St. John's Monastery, Manton, CA
Eighteen years ago, I converted to the Orthodox faith. During my years as an inquirer, I tried to follow the ascetic practices if the Church, including keeping the fast of Great Lent. For the particular parish that I attended, fasting meant the type of food (essentially vegan) and the quantity. Eager to follow all the customs, I requested that my apartment be blessed. The priest set up an appointment for the afternoon during one of the days of the Fast.
"How are you?"
"I am glad." A smile teased his lips. "That is music to my ears!"
For a moment, his reply struck me as sadistic--for him to be glad at my misery while I tried to follow all the rules! Then I realized that his smug satisfaction was actually proof of his pastoral success. As he had taught us, Lent was supposed to be uncomfortable, it is supposed to cause real hunger pangs. His future catechumen was starting to get it.
Real hunger, in fact, is extremely beneficial. At my monastery, as in many parishes and monasteries in the Orthodox world, the first three days of Lent are spent attending many services in the chapel and eating nothing at all. It is amazing how at peace the body becomes when it is free of the burden of digestion. Thinking becomes easier. The perennial mental fogs lifts. The pounding onslaught of thoughts slows down. During the long services, the words of the Psalms, in particular, seem to sink in as never before.
Yet, for all the physical and psychological benefits that fasting brings, it is neither the end nor the goal of our lenten effort. True fasting is a tool which brings us to a state of being where we are totally relying on God. It is an antidote to the attitude that says, "You're nice, God, but I don't really need you in my everyday life. I'll just leave you for Sundays." This terrible indifference to God is a grave illness that requires strong medicine. Life in the Church is that medicine. Fasting as a personal discipline and, especially, fasting as a community has a strong effect on our souls. Once we, as a Church, have turned away from the food that perishes, then our true food becomes the Lamb of God. When we are in such a state, then He is in the midst of us and the Kingdom has come in power.
When God is the source of our life and not every other material comfort--food, drink or otherwise--then, and only then, can God act through us to put into effect what the Fast is supposed to bring us to: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and breaking every yoke of bondage. Without God, we live in a state of abject spiritual poverty, yet we are blind to it. We need this season of abstinence to shake us up a little, so we can start to see our true state. What a tangible lesson--one given straight to the body--that we abstain from food and drink before coming to the Presantified Liturgy on Wednesday and Friday evenings! What righteous ingenuity St. Gregory the Dialogist displayed when he composed this service! The faithful are nourished with the Body and Blood of Christ on the weekdays of the Fast, and they are given a cause to keep a complete fast during the day. This interruption in our usual routine compels us to consider: "I am fasting because I plan to commune at the evening Presanctified. I am preparing myself because I am anticipating Christ in His Body and Blood. Help me, Lord, as I keep myself for You."
During this blessed period of the forty days, if you keep the fast as our holy mother, the Church directs us, you do well. If you go beyond that and deprive yourself so that you feel real hunger pangs you do better. If you let the Fast push you to the limit of your strength, so that you call out to God and say, "Help me" then maybe you and I are starting to "get it".