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It seems like last Lent was just yesterday, but also so long ago. It was our first Covid-lent. Since then, everything seems to be defined as pre- and post-Covid. I know there’s content out there about this, and previous blogs on the matter as well, but it seems like a good time to talk about fasting again, specifically the physical side of it. It’s something that seems to be falling out of fashion, and I think that that’s…well, sad.
Growing up, I remember that even the thought of not fasting Wednesday and Friday was not a thing. It was a no-brainer. When we had youth nights at churches, we’d plan our restaurant outings after the chilling to be as close to midnight as possible. This so that we could break our fast without breaking our consciences.
In those days, we read the ingredient lists of various items and if we saw ‘modified milk ingredients’, it was a no-go. Actually, if you ate something with said ingredients, it was seen as an act of total liberalism. The more rebellious moments would be when we’d say ‘just don’t check the ingredients’’. My mother said this about a particular brand of ‘Baba ghanouj’ that was the creamiest thing declaring itself to be a vegetable I ever ate in my life (it was delicious, by the way).
Oh, but Lent. There was a dreaded excitement about Lent. It’s that dread/joy you feel when you start going to the gym again. Part of you is really dreading the work, the fatigue, the…treadmill. Yet, another part of you is as excited about the after-workout high that you get, the results, the weight loss. Lent meant work and it meant results.
The warfare of lent was usually one of over-righteousness – the right-hand wars. We would secretly compete who would abstain the longest, who read the most books, who was able to attend the most weekday liturgies, how many Pascha services one would attend…it was definitely imperfect, but it was an imperfect of doing too much, not too little.
That’s not the spirit these days. Today, if someone mentions they’re fasting on Wednesday and Friday, they may be accused of self-righteousness or worse. Even though it’s a general canon of the Church that we even vow at baptism (yeah, surprised me, too), we treat it like those who do it are either saintly or should keep it to themselves.
We do not as often choose restaurants to go to based on fasting anymore. Instead, those fasting feel a pressure to keep it to themselves, or to break their fast so as not to be judged by their peers.
The work of lent seems to be less stressed, at least from the food side (and it’s the physicality of fasting that we want to address a bit today). We have fasting cheese, Beyond whatever foods, fake shawarma, epic macaroni with béchamel sauce. Liturgies are starting earlier and earlier during lent, and abstinence is being forgotten. Pascha week still has its vibes, but it’s more common for people to attend Pascha based on their other scheduled events, rather than the opposite.
Rethinking the physical
So, am I being Negative Nancy? A little. But the point here is not to chastise. I just want to question whether or not we appreciate some of the bodily, physical aspects of fasting. I think Covid has helped some of us realise the importance of non-virtual connection, so there’s been a positive in that.
Think about when you study for an exam. It’s one level of preparedness to peruse through your notes and say, ‘Yeah, I get it’ (I’ve done this to my detriment many times). It’s another thing to physically invest in your studies. It’s one thing to write things out, solve problems, and another to just passively assent to knowledge. You know things better when you are more involved in those things. You don’t get abs by agreeing to the concept of abs.
If muscles are real, then exercise really does something to them. If the spirit is real, fasting really does something to it. But let’s go through this and think about some concepts and factors.
We’re not Gnostics.
That sounds deep, right? One of the basic tenets of Gnosticism, was the duality they seemed to embrace. Body was bad. Spirit was good. Spirit fights Body. Hope that Spirit wins. That’s not our thing.
I think most people get that and are cool with that. Yet, we still talk about spiritual life sometimes like it’s this thing out there, like we have this floaty orb-like thing that hovers about us, and it’s our spirit. That thing somehow is what our spiritual life is, and we treat it like it is separate from our bodies. We use our bodies for eating, drinking, walking, talking, chilling etc. but we don’t know what else to do with it.
But that’s not how it works. If my body is weak my spirit suffers with it. For example, if I am really tired, is that not going to affect non-physical aspects of myself? Is it likely that I could enjoy someone else’s company if I am famished? Not typically. We know that our ‘mood’ (non-physical) is affected by our body (physical). Ever heard of being hangry?
So, the concept is not revolutionary, but we often don’t think about it with respect to our body participating in spiritual work. Unlike gnostics, we’re not against our bodies, we’re actually asking our bodies to help us in our spiritual work, to participate, because we are persons. Persons have body and spirit that are united, and so the work of each is also united.
So, one of the ways the body participates in the spiritual work, is to be humble. In periods of fasting, we give the body less attention. Not because we hate it, but because we are putting our attention somewhere else instead. It’s like deciding that for one week at the gym, you’re going to focus only on upper body. It doesn’t mean you hate the rest of your body. By choosing to focus on one aspect of our person during a fast, we are not devaluing another aspect.
But in humbling the body – by not giving it the preferential choice – we start to discover more about not just our spirits, but our bodies also. In giving it only what it needs, rather than indulging its every want, you start to master not only the spirit, but the body as well.
Think of keto before it became a thing. By choosing not to give the body carbs, the body actually first starts to go through sugar withdrawal. The body signals discomfort in various ways. Yet, those who endured it, discovered it was not the end of the world, and even found out they were losing mass rapidly.
This led to further studies about whether or not it’s safe, whether it can be done long-term etc.… But that’s not the point of the analogy. The point of the analogy is to say that in fasting from sugars, more was discovered about the body’s functioning, metabolism, and secrets of weight loss. By not giving preferential choice to the body’s desire (sugar), much benefit was discovered.
In fasting, we are giving preferential treatment to the spirit, but that preferential treatment is not the subject of this discussion, it’s about the importance of the physical dimension of fasting.
Group Physical Work
I think sometimes we get caught up in that spirit of ‘Oh don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against [concept], I think it’s great! I just can’t because…” Or, sometimes, we think, ‘it’s okay, I’m getting it in my own way.’ There’s definitely validity to personal, or individual variations that can bring unique ways of benefit. Yet there are some things that are helpful when common to all.
To use the gym analogy, for example: everyone needs to exercise. There’s something to going to the gym with a group of friends, even if you don’t do all the same exercises there. There’s even something to people going to gym not at the same time but feeling like you have a gym buddy in existence that helps you meet your goals. Fitbit and other apps had the sense of this when they built into their gadgets the ability to compete with friends and see their results.
Imagine if your family says, ‘Hey, let’s get a grip on our eating habits. We’re all eating healthier for the next month!’ It makes it easier when everyone’s on the same team and pursuing the same goal together. There’s so much positive that comes out from having aspects in common with others.
This is why the Church consecrates (sets apart) a period of fasting that is for all. Anyone can add extra fasts throughout the year for the most part, but the Church is not asking about that. She’s asking for us all to work on our common goals together. You may think she asks for this too frequently, and we’ll get to that. For now, let’s just say there’s something to not just the physical, but the communal physical.
Stopping certain foods is lame.
Sometimes the argument against the physical aspect of fasting is that it’s just unconvincing to drop certain foods. Some will say it’s not compelling because no food is evil, others because food is irrelevant etc.… There may be some merit to that, depending on how the fasting is done, as well as what the point of fasting is.
If the point of fasting is to simply avoid certain foods, then yes. I can subscribe to the ‘that’s lame’ club. I’d want to know why we have a goal of avoiding something that is not intrinsically wrong. The goal, however, is not to avoid foods. The goal is far more than that and discussed elsewhere that I don’t want to define here so I don’t demean that whole topic. Nor is how we fast limited to what kinds of food that we abstain from – there are more aspects of fasting than food. Food is just one part of the concept.
While I won’t address here the broader topic of fasting as a whole, perhaps it’s important to say that if we’re honest, we do know that stopping certain foods affects us. There’s a local craze around intermittent fasting, with people doing it claiming they feel amazing. Why? All they removed was food. They are fasting just as we fast. Why do they physically feel better if there’s no merit of any kind to abstaining from food?
Paleo diets and those like it have also seen a comeback, with special food labelling on packages as a testimony to their prevalence. Why? Because there’s something to eating ‘clean’, there’s something to eating properly, there’s something to being selective about your foods. It’s not a lame concept, it’s a real one. If you want to see its effects, it’s a good idea to get some tips on how to do it right and try it.
As a quick aside, as I don’t want to spend too much time on it: for those who claim it’s bad for their workout, their fitness etc.… consider looking up how vegan bodybuilders do it, as they do exist. I’m not being sarcastic, just saying that if you want to participate, you can.
It’s too much.
Here, one may have a point. Just because we agree to go to the gym together does not mean we can bench-press the same amounts or stay on the treadmill the same amount of time at the same speeds. There is not a denial that there are different levels of fitness, different types of bodies, and that variation and personalisation may be merited.
I think what people forget, is that the Church does not disagree with us on this point. There’s a reason why one can be absolved from the canons of fasting without it needing to go to the Holy Synod! The Church has said, effectively, ‘let’s exercise together’ and declared a period of working out. There is a structure put around that working out decree that’s general, but there’s room for the personal variation.
This is where one needs to go to one’s personal trainer. The goal of every athlete should be able to participate fully in the exercise period, not to escape it. But while training toward that, concessions can be made in dialogue with the trainer, so that you’re always being cared for: pushed where you need pushing, but patting you on the back when you need that as well.
There are different ways to ease into it. Some people will fast Wednesdays and Fridays the weeks they are not ‘fully’ fasting. Some people will extend their abstinence by a half hour or hour either weekly or yearly. No problem (with guidance), because the goal is not the physical, the physical is a tool toward the goal. The gist here, in our analogies, is rather than ask ‘how can I avoid going to the gym’, ask ‘how do I find a way to participate most fully?’ At the end of the day, nobody is denying that it can be hard and uncomfortable.
One of my spiritual fathers once spoke:
Are we athletes for God? …To be the athlete of God, to train, to put oneself in harness, to be conscious every day that there is an end, a purpose … for that goal, for that purpose …we are doing a lot of things that don’t make sense and which we don’t want to do anyway – like fasting and abstaining from pleasures; denying ourselves in lots of ways…keeping a strict hold on ourselves: Discipline. But nobody likes discipline – but we must do it – to win these prizes; to gain these prizes.
I found his words comforting. We don’t have to pretend that we love it, just like there are people who never love going to the gym but end up loving what it does. There are those who do love it. That variation is not a problem.
It’s also comforting to call a spade a spade. A person who doesn’t understand core strength may look with disdain at someone tying weights to their bodies and contorting themselves in weird positions. A person who doesn’t understand endurance may look with laughter at a woman holding weights while walking briskly. Things can look funny, crazy even, when the purpose and meaning remain a mystery. Fasting might look funny in this cultural milieu, that doesn’t mean it’s actually funny.
I pray that we can recover some reverence for the physical aspect of fasting. We need abstinence, we need to be strict in our fasting, we need to challenge our endurance, so that we can ever-grow in our personhood, body and spirit, in the personal and communal union with our God.