I was raised Southern Baptist, among a congregation to whom the idea of fasting was like sackcloth and ashes — we read about it in the Bible, but it was a superannuated idea; no one actually did it. Not when there were casseroles to eat.
In my twenties, when I moved to New Orleans and began my Catholic dabblings, I also began to practice Lenten fasting, and found it to be a highly rewarding tradition. Of course, not belonging to any specific institution gave me the freedom to put my own spin on it. One year I gave up cutlery in favor of eating with my hands. Another year I gave up wearing makeup. When I found out that the Orthodox church has fasts galore, I was psyched.
But the rules of the Orthodox fasts are complicated and intense, exercising your brain as much as your willpower. I spent the first few days of the fast eating nothing but bread and carrot sticks. And then I realized I was going to get rickets or at least the flu if I didn’t figure out something else. I spent a bunch of time reading Orthodox lifestyle blogs only to discover that not everyone is on the same page about the fast rules. The question seems to be one of literalism versus the spirit of the fast.
This quote from the Orthodox Church in America website, explains part of the reason for the fast. (You can read the full entry here.)
By fasting, we ‘shift our focus’ from ourselves to others, spending less time worrying about what to eat, when to eat, how much to eat, and so on in order to use our time in increased prayer and caring for the poor. We learn through fasting that we can gain control over things which we sometimes allow to control us—and for many people, food is a controlling factor.
The problem for me is that the Advent Fast has shifted an extraordinary amount of my focus to my diet. I’m not a person who especially cares about food. I try to eat somewhat healthily, but I work at night, and so I wind up eating things that can be thawed quickly in an oven. Cooking isn’t really my favorite thing anyway. I’ve often wished I could take all my meals in pill form.
Though I am also accompanying my fast with prayer and scripture reading, I don’t feel liberated from food in the sense that I think I’m supposed to. If anything, I feel more stressed out about it because, unlike the women who write the Orthodox mom lifestyle blogs, I don’t spend my days dreaming up and preparing meals for my family. My husband is neither Orthodox nor fasting, so when I do cook, two separate meals must be prepared because I’d feel bad about giving him a bowl of salted quinoa and an avocado for supper.
As much as I want to feel solidarity with my new church, I’m sort of wondering if I should abandon the fast, and go make a batch of Christmas cookies already.