"I did," I said, confused by his question.
"Well, what's with the shrimp? I thought you didn't eat critters during Lent."
"Most critters, true. Shrimp are one of the loopholes."
There, I'd said it. Loophole. I cringed almost the instant the word left my mouth. I knew I'd have to give a satisfactory explanation to my buddy Sean, who loved to play the devil's advocate. If there's anybody who can keep me on my toes, it's Sean. For a non-believer, he'd make a great spiritual Father: He can cut through my hooey in no time flat.
I sighed and then provided the various and sundry explanations that had been given to me over the years: Shrimp aren't kosher, so the original Christians who made up the fasting rules didn't even think to put it on "the list" since they were all Jews. That didn't fly. Then I tried the one I'd heard about not consuming blood, and because a shrimp's circulation...well, that didn't fly either.
The shrimp arrived, and I remembered my favorite explanation, one given to me by an old Greek monk. According to the venerable monk, ancient Romans thought shrimp and sea creatures were like bugs: "It is penitent'sial to eating the s'rimp." Sean look at my shrimp--with its head, legs, and claws, its large spiny horn protruding between the stalk that were its eyes--and bought that one.
Upon consuming my sea bug, I thought about Lent and the fast. The fourth week of Great Lent commemorates St. John Climakos, who wrote that great spiritual classic "The Ladder of Divine Ascent," which describes the steps in the ascent to God in the spiritual life.
I'm reminded of an icon of this ladder that I saw once. As a multitude of monks and priests and bishops struggle up the ladder, many are being pulled off by gleeful imps and devils. This sobering icon shows that even the holiest among us are beset by demons, and many don't survive the struggle.
I for one don't think I've even approached the Step Stool of Squeaking By. Right now I'm on the Escalator of Easy Living. It's true I'm facing Up, but it's a Down escalator. As long as we keep facing up and walking forward, we're going to stay in one place. It's going to take effort to get off this escalator. Thank God for Lent!
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.
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.