Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
The Holy Orthodox Church offers us this passage from the Gospel of Matthew on the day before the start of Great Lent. The juxtaposition is not accidental: these words of our Savior apply directly to all that we do during Great Lent. There is no better way for us to prepare ourselves for Christ’s bright Resurrection than to focus the desires of our heart on Him!
The obstacle to this goal is plain: sin. This is what separates us from God; every sin is the distortion produced when a natural desire shines forth through the prism of an unclean heart. Great Lent gives us multiple ways to buff out the sins which tarnish our lives: attending extra services, giving alms, increasing our private prayers, visiting the sick and those in prison, just to mention a few.
But for twenty-first century faithful, how does the attention Christ places on the state of our hearts inform our decisions about the most practical part of fasting – what to eat? With health food stores and many grocery stores selling egg substitutes, soy turkey, soy cheese, and even non-dairy mayonnaise, at what point does food which clearly fits the fast cease to support the spirit of the fast? Is a creamy bar of dark chocolate (made without a drop of milk or whey!) a hindrance to our earnest pursuit of salvation? If our bank account were large enough, could we eat crab legs and lobster every evening throughout Lent? Should we feel guilty while enjoying a rich, creamy chocolate cake (100% fasting!) at our nephew’s birthday?
To answer these questions, we need to establish one principle from the start: God does not need our fasting. Greater feats of abstinence do not earn us greater amounts of Grace, just as a larger portion of Holy Communion does not impart a greater amount of God’s love. We must remember this so that we can take fasting out of a legalistic framework. God’s love is always freely given to all people; what determines how much Grace each one of us receives is the degree to which we are open to it and ready to be changed by it. Are the doors of our heart open? Have its inner recesses been swept clean to make space for Grace or is there no room for God in our heart? Understood properly, fasting is an extremely effective tool to help open us up to God’s Grace.
As St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “Fasting, prayer, keeping vigil, and all other Christian works – however good these are in and of themselves – the simple doing of these things does not comprise the goal of our Christian life, although they serve as the means to attaining that goal. The true goal of our life as Christians is the acquisition of the Divine Holy Spirit.”
So how does limiting the kind of food we eat aid in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit? How does it benefit an athlete to participate in a competition? When we are put to the test, our strengths and weaknesses are revealed. Fasting provides each of us great insight into our own hearts, if we make the effort to be attentive. What runs through our minds when we see a co-worker eating a ham and cheese sandwich while we munch on peanut butter and jelly? For the sake of Christ, can we rebuff the attraction of our favorite chocolate cake (certainly made with milk) in the office cafeteria? In response to the feelings of hunger brought on by fasting, do we snap at our spouse more quickly? Four or five weeks in to the fast, do we feel sorry for ourselves?
Fasting can help us to see the sins which have taken root in our hearts. This self-knowledge should, at the very least, humble us and provide us with fodder for repentance. At best, it will reveal to us the hidden recesses of our heart and give us a reason to seek God’s help.
Fasting may even show us an opportunity to take up a cross for Christ’s sake. Many well-intentioned Christians secretly bridle at the very nature of fasting. ‘How can the Church tell me how to fast?’ goes the complaint. ‘Why should my priest tell me what to do?’ Defiance concludes: ‘I freely chose to be Christian and I will choose the way in which I fast!’ Here is the counter question: Are we willing to submit ourselves to externally-imposed regulations for the sake of our salvation? Or does a rebellious self-will prevent us from practicing the virtue of obedience?
If we do not grumble at carrying the cross of obedience asked of us in fasting, then perhaps we have fallen in the pitfall of pride: we may be all too willing to fast, since it sets up a great opportunity to judge our neighbors who do not fast – or who at least don’t fast as well (i.e. strictly) as we do. God help us to not gorge ourselves on pride simply because we have refrained from the flesh of cows and pigs!
The spiritual battle inherent in fasting is complex, but if fought honestly and with purpose, it will reveal to us something about the kind of treasure we hold in our heart. It is no accident that on the heels of a great fall, King David prayed create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Fasting is a litmus test, by which we all can learn about the state of our own hearts.
But what of the soy bacon sitting on your plate beside perfectly-dyed scrambled tofu? The answer lies in your heart. Did you sneak into the kitchen at midnight to eat this feast while your wife is asleep? Was the goal in preparing this meal to fool your body into thinking you were eating forbidden fruit? It would be less pharisaical to simply eat bacon and eggs. (Recall Christ’s denunciation of adulterous thoughts: Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. Matthew 5:28) Did your aunt Betty (who is not Orthodox) cook you this breakfast when you came over to repair her clothes dryer since she thought you must need something filling to eat after weeks of soup and lentils? It would be pharisaical to not eat it.
The apostle Paul advised the Corinthians: All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any. (I Corinthians 6:12). In short, the multitude of soy products and other imitation foods do fit the fast. But why do we want to eat them? If we are looking for a source of protein in our diet, then soy is a good choice and a veggie burger is a convenient way to eat it – and no one will ever mistake one for a hamburger. If we choose these imitations simply because they remind of the foods we have been told not to eat, then we are consuming a healthy portion of hypocrisy.
Keep in mind that Lenten food does not have to taste bad in order to be good for us spiritually. After standing through long services, vegetable soup is a treat – and thanks be to God for that! Likewise, true fasting does not require that we deny ourselves shellfish, dark chocolate or even a creamy (100% fasting!) salad dressing. If all of these are allowed to us during the fast by our Spiritual Father, then we simply need to make sure that we don’t pay so much attention to these foods that they become a false treasure which crowds out Christ in our hearts.
Christ taught us: Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man. (Matthew 15:11) But before we conclude that Christ saw no point in fasting, remember that He also said, Can the children of the bridechamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast.(Matthew 9:15).
Great Lent, as a whole, is a time to remember that for an age humanity lived in anticipation of the Bridegroom – Christ Himself – and that the new age ushered in at His Glorious Resurrection is worthy of our rejoicing. May God help us to labor for the treasure He has prepared for us and may He cleanse our hearts through attentive fasting!