I’m sure I’ll feel differently in the dark of the December Nativity Fast, but right now, I find Orthodox fasting kind of fun. I’ll admit that most days of the week I’m not exactly what you’d call a mindful eater. Most adults have by my age learned to control their appetites and settled on something like a healthy, regular diet (or at least that’s the impression I get from other people’s social media feeds). Me? If I didn’t have my wife to guide me, I’d eat garbage on the regular. But with Orthodoxy, I’m forced twice a week to be extremely conscientious about what I eat and why. Whatever I’m preparing each Wednesday and Friday, no matter how simple, I contemplate the relationship between food, the Divine, and me.
From what I’ve read and learned, fasting is historically absolutely essential to Orthodox spirituality. John Chrysostom wrote, “Fasting is nourishment for your soul, and as bodily food fattens the body, so fasting strengthens the soul, imparting unto it an easy flight, making it able to ascend on high, to contemplate lofty things, and to put the heavenly higher than the pleasant and pleasurable things of life.” St. Theophan the Recluse wrote, “Fasting appears gloomy until one steps into its arena. But begin and you will see what light it brings after darkness, what freedom from bonds, what release after a burdensome life.” Holy Hierarch Ignaty Brianchaninov believed that “the greatest of the virtues is prayer, while their foundation is fasting.” St. Basil the Great wrote, “By fasting it is possible both to be delivered from future evils and to enjoy the good things to come. We fell into disease through sin; let us receive healing through repentance, which is not fruitful without fasting.” And St. Seraphim of Sarov (from whom I received my Orthodox name) wrote, “To the extent that the flesh of the faster becomes thin and light, spiritual life arrives at perfection and reveals itself through wondrous manifestations, and the spirit performs its actions as if in a bodiless body. External feelings are shut off, and the mind that renounces the earth is raised up to heaven and is wholly immersed in the contemplation of the spiritual world.”
Needless to say, committing to a mostly vegan diet twice a week (hardly a sacrifice in modern America) allows me to hold some of my political beliefs about food—which are run of the mill, NPR-grade, Michael Pollan-y beliefs about the damage caused by industrial agriculture and mass consumption—with a bit more authenticity. Even on days like today, when I feel lazy and prepare myself a simple salad alongside a large plate of frozen shrimp for protein (shrimp is, after all, ecclesiastically a vegetable), I do so in a much more meditative mood. I consider the food’s origins, both human and divine, and consider more carefully the ramifications of my consumption. I really feel the tangible, spiritual benefits of denying myself something as part of a faith practice, no matter how meager that act of denial may be (one day, perhaps, I’ll maintain a truly strict Orthodox fast and abstain from oils each Wednesday and Friday; alas, I’m not there yet).
Lest my Protestant or otherwise unaffiliated readers accuse me of cheating by eating shellfish, I’ll say that I do typically eat a strictly vegan diet on fast days. Today was just a lazy lunch.
And besides, with today’s lunch, I think I inspired some furry enquirers into Orthodoxy…