Western Rite Critic

A Balance to Contagious Enthusiasm

Taboo Topics: The Material Fast?


If you refuse... you might offend them!A priest recently began Lent with a sermon on keeping the fast. It seems like people are afraid to talk about that, as though the prohibitions against fasting before men, or against judging the brother who eats, somehow forbid discussion of it, or stating what the Church requires. It is popular to read the sermons of Saints about the importance of keeping the fullness of the fast (forgiveness, fasting from the passions, alms for the poor (which come from the money saved by fasting), but quite unpopular to read saints who point out that one who does not fast does not really believe in God.

Of course in places in the world where most Orthodox are baptized as infants, at least until the Bolsheviks ruined it for them, everyone knew that everyone else was fasting, and there wasn’t this pretense that we’re protecting one another’s secrecy. Contributing to the problem in convert countries is the conviction that fasting is a personal impulse rather than a corporate activity. One supposedly decides for himself when to fast, from what to fast, and how to fast. How this cripples our ability to encourage one another to stand strong, to help those who would ask advice but feel silenced by this pseudo-secrecy. We all know what we’re supposed to be doing. We know, of course, that for some reasons of ailment or definitive weakness, a fasting rule may be modified by economia, under the care of a father confessor, but we know the general rules: no animal products, no olive oil, no alcohol.

It’s a serious failure of Orthodox mind and culture that whole sectors of Orthodox aren’t even bothering to go through the motions. When the Fast is mentioned, it’s a bit like mentioning chastity and the prohibition on premarital sex among a group of young, single lovers and romancers. It’s a quaint, old custom from the past, but not how we really live anymore. This is a culture swimming in a sea of passionate foods and sensuality. To envisage 40 days without animal products, for most people, is like proposing a month without television or video. It sounds absurd. You actually hear people ask, “what would we eat?” showing not only no planning or preparation, but a complete failure of education on the part of their hierarchs.

Being more important means the other thing isn't important!So common is this that cheese trays are set out at coffee-time in some Churches, hummus with oil, egg-pastry and donuts – things that repudiate the very notion that anyone really takes it seriously. If the Church does not, why should her flock?

Likewise you hear the obligatory nonsense about how when you’re visiting friends and neighbors or are taken out for lunch at work, and are offered meat, it would be rude to refuse and break the secrecy to admit you’re fasting. Forgotten is that the fast is also a fast from parties, from attractions, from feasts with neighbors and friends (yes, dinner at their houses), and so on. The first and most basic rule of a fast is that a fast is not a feast. So obvious, one shouldn’t have to point it out. So instead, we have an entire generation of laymen and clergy going around to one another’s houses, and visiting their families and friends, and going to office parties and the like, “giving no offense” and actually eating more rich foods than they might have if it weren’t Lent, all the while waxing pious about “not giving offense” and (if you critique this trend) labelling any concern as “judgment” and a violation of secrecy. Indeed, this behavior is more absurd than the fast is perceived to be by the non-fasters. For one thing, lost is any chance of really building what the 40 days is intended to build, namely a triumph over the hegemony of the material world, the destruction of the passions inspired by luxurious foods and substantial eating, and the creation of significant alms out of spared expense. The spared expense is not from doing the potluck shuffle, but from eating less food, less often, with less ingredients, and less cost.

The only thing one can eat is animal products? It's impossible to eat anything else for a little over a month!To even discuss these things, these days, is considered so offensive, that one can be assured of being dismissed as missing the point of the fast, and so again we hear idle talk of overcoming the passions apart (of course) from abstinence and fasting from the things that largely inspire and strengthen them. It has become the parochial cliche that if you pay attention to the rules of the fast, you MUST, of course, be missing the spirit of the fast. Of course the Fathers didn’t think so, but in this we prefer selective listening to the consensus patrum; it’s all about *which* words of the Fathers you quote – on this subject, like so many others where the truth hurts, we favor the evangelical hermeneutic; it’s only when talking about love do we get a bit less selective. Even there, more than one father has said “Truth is the highest form of love.”

So one has to ask: can we really any longer discuss the Fast in terms of its material requirements, or has that aspect achieved the status accorded to race, women’s reproduction, and other taboo topics, so that one always has to “balance” the truth with a statement dismissing the real necessity of keeping the Church’s Fast with integrity? So that we communicate that we don’t really expect (not really) anyone but the zealots to follow the teaching and rule of the Church.

Submitted in unworthiness.

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March 14, 2008 - Posted by | Western Rite Pieties | , , , ,

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