration for many Orthodox Christians who sincerely desire to fast for Lent; to learn to hunger for God. Where does this confusion come from? And how can we approach the fast so that it is less confusing, less intimidating, detached from emotions of guilt, failure, and depression, and instead becomes more inviting, more practice-able, and ultimately more likely to provide an opportunity for us to hear the Gospel, to understand the miracle of our salvation?
Fr Alexander Schmemann wrote in his monograph Great Lent, “we must return to the real fast. Let it be limited and humble but consistent and serious. Let us honestly face our spiritual and physical capacity and act accordingly…” Schmemann’s approach is echoed by the majority of clergy I’ve met, and certainly has great value. His vision is not that we each define fasting in our own terms, but that our fasting be practiced under the pastoral care and guidance of a spiritual leader (Priest or otherwise). This is the tried and true historical model of ascetism: fasting under the guidance of another. Would that it were so in my own life! If Schmemann’s proposal were practically possible for us, there would be little else to say on the subject. Unfortunately, most of us do not have a strong enough relationship with a parish leader (priest or otherwise) for that person to be able to guide us in a fast. We don’t maintain frequent contact, and we likely don’t have such introspective, reflective conversations with these people, for them to guide us in our fast. So while Schmemann’s idea has immediate appeal and is highly likely to succeed when attempted, far too few of us will ever attempt it.
A second option for fasting guidance arises – the one with which we are all likely familiar: Published guidance on fasting. This amounts to a do-it-yourself approach to the Lenten Fast. Read it in a book (or on a blog, or watch a clip on YouTube), and give it a try. It is unsurprising that this method of fasting is so prevalent amongst the faithful. The traditional fasting rule is readily available and widely disseminated, from desk calendars and wall calendars with fast days in pink, to prefaces in cookbooks and service books, to meditations in weekly messengers outlining the fasting practice: no meat, no diary, no fish, wine and oil restricted on most days, etc. The question is: do we know what we’re doing when we take this old fasting plan, and either go at it 100%, or unilaterally decide to pare it down to something personally manageable? Either approach seems a bit cavalier, and we need to be aware of what the fasting rule strives to accomplish.
In short, the fast is designed to produce hunger. And hunger is a powerful, dark experience. It is a visceral, primal, physical reaction. Hunger is body knowledge; corporal knowledge. Not altogether different from pain, the physical component of hunger is primary, while the emotional and mental components are only a secondary aspect. But in a fast, the hunger produced is a controlled hunger. Rather than the ”˜eat-my-leather-bootlaces” hunger of a starving shipwrecked sailor, a fasting person’s hunger is mediated by occasional limited meals, allowing us to work with our experience of hunger, rather than be crushed by it. The aim of the Christian fast is to allow that hunger to transform our daily experience. In a successful fast, we can experience how God’s strength is made perfect through weakness (2 Cor 12:9). In a successful, God-pleasing fast, where our body is hungry but not starved, we can transform our hunger for food into a hunger for God, and thereby be transformed ourselves by the fast.
There is no question at all that we desire to fast for God; that we desire our fast to succeed, however we may choose to identify this success. But when fixed written guidelines are presented alongside a recurring statement by leaders that our ascetic efforts should be individually tailored (or that we should “do the best we can”), this entirely undermines the clear, concise standardization that a written rule strives to present, and allows sensible pastoral advice that our fast be guided to be confused with the post-modern mantra, that any experience can be “whatever I want it to be.”
Many priests I know are aware of the difficulties involved in taking any active role in supervising parishioners’ asceticism, and even more have an awareness of the futility of simply handing out the traditional fasting rule without comment. So it happens that more years than not, I have heard priests offer their own modified plan, either during a homily, at coffee hour, informally in parishioner conversations or in adult or child religious education classes. Although their plans are often more practical and more relevant, they do little to address matters of accountability in one’s own discipline, and also do little to explain the relevance or solemnity of the monastic rule which they are modifying for our use. So our familiar pattern arises: every year in March, most Orthodox Christians I have met walk into Lent with a modified fasting plan, while little is said by Church leadership in defense of the published guidance, lip service is paid to the significance of the fast, but then left to the individual, while there is little evidence that people’s fasts are being supervised to the extent that monastic fasts have historically been overseen.
What a strange set of ideas we have brewing in the cauldron of the local parish! A crowd of do-it-yourselfers reads the final product of centuries of supervised, tailored fasting, and perceives it as a do-it-yourself instruction for somebody else. It is no wonder that each year people ask in all earnestness whether the inherited, traditional fast has any relevance in our lives, and whether it should be modified!
To be sure, fasting is not a fixed, ecumenical practice. Historically, fasting practices have been tailored to communities. To that end, I feel it appropriate to ask of our leaders some small adjustments to the Lenten fast. Adjustments like clarification on the wine and oil restrictions, refinement of the seafood allowances in recognition that crab and lobster are now delicacies. Perhaps the fast should incorporate new world foods and modern terminology (like ”˜calories’). Even modern food science might be a welcome challenge: rather than being permitted one pound of bread at 1,700 carbo-loaded calories, would we be better off eating, say, 1,200 calories of squash, corn and leafy greens? This is a legitimate question; both diets would produce a different experience of hunger. Furthermore, in our modern era, the fast needs to expand beyond the dinner table, to incorporate practical guidance on entertainment, electronics, social media, and perhaps some other amenities we have grown used to. Our inherited rule for the Lenten Fast should by no means be vacated. But it should be focused for today’s faithful.
But reform of a document does not give the document any more inherent value. Anybody who has ever written standard work procedures or read a sports playbook knows this. The document must be received and practiced. So what is our vision? Assuming that we, as a Church, are interested in doing anything more organized and deliberate than our current approach, what is it we are hoping to accomplish through the Lenten Fast? Are we hoping to create a DIY Lenten Fast, easily read and followed by Christians who take the practice seriously? Are we hoping to return to the closer oversight of days past, where the local priest is actively and continuously involved in a parishioner’s personal spiritual development?
There perhaps a middle ground between unique and generic, which might be the most tenable option for us, which may even let our fasting reach new heights as a primary feature of our Lenten experience. This middle ground can be seen between the pitfalls of each familiar approach. We don’t have the resources to make a parish priest so intimately involved in every parishioner’s lives, in order to tailor and supervise fasting and prayer practices. And although preset fasting practices have all the advantages of being clear, there is no intrinsic accountability in a do-it-yourself document. Perhaps there is an opportunity to use each other for support, in order to improve our experience with the fast.
Alcoholics go to routine meetings when they choose to stop drinking. Friends who join gyms or exercise programs are much more successful at adjusting to a routine. Why should we expect fasting to be a different experience. Not only are we breaking bad dietary habits, but we’re also experiencing hunger, which runs entirely contrary to our biological instincts. It stands to reason that things may go better with support, and I think that this can be done without being hypocritical in our fast (cf Matt 6:16-18) and without falling victim to fasting with no higher goal in mind. Admittedly, this idea of fasting and supporting each other’s ascetic efforts in small groups or communities is not as beneficial as receiving individual training from an experienced elder (who wouldn’t take a personal fitness trainer over 8 Minute Abs ?!), but we have to work within our reality, and this is a practical option for many more of us. Fasting as a community would have the added advantage of allowing more people to pursue stricter fasting regimens more earnestly. The alternative to tailoring a fasting plan to an individual is to train an individual to work up to a certain standard, so long as the standard is within reach. And I firmly believe it is not the letter of the fasting rule that is the primary challenge – it is our personal encounter with hunger which requires support, in order for it to be tolerable, sustained and transformative. Finally, and perhaps most important, approaching the fast as a community would allow us to understand that our salvation is not an individual endeavor.
Such a communal approach to asceticism would add an experimental edge to our fasting. No doubt, traditionalists are cringing at the prospect. A healthy wariness of change is always wise in matters of faith. On the other hand, Christian asceticism has always had an experimental streak about it, from the first fathers to venture out to the desert, to the hesychasts who first prayed while seated. So, again presuming the fast is still being carried out with due reverence and proper focus, and still within the fold of the parish’s spiritual directorship, we may find ourselves in good company with such a novel approach.
Why advocate such a change in the first place? I can say only this: in all the conversations I have had with Orthodox Christians regarding fasting, my experience is that people are overwhelmingly dismissive of the published guidance, yet eager to fast and interested in (often desperate for) clear, concise direction. Nobody is afraid to be hungry. But people are unclear how to convert hunger for food into hunger for Christ. And 21st century Americans are entirely unfamiliar with hunger to recognize what the human body and mind are capable of. Our society is a society of consumers, and our appetite is insatiable. What would happen if we were able to turn this hunger to God, and then to periodically amplify and augment it through our seasonal fasts? Surely this is the fast that the prophet Joel calls to be sanctified. This is the fast that will give way to loosing the chains of injustice. Surely, this will be an acceptable spiritual sacrifice unto God.
 Schmemann, Great Lent, (Yonkers: SVS Press: 1969), 99.
 1,700 calories is not supposed to be a reduction in caloric intake for many of us, according to dieticians. So if we’re eating, for instance, a pound of bread a day, we have not actually reduced our food intake, but merely our protein, vitamin and mineral intake. Is this the intent of the fast? I suspect not.