As we are inching closer to Great Lent, I have had several opportunities to speak with catechumens and others about fasting. One of the hurdles that many encounter as they think about fasting is their own legalist rather than Orthodox ethos when approaching this subject.
I find myself often saying in conversation: “Fasting is not about jumping through the right hoops, it’s about humility, contrition and transformation.” Unfortunately many, even those who have been Orthodox their entire lives, look at a fasting calendar and see only obstacles that must be overcome or a challenge to be conquered. For them, a good Lent is to strictly keep all of the rules, as though we had returned to the Old Testament with its emphasis on ritually clean and unclean foods. I say repeatedly, “fasting is not about food, it is about inner transformation: food is only one of the means. It is the end, not the means, that is important.” However, it seems like I am pushing sand uphill.
I once spoke to an Orthodox lay woman who told me of her best Lent ever. She said that about half way through Lent one year, having fasted very strictly and attended every service at Church that she possibly could, she became depressed. In a moment of weakness, she stopped her car at a fast food restaurant and ate a cheeseburger. The guilt she felt for this stayed with her. She continued the fast, and still attended services, but somehow it was different. She somehow now identified with the Publican, the Harlot and the Thief. She no longer had a sense of enduring or conquering Lent; rather, she now had a conscious awareness of her weakness. She fasted, but not as one conquering a challenge or enduring an ordeal; she fasted as one who had failed, as one weak, needy and unworthy. The prayers took on new meaning to her. She wept with the harlot, she prayed “remember me” with the Thief, and beat her chest with the Publican: “have mercy on me.” And during Holy Week, she experienced the Humiliation, Death and Resurrection of Christ in a way she had never before experienced it.
This is why we fast. Not so that we can dot all of the “I’s” and cross all of the “T’s.” We fast to see and know our weaknesses. We fast to know that indeed we are the Publican, the Harlot, and the Thief. If our fast is not producing this result in us, then we are not fasting correctly–even if we are keeping all of the rules.
Jesus said to the Pharisees who saw his disciples picking ears of grain on the Sabbath, “Man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man.” The same is the case with Great Lent and all of its fasting rules and extra prayers and church services. Our goal is not to keep Lent perfectly. NO! Our goal is to know our weakness, to pray with longing and hunger in our hearts, not necessarily our bellies. Yes, fasting helps us do this, but to fast perfectly for the entire period of Great Lent and not to be broken and humbled by it is much worse than not fasting at all. At least the one who does not fast has no delusion of his or her spiritual prowess. Remember, the devils never eat at all.
So as we prepare with God’s help to enter the arena of the Great Fast, let’s not mistake the means for the end. Let’s use the tools the Church gives us wisely. Let’s push ourselves. Let’s deny ourselves that we may know ourselves. Let’s pray with the Publican, the Harlot and the Thief. And let’s together long for the Glorious Resurrection of our Lord and God, Jesus Christ.