Lenten Loopholes

In these veggie-friendly times, how can we avoid breaking the spirit of a fast when keeping the letter of the law is so easy?

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So how does one keep the fast without breaking the spirit of the fast? Perhaps we should ask how we, despite our intention, end up breaking the spirit of the fast? I would say--and I'm as guilty as any--that it's not by eating the "wrong" things but by even thinking and worrying about them. The time of Lent is a return to the Edenic state, and I'm busy reading labels and wondering if it's really OK to eat a soy burger that just tastes too much like meat.

Most of us Orthodox are familiar with the well-known saying that it does us no good to abstain from meat if we're going to eat people. Let me tell you, I'm one of the Donner Party, spiritually speaking. I garnish my plate with the bitter herbs of resentments, spice my food with the salt of envy. And then there's the relish of self-righteousness. I need to embrace spiritual fasting, to purge myself of these instincts, but instead I worry about whether those soy corndogs have egg whites in them. I'm so obsessed with what we can and cannot eat that I forget the important part of the fast. As the Lenten Triodion says (Sunday Vespers on Sunday of Forgiveness):

Let us set out with joy upon the season of the Fast, and prepare ourselves for spiritual combat. Let us purify our soul and cleanse our flesh; and as we fast from food, let us abstain also from every passion. Rejoicing in the virtues of the Spirit, may we persevere with love, and so be counted worthy to see the solemn Passion of Christ our God, and with great spiritual gladness, to behold his Passover.

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Another friend at work just celebrated a birthday. As is our custom, we presented her with a cake and sang "Happy Birthday," probably to the consternation of her client who was on the speaker phone at the time. Ironically, this was a great lesson for me for the fast. I wanted some of that cake. It really looked good, but I didn't partake. I didn't need to in order to feel the joy of celebrating a friend's birthday.

We place so much importance on the material things that we forget the simplicity of happiness. The core, the essence, of life is not the food we eat, the cars we drive, the money we make. It is the simple love we share and the gratitude we have for what we have been given. I may desire a milkshake, but the thirst for the Lord is greater, or should be. Feeding my spiritual hunger is far more satisfying than slaking any physical hunger I might have. Perhaps in denying myself the idol of my foods, I can direct myself to the true spiritual bread, which is Christ. The fast can become freedom and a delight, not a burden...unless we wish to make it so.

During the first week of Lent, we in the Russian tradition do the service of Great Compline. In that service is one of my favorite hymns: "God Is With Us." "God is with us, understand, O ye nations, and submit yourselves, for God is with us." If God is with us, who can be against us? This is the greatest way to break the spirit of the fast: to forget that God is with us. God is on our side. It's not about pizza. It's about Pascha.

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