The Lenten period is a time when a man is on his way – the way to Pascha. So – as far as we are on the road – we have, curiously enough, fewer divine services during the Great Fast than ordinary. Liturgy is not served during Lent. All the other daily services remain – with the exception of the Liturgy. Liturgy is conducted only on Saturdays and Sundays, for Saturday and Sunday – as it is considered in Orthodox tradition – remain holy days. These in any case are not fasting days.
And that’s the thing which is important to understand – Saturday and Sunday are excluded from the days of Lent. We do not have to fast on Saturdays and Sundays, so the Liturgy may be celebrated these days, when it is forbidden to be served on other Lenten days.
Those who especially wish to receive Communion may receive it on Wednesdays and Fridays – people can come to the church and communicate, however the Holy Gifts are not sanctified on those days, but laymen take Communion from the Gifts that were sanctified especially for this purpose on the previous Sunday.
By the way, I would greatly recommend for those who do not yet know the Church canons well enough – try coming to Church on other days during the Great Fast, apart from Sundays and Saturdays. If there are churches in your city, which are opened during the whole day – monastery churches, for instance – drop in for just half an hour. Drop in at least several times on weekdays – though it may seem difficult for you to stand the whole service, for want of habit – drop in at least for 20-30 minutes, take a breath of this wonderful atmosphere of Lent.
Now, I suppose, the time has come to get to the most common question, which arises usually in the first place when most of us think of a fast. What’s with the diet? What are all these restrictions on food are about? Is God really so worried about what lies in my stomach? Isn’t it said in the Gospel – “What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean’”, i.e. evil words, words of condemnation and anger?
So, in the first place – the Christian fast is by no means connected with the notion according to which there is food that desecrates a man and one that does not. These Old Testament divisions into “clean” and “unclean” food are entirely rejected in the New Testament. All that God has created is clean. If the food is edible – you are free to eat it. Not by food is a man profaned. So why at the same time do we speak of the necessity to abstain from food?
It is so because man is a whole. We are not just spirit. We are embodied spirit. And so the life of my soul in many respects depends on the life of my body. Here look, a man changes his clothes – how much may it change in him! When a woman gets on an evening dress – she becomes absolutely different. Just now she was in a sweater – then she changes from a sweater to an evening dress – and becomes absolutely different. Not just different by how she looks, by her outward appearance, but by her own inner feelings – she feels differently, looks differently, senses differently!
So as the life of the soul depends even on the clothes we wear, even more it depends on how our body feels, on its state. Saint Seraphim Sarovskii, being asked once how to keep the fast, answered – “we must give our body to understand that it too is guilty”. You see, the thing is that it is not our body which sins. It is our free will that does. Our body is not guilty for the sins it commits, but our soul. But many sins are being committed when the passion, which has stirred in my soul, is being increased greatly by my body which has worked as some kind of resonator, megaphone. And so sometimes we need to diminish the activity of this “megaphone”, for it not to resonate so strongly.
So, according to saint Seraphim Sarovskii, the center of Christian life is not fasting or the giving of alms or even prayer, but rather the “gaining of The Holy Spirit”. And fasting, prayer and alms are the means to it.
And so, the fast is not the essence, not the main thing. Great Lent is the way to Pascha. It is an aid. So what we need is to be able to apply it correctly, knowing what it is intended for.
You see, if I give you a hammer, saying that with the help of this hammer you can assemble a car… well, it will be the truth. But generally you will need to know at least which part of a car can be worked on with the hammer! Otherwise, as you can imagine, you would simply beat those spare parts anyhow and anywhere leaving finally a big wreck – nothing more than that.
So, just asserting that the fast is helpful for the spiritual life etc. is surely not enough. But what exactly it is for, what exact purpose it serves – that is what is essential to understand.
Abstaining from meat products and heavy foods during the fast has three meanings.
The first meaning – the one I’ve started with and the one which is mostly familiar to us – it is the token of my solidarity with the Church, an act of obedience. The Church blesses us to keep the fast these days – and so I’ll keep it out of my obedience to the Church, out of a sense of unity, catholicity with other Christians – despite the fact that it is hard work and brings me no joy at all etc. That is the first meaning, which, as far as I can guess, is the main motive for most of our laymen.
The second meaning – the fast is necessary to make the soul more independent from the tyranny of the flash – to slightly diminish the excess of sexual energy, in the first place. And here from the first we must notice that the fast – in its second sense – cannot be applicable to all. It can be applied only to so-called sexually mature people – beginning from children to people who have come to the period of their lives when the flash does not excite them anymore.
So, what where am I getting at? When, for instance, a question of children fasting arises in Christian surroundings – maybe it is better to make children keep a fast just out of obedience. You see, there can be far easier ways to explain that Lent is a time of personal struggle and obedience. You don’t need to leave a child without milk for that purpose. Well, you can just stop cooking him cheesecakes till Pascha, stop feeding him treats. If a child got used to eating your cookies, and then you stop making him cookies, explaining the reason why you give him milk instead – that would be sufficient fasting for him.
However, when a child is thirteen, it is worth thinking over whether during the Lenten fast it is still reasonable to feed him with meat so persistently!
But there is a question of a certain determination. Is the man really intending to restrict the rampage of his flesh or not? Doing it partially has no sense. And very often this arouses disappointment in people. ‘I tried some fasting, but I got no relief in my temptations’. This is indeed a very serious question, but what to do in such cases is a question of ministry.
And, finally, the third meaning of fasting and abstinence from heavy food – it is ease of prayers. An elder once said: ‘You shall eat only so much that you still want to pray when you rise from the table’. If you get up with a heavy sensation that stops you from thinking about God, you ate too much.
The Orthodox have a thanksgiving prayer after a meal, in which we thank God for feeding us with His earthly blessings. Then a man asks: ‘May the Kingdom of Heaven not be taken from us’. I remember one of my familiar priests, who was very self-deprecating, rose from a table after a substantial meal and said: ‘Gorged ourselves, brethren? Now let’s ask for the Kingdom of Heaven’. Correspondingly, one should eat so that there is no disparity between what we ask from God in this prayer and the condition we have just reached. Therefore in this respect fasting is a means to make the flesh thinner. I am sorry, for I have forgotten to explain what the word “flesh” means in Orthodox terminology. Flesh is not the body. It is the part of our soul which is connected with the body. These are the movements of our consciousness and subconsciousness, our feelings which are in a most natural way related to our sexuality (sexuality itself is sinless. Remember, the Bible, Chapter 1: ‘So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them’?), our physiology, our instincts and so on. The question is in what degree it determines our conscious spiritual life. It means what lies between our body and our soul, our spirit – that is flesh. But in modern language we might say that flesh is subject to Freudian psychoanalysis. So, flesh is a kind of cancer, when our sexuality goes beyond the boundaries set for it. As it was said once by a Russian Christian writer (he was a priest’s son and thus he was at a prison camp in Soviet times), a subtle writer Sergei Khudov: ‘The Orthodox Church is not a Church of asexual people. The Church blesses marriage, blesses attraction between man and woman, and sanctifies it. But a dog guarding my house is one thing, and the same dog grabbing my lunch over my table is quite another thing’. When sexual feeling swells beyond its boundaries and becomes a dictator – this is flesh. And this flesh must be put into its place. And fasting is a great help for it.
Therefore I ask you to understand: the problem is not what is on my plate. One can overeat even Lenten food. The problem is how it all influences man’s prayerfulness. And here arises one more problem.
If it is said that fasting makes the flesh thinner, then the problem is that this thinner screen may unveil such an ugly face! Fasting makes a man more transparent. And so it may reveal the passions that are usually hidden by a man’s polite manner.
Once an elder was asked: ‘How can one imagine what hell is like?’ And he said: ‘Well, go to your cell. Take the Gospel and the Psalter away from it. Lock yourself in. Close the windows. And do not pray! Live a few days there alone without prayers, without God, and you will understand what hell is’. – the state when man is alone, without God, when all the thoughts and passions inside him begin to boil, and when he is face to face with them – without God, without brethren and without his spiritual father. He is tortured and torn by his passions. This is what I tell you – when a man lives in the secular world, he has some consolation in his neighbors, books or something. And when he is deprived of it, the man is face to face with himself, and it turns out that his most terrible monster, his greatest enemy is himself.
So, Lent begins, the screen gets thinner, and it often happens that a fasting man becomes socially dangerous, it’s scary to stay beside him. He is terribly irritable. When he was well-fed, he was angry only on Fridays. And now as he is constantly annoyed (an empty stomach is a constant source of annoyance, and he can’t control his irritation, he is not the master of his soul and emotions), this annoyance of his stomach begins to spill over onto people around him. Thus there are cases when experienced confessors forbid fasting. Please understand: Lent is a means to achieve a goal. And what if a man doesn’t want to reach it? He is interested in no spiritual creativity, spiritual deeds. Then it is dangerous to give him a hammer! Imagine we are in a hobby group assembling car models. Everyone has a spare parts kit and a hammer. And there is one man who has absolutely no intention to assemble a car. He is very irritable, and you give him a tool. Most likely he would hammer people’s heads, not the car parts! Thus there are cases when priests forbid some people to fast. They say: ‘You rather live your life as before. Instead of a physiological fast (i.e. food) you’d better read the Penitential canon every day, attend church more often and first of all try to see your sins. This will be your fast’.
An ancient Paterikon contains a story which is constantly reproduced in our life with certain changes. A man comes to the elder, his spiritual father, and says: ‘Father! Lent is coming. What shall I eat?’ Or as I heard from one priest in Soviet times, a woman came and said: ‘Father, I work in a Soviet institution, and I can’t fast there, because in the canteen they cook fish only on Thursdays, there is no Lenten food, and my boss and party organizer watch me eat. There will be questions if I fast. What am I to do, what to eat?’ And the answer was: ‘Eat everything, except people’.
The point is to refrain from cannibalism. Don’t eat people: do not get angry, do not condemn, do not annoy – and that will be the real sacrifice. Now we shall mention one more aspect.
Recently we have faced a problem that didn’t take place 8 or 10 years ago. A kind of a, so to say, Lenten perversion appeared. You know, 10 years ago, in Soviet times, when a man began to fast, it definitely meant he would eat fried potatoes in turn with rice and macaroni, and on great occasions, if he had a chance, he would buy himself egg-plant paste and eat a spoon or two from time to time. And there was nothing else for him to buy. Well, he might chew a bun as he walked. And his fast was a true fast.
And today very often when you come to an Orthodox home you are served a “Lenten lunch”: Brussels sprouts, octopuses, calamari, oysters. Everything is lenten, indeed. But if you count all these foreign jams, vegetable margarines, coconut milk (lenten milk, how interesting), it will turn out that such a “modest” lenten lunch costs more than a beef steak. And here a question arises: what is the sense of such fast? St. John Chrysostom explained the meaning of Lent in the following way: ‘Count the cost of your modest lunch when you eat meat. Then count how much it will cost if you give up meat, and give the remainder to the poor’. He says that this is the sense of Lent. It’s not just what you eat, it’s the money you save from it to help others.
And today startling things happen. Here we don’t face them very often, but sometimes I was in a situation when I came, for example, to an Orthodox cloister in Italy. And I saw the monks eating meat instead of fish. Not during the fast of course, on another day. According to Russian views, eating meat in a cloister is quite lawless. Naturally, I blamed them with wrath: ‘A pretty cloister you’ve got here – meat-eaters. You’d better buy fish!’ And they explained to me: ‘Here fish costs twice as much as meat’. And, really, everyone who is aware of the Western prices for food knows that fish costs twice as much as chicken or red meat. And a question arises: why must a cloister get money from a parish, from donations and waste this money to imitate a fast? For this is an imitation of fasting to eat fish, and at the same time to eat the widow’s mite. So this is another warning. Lent is a time, I say it again, when we must be better Christians than we usually are. And to be a Christian is not only to love God, but also to love your neighbor.
And perhaps the last thing I want to say. I already told you that Sunday and Saturday are not considered to be days of Great Lent. But it doesn’t mean that the church rules suppose that you can fry eggs early on Saturday mornings of Great Lent. No. The point is that this is the time when a man can rejoice in church . This is the time when there are no penitential prayers. The time when there is no liturgical Lent. But the point is that those two goals I mentioned – ease of prayerfulness and the discipline of the flesh – are persistent actions that require regularity. You won’t reach an effect in one week. Or you may reach it, but the fast should be very strict and so on.
I remember my first Great Lent, when I came to one priest’s parish and had to keep a serious fast there. I wasn’t a boy when I came there. And the thing that amazed me much was that father was a talkative man (forgive me, Lord), and on my last day there when it was time for me to go, he talked this way remembering some spiritual stories or something. In fact he was a mine of spiritual information. But the problem was that my bus was leaving, and he continued talking and talking and talking… At last I managed to ask the last blessing from him and had to run in order not to lose the last chance to get to Moscow, for the next bus was the following day. And so the bus is almost leaving and I am running to it. And when I took this run after a week of fasting, I suddenly felt as if I were twelve or, I don’t know, ten years old. Such childlike joy of running is a feeling you entirely forget when you’re older. The faster you run, the greater joy you feel; you accumulate joy instead of weariness. I was no boy, but after that fast I suddenly felt the same joy. But well, this is a rather bodily joy, though I must say that a serious fast really brings happiness, relief to a body, that’s true. It is no coincidence that today there are many healing treatments by fasting and so on, but the soul is above all. And anyway, a week is not enough to reach progress here. And if you live in such an irregular way…
You know what the Muslim fast is like, don’t you? Ramadan has come, and while the Sun – Allah’s eye – is in the sky, they do not eat. After the night has fallen (night time is when outside it is impossible to tell a white thread from a black), they go home. And then there is for them pilaf and everything. Eating till morning, sleeping, then fasting till evening. (I must say, this rule appeared in the Middle East. Nights there are very dark, while in the North they may be almost white; there where a day and a night have a clear borderline, this rule is very effective. I doubt the Muslims here can fast according to this rule. Therefore they rather look at the clock: eating is allowed, say, after 12 a.m.). But in fact such a fast doesn’t have a prolonged effect, because it is only daytime when you fast, and at night you get so much, that it will take much longer than one day – it will take a week to get rid of it, to drive it out of your body.
And that is why though in the Orthodox tradition Saturdays and Sundays of the Great Lent are considered festive days instead of fasting days, yet in relation to the diet, so to say, these are days of an eased fast. In some churches and seminaries fish is allowed on Sundays, etc.
Well, I made an attempt to explain that Lent isn’t a Jesuitical idea as it may look like, that Lent concerns our souls’ subtle impulses. And as long as Lent is a way, the way to Pascha, I can’t but mention that this really is a means justified by its end. In my life I was in a situation when I met Pascha after a Great Lent during which I could not fast. You know, the joy I felt was different. I felt as if Pascha was stolen from me. During Pascha Week, at night St. John Chrysostom’s great sermon is read: ‘Those who have fasted and who have not, come all’, – this is joy for everyone, yet it turns out that our soul and even our body are organized in the wisest manner. And then you really are rewarded in proportion to your deeds.
‘What should Lent be like and what should it include, if in a family a wife or a husband is a believer, and the other isn’t?’
I am not a priest, and many questions I am asked may not be solved by an instruction manual, a Pope’s encyclical, a letter of the law, but in a man’s intimate dialogue with his spiritual father, when a priest knows this man’s life, his actual family circumstances, the merit of his spiritual deeds. Only then can the priest give reasonable, not one-size-fits-all, advice. So now I shall say how it seems to me – that Lent should not bring bitterness into human relations.
Remember, the Apostle Paul says: ‘Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend’? To clarify it he then explains what nonsense it is if a man perishes because of meat, of food. In family life this is a very serious problem. Say, one of a married couple decides to keep the fast – he or she has come to the Church and is starting to observe its rules – and the other begins to protest: ‘Listen, did the church steal my wife from me? Well, you are fasting, this is up to you, but why don’t you cook meat for me?
And yet there are much more serious cases: for the married, fasting includes continence. I have faced situations when a husband came and demanded: ‘Father, what have you done to my wife? Am I a husband or not?! She is setting terms to me: ‘Only after Pascha, dear!’ You see, this is a very serious problem. It seems to me, there is a kind of a missionary aspect. Such a wife’s steadfastness can embitter the husband not only against herself, but even against the Church. And so he will think the Church with the Gospel is a dreadful inquisitorial structure that stole his wife away from him, depriving him of all joy, and this will keep him out of Church for years. And such a situation, in its turn, affects the upbringing of children.
Translated from Russian by Larissa Kiyashko and Dr.Christopher Brav