First of two parts.
By Derek Olsen
This year, the coming of February brings with it the coming of Lent. The prayer book tells us that we are to observe the days of Lent with special acts of dedication; specifically the “Invitation to a Holy Lent” commends to us the “fasting and self-denial.” I think most Episcopalians aren’t very clear on the practices of fasting. We know what this word means, but there is quite a bit of uncertainty about its boundaries as an actual practice: what is it, why should we do it, and what—if anything—does it have to do with Lent?
Let me begin by clearing up the biggest major fallacy about fasting: Not eating is not fasting. Oh sure, if you look in the dictionary you’ll find that as one of the definitions. Likewise that’s what your doctor means if he orders a fasting blood test, but simply not eating is not a spiritual discipline—and that’s what we’re talking about here, a spiritual discipline. Some folks who want to try fasting fall into trouble because they assume it just means not eating, and that’s not always safe. As a discipline, the Church has historically put strictures around who should and shouldn’t that sound like something at the end of a pharmaceutical ad: it’s not for children; it’s not for women who are pregnant or nursing; it’s not for the elderly, the weak, or the sick. And, in thinking of the maladies of our day, it’s not for those with eating disorders either; there’s nothing holy about self-starvation. For those who cannot or should not fast, an alternative is what we commonly know as “giving something up for Lent.” While I’ll focus on fasting here, both the practices and the theology behind it can easily be applied to whatever you choose to give up during Lent whether that falls into the realms of food, entertainment, or something else that makes sense in your life.
Throughout the scope of Christian history, the practice of fasting has, indeed, involved the regulation of one’s diet. However, another major fallacy is that there’s one right way to regulate it that counts—and that other variations don’t. Again, not true. Christians have used different standards across time and space often modulating between degrees of fasting and abstinence, that is, not eating or reducing food intake (fasting) versus abstaining from certain kinds of foods (abstinence). The Eastern Orthodox, for instance, limit particular kinds of food on certain kinds of days. Their pre-Lenten period includes a gradual paring away of food categories so that by the time Lent arrives, the diet is almost entirely vegan with no animal products in it whatsoever. Some Western early medieval sources speak of similar regimentation. For monks following the Rule of Benedict, Lenten fasting meant no food at all before the ninth hour (around 3 o’clock) and what they received then was sparse. In other times and places fasting meant not eating anything until sundown and, in others, simply not eating solid food at all.
The generally accepted standard that emerged in the Western Church, though, was this: fasting means eating half of what is normally consumed for two meals, then for the third a regular amount of food is prepared, but simply. That is, fasting from breakfast and lunch isn’t to provide room for lobster and truffles later on; think, rather, of hearty soups with simple crusty bread instead. The point of the meal is sustenance rather than titillation of the palate. In no way does this mean the food shouldn’t be enjoyed; rather, its chief virtue should be in the simplicity of wholesome ingredients.
If these standards seem a bit much, abstinence from meat or other classes of foods are also historic acts of self-denial suitable for Lent, especially for those unfamiliar or uncomfortable with fasting.
In case you’re keeping track, I haven’t said anything yet that you can’t find in a diet book or being promoted by your neighborhood locally-grown organic food market (which, come to think of it, is not a bad place for Lenten food shopping…). We’re still not to the level of a spiritual discipline, but that brings us to our last major fallacy: that fasting (or abstaining from something else, remember) is fundamentally about food. It’s not.
Instead, the act of abstinence is only one part of a three-part discipline. The full scope of the discipline includes fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. It is incomplete without these. Furthermore, they are interconnected. The reduction of food logically means that you will be spending less money on your grocery bill. According to the discipline, this doesn’t mean more money in your pocket—instead, this is money to be given to the poor. You forgo food in order that others may eat, to share your bounty with your brothers and sisters. Your solidarity with their hunger provides their very sustenance. (See, for example, Leo the Great's Sermon XII)
How you give the alms is up to you, of course. One way to make it happen is simply to take your personal weekly food bill, subtract the difference from your usual bill and each week send that difference to an organization like the Heifer Project, Meals on Wheels, or our own Episcopal Relief and Development. Another option is to go beyond writing checks; deliver your donation to your local food pantry or soup kitchen in person and take a turn cooking, serving, or cleaning.
Prayer, then—our spiritual food—replaces physical food at mealtimes. The other half of the two lesser meals, the time allotted for food now shared, is spent in prayer and intercession. Furthermore, tummy rumblings throughout the day serve as a reminder to pray even if it’s a short little breath prayer like “O God make speed to save me; O Lord make haste to help me” from the psalms or the Jesus prayer of the Orthodox: “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner” both of which can be prayed in a single cycle of inhalation and exhalation.
These, then, are the practices; these are the externals of the discipline. In fact, we’ve talked so much about the externals that you could be forgiven for thinking that this is an outward, showy thing with a high potential for devolving into legalism or, worse, the one-upmanship that threatens any practice through which individuals and communities can make measurements and judgments about the spiritual fitness of others. These things have no place within any of the spiritual disciplines and are contrary to the spirit of the Gospel and the message of Christ—and that is what this exercise is really about. Tomorrow we shall take up the more important part: the internals of the practice—the theology, the spirit, and the purpose of the discipline of fasting.
Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. He is an adjunct professor at Emory’s Candler School of Theology where he teaches in homiletics, liturgics, and New Testament. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X dad appear at Haligweorc.