On Great and Holy Lent

by Bernard Brandt


Well, I suppose that I am suffering from blogospheric peer group pressure, as it seems that just about everyone Catholic is talking about fasting, and what they are ‘giving up’ for Lent. Today also seems to be the Feast of St. Patrick, so loads of people are talking about dispensations from the Friday fast so that they can have their corned beef and cabbage. Looks like we have opportunities for cognitive dissonance galore here.

So I suppose that I should add more cognitive dissonance, just to help the party along. Let’s start with the fact that the ‘traditional’ corned beef and cabbage dinner probably got started in 19th century NYC and Boston, when Irish Americans still lived in the same neighborhoods as Jewish Americans, and that was one of the better items on the deli menu. One could go on to say that St. Patrick wasn’t even Irish, to begin with, but was a Briton of Roman ancestry who got enslaved by a bunch of pagans who dragged him to Ireland.

Of course, at this point, I would get the most wry amusement by saying that the lot of you RCs who are all ‘I’m giving up chocolate for Lent’, are looked upon by most Orthodox and Eastern Catholics in much the same way that those who bench press 400+ pounds with free weights look upon the newbies in the gym who are all ‘I’m up to holding ten pounds in each of my hands now.’

We’d probably tell you to stop, but our amusement outweighs our sense of embarrassment on your behalf. So, we just let you go on with your idle prattle.

But, just like the studs at the gym, there are some of us who would actually kinda like to help the newbies learn how it’s really done. Part of it is simple self interest. I mean, no one wants to go to the gym to find that a newbie has damaged or maimed himself on the machines or the free weights. It throws your whole training schedule off. But part of it is that genuine pleasure which comes in helping a beginner to become proficient, and maybe even to become an athlete in his or her own right.

So, in that spirit, may I offer you the following suggestions.

First, I would suggest that you re-read the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 6. Especially verses 1 through 21. Then come back.

Okay, the discerning reader might note that Our Lord is talking here about not just fasting, but almsgiving and prayer as well. As a matter of fact, His discussion of almsgiving and prayer precede any discussion of fasting. The discerning reader might note that almsgiving, prayer, and fasting are not just idle things, but are a package deal.

The next thing that one might note is that our Lord gives much the same advice for each of these: Don’t make a big show about doing them. Don’t talk about what you’re doing. Just do them. Quietly, and alone.

To quote from the classics, ‘The first rule about Fight Club is not to talk about Fight Club’.

As for almsgiving, may I suggest that throwing money at the task is about as effective, or ineffective, as it is in business or in government. May I suggest some personal attention instead? How about trying to be kind to other people? How about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you? To tell the truth, I think that our Lord has some words to say on the subject.

As for myself, though, I have noted, to my own shame, that at times I fasted to the point when I was not kind to others, but downright crabby and nasty instead. I would offer the observation that fasting to that point might not be productive, but actually the reverse.

As to prayer, however, our Lord’s counsel would appear to be, ‘Keep It Simple, Soul’. No excess verbiage. Our Lord knows what you need far better than you do, anyway. A lot of better and more holy souls than I am have found that the prayer of the Publican works well: ‘Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner’.  To that they have added the confession that Jesus Christ is the Lord, and the Son of God. And so, they have come up with the Prayer of the Heart: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

A lot of people have found that if you say each word of the prayer in time with the beating of your heart, that your emotions, or your heart, can become calm. I have also found that by breathing in for four heart beats, gently holding one’s breath for four heart beats, and breathing out for four beats, one becomes even more calm.

I have also found that, at least in English, one can gain even more calm by praying in this way:

‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son’ (breathe in)

‘Of God, have mercy’ (hold breath)

‘On me, a sinner’ (breathe out).

Oh, just one more thing (at least on prayer). I have found that you can use this prayer to pray, not only for yourself, but for others as well. Just replace the words ‘On me, a sinner’ with ‘On Thy servant, Y’ or ‘On Thy handmaid, X’.

And finally, regarding fasting, let’s start with some precision in language here, shared by both Orthodox and Catholics. If you are reducing the amount of food you usually eat, you are fasting. If you are eliminating certain foods, you are abstaining from those foods.  And if you are giving up some thing (like chocolate) for a time, you are undergoing a penance. Let’s try to be precise here.

Part of the problem here is that up until recently (say, the last century or three), both Orthodox and Catholics were pretty much on the same page as regards fasting, abstinence, and penance. Mardi Gras and Carnivale pretty much meant: ‘goodbye to meat, guyz’. Shrove Tuesday also meant pretty much ‘bake them pancakes, guyz, cause you’ve got to use up all the eggs and milk before Lent begins’. Even the Irish ‘black fast’ up until the late 19th century meant that you didn’t put milk in your tea.

In short, Orthodox and Catholics both held that yer pretty much on a vegan diet for Lent. Sure, Greek Orthodox would slip in fish without backbones, and Russian Orthodox and RCs would slip in fish (backbones or not). But they were still in something resembling agreement. The charitable would say that RC clergy decided that the strictures of fasting were too onerous, and so loosened them, and continued loosening them, over the centuries. As I’m trying to be charitable here, I’ll try to refrain from what others have said on the subject.

But here’s the deal: If you are trying to do things the really old fashioned way, the apostolic tradition (found in the Didache, and maintained in practice) is that one fasted and abstained from most non-vegetable foods on Wednesdays and Fridays. For periods of fasting, such as before Pascha or Nativity, one also fasted for the weekdays of several weeks before those feasts.

But I will point out, in the words of my parish priest, that our Lord did not say (in Matt. 6) ‘If you fast’, but ‘when you fast’. Some fasting is therefore called for.

Having attempted the fasts of the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches for the past thirty or so years, and having failed or succeeded in some measure to accomplish those fasts, I have rather painfully garnered the following counsel. I give it to you free:

  1.  Don’t talk about your fasting (or prayer, or almsgiving);
  2. If you are fasting to the point that you are becoming mean spirited or crabby, you’re probably doing it wrong;
  3. Fasting, as with almsgiving and prayer, include the most primary forms of spiritual exercise, meant to help yourself and others. Exercise, in order to be effective, has to be both habitual, and gradually increased. ‘Diet’ means ‘way of life’, not ‘fad’. Sudden and unwarranted increases in exercise usually don’t help, and often damage, those undertaking them;
  4. In order to survive, you need certain minima of fat, carbohydrates, protein, and vitamins. If you intend on being something other than another anti-vegan joke, you need to know how to plan a vegetarian diet that works. Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet is the most effective way of getting that knowledge that I have found.
  5. A daily multi-vitamin is also most helpful, and most religions don’t ask you to fast from such.

Finally, I suppose the question turns to that of: ‘Why fast, in the first place?’

I think that the answer to that may be found in the question, ‘Well then, why give alms, or pray, or fast?’ As I said before, this appears to be our Lord’s package deal. He tells us that if we do them, not expecting a reward from the regard of our fellow human critters, but from Him, He will reward us. And I do not think it a matter of coincidence that He follows His advice on almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, with these words:

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal,  but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

I think that perhaps what He is saying is that if we cooperate with God, and if we do good to others, if we pray, and if we fast, we will gather up for ourselves treasure in heaven, which neither the world, the flesh, nor the Devil can take from us.