I didn’t have to think long at all about this particular Round Table topic: ‘What is the most commonly asked question you receive and how do you answer it?’ That’s an easy one for me, but I’ll need a moment to set it up for all you folks who aren’t Orthodox.
That’s because Orthodox Christians fast on a weekly basis. When we fast, we go without meat, dairy products, most kinds of fish, oil, wine, and hard liquor. We do that just about every Wednesday and Friday throughout the year, but there are also four longer fasting seasons—in fact, right now, we are in the Nativity Fast, a forty-day fast which runs from November 15 all the way up through December 25 (and, yes, many Orthodox Christians in America take a break on Thanksgiving).
But all that fasting also produces a lot of questions. So, each week, my email inbox is filled with questions like these: “There’s a catered lunch at work this coming Friday, and there’s not any fasting food on the menu—can I get a blessing to join in?” “My in-laws are having their annual holiday bash this coming weekend, and we really want to go because they’re such great people, but I imagine most of the food the serve will not meet the fasting requirements—can we get a blessing to go the party, anyway?”
99% of the time, this is the way I respond to those emails: “May it be blessed! Enjoy the lunch/party!” So, it’s not like I’m The Food Police, and I’m responsible for Enforcing the Fast. In fact, the whole exchange is really something of a formality. But if you’ve read this far, then you’ve probably got all sorts of questions, so let’s just go ahead and consider some of those.
Here’s one: “OK, you say it’s a formality, but it’s a kind of creepy formality. I mean, do people really expect you to micro-manage their lives for them like that? Do they also ask your permission when they want to purchase a home or get married?”
Well, the first thing I should point out is that when folks ask for a blessing, they are not asking my personal permission. What they are asking is something much more profound: Does this decision I’m about to make reflect what the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are doing in this world? So, when folks talk to me about a major purchase or a significant relationship or what they are going to eat at work, they aren’t checking in with their cult leader; they are trying to discern what the Most Holy Trinity wants them to do in this particular situation, and they are asking their priest to assist them in that discernment.
But that quickly brings up another question: “I guess I kinda see why someone might want to check in with a priest if they are going to buy a home or get married, but the whole food thing seems pretty trivial—geez, can’t people just make those decisions for themselves?”
What you have to remember is that we’re not just talking about food—what we’re talking about is fasting. In other words, I don’t get emails from people asking whether they should get bacon on their cheeseburger; the reason folks send me notes is because they want to know whether they are using the discipline of fasting in an appropriate way.
The real problem here is that most American Christians no longer fast—or, if they do, it’s kind of a novelty thing that they will try every once in a while. But in Holy Orthodoxy, fasting is just one of the basic Christian disciplines; it’s something that we do on a regular basis. Here’s how one of the great spiritual masters of Holy Orthodoxy, St Isaac the Syrian, once put it:
The Saviour also began by fasting. For after His baptism the Spirit led Him into the wilderness, and He fasted forty days and nights. Likewise all who set out to follow in His footsteps make this discipline the foundation of their struggle. For this is a weapon forged by God, and who shall escape blame if he neglects it? If the Lawgiver Himself fasts, who among those who keep His law has no need of fasting?
So, fasting is not a trivial thing; it is an important discipline that can bring us closer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that is why folks want to do it properly.
Which pretty much leaves one final question: “Don’t people ever ask you about deeper, more significant things? Don’t they ever want to know why these senseless mass shootings happen or why folks get cancer? Don’t they ever ask you how they can be saved?”
Sure, but if folks are keeping the fasting days, then they are already going to have some significant insight into why awful stuff happens. However, it won’t be the kind of insight that can be reduced to talking points or summed up on a bumper sticker or expressed in an internet meme. What fasting does is bring us closer to the Most Holy Trinity, the Source of All Wisdom, and that kind of wisdom can only be experienced in our own hearts.
But if you’re one of those folks who is wondering how you can be saved, just go ahead and send me an email. I’ll let you know what you need to do get enter into a relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and we’ll get you started on some fasting so you can make progress in that relationship.