(Sometime last year I posted a list of 55 Precepts for Christian Living by Fr. Thomas Hopko. I have seen the list circulated quite a bit since then and I recently came across the suggestion of journaling through each item on the list. I thought that was a wonderful suggestion and, as I considered doing it, I decided that I'd like to share some of my thoughts here.)
Today is the Sunday of the Pharisee and the Publican. Lent is almost here. Somehow, even though I know it's coming, this first week of preparing for the fast always takes me by surprise. Can it really be time already? There is an excited feeling of anticipation because we go through the cycle year after year. Time is moving in a circular way, a spiral* really, because each year when we come again to the same events we have the chance to go deeper. I am not the same person this year that I was last year. I will be different again next year.
This coming around again and again to the same events as a different person is a mystery. And like all mysteries it can't be known without experiencing it. My words are not able to embody the experience for someone who has never participated.
The repetition of the fasts and feasts, the anticipation and the celebration, is not set up so that we might be able to check certain deeds off our list of things to do in order to score points with God or guarantee that we "make it" to heaven. We don't fast to prove anything or to make ourselves righteous by fulfilling the law. Sure, there will always be people who approach it that way, but that doesn't mean that the practice itself is wrong or that it was instituted for the wrong reasons. It may mean that perhaps those people haven't had the chance to go deep enough yet, to peel off the layers of self-interest and come to the end of self in order to encounter the Person who is the Reason for Everything.
Encounter followed by Relationship is what we're after and it just doesn't happen without frequent and regular opportunities for interaction. Prayer is one part of the experience but without regular fasting, without learning how to deny our appetites and our passions, our addictions, our prayer is stilted and somewhat crippled.
Food is a Good Thing. There is nothing bad about, or wrong with, food. It sustains our bodies and brings us pleasure. It is important as a builder and transmitter of culture, and even our relationships often center around the act of sharing food. But there is always a danger of too much. Every good thing is good in moderation, but the moment we cross the line into too much we run the risk of stripping away the good and being left with addiction. In other words, the pampering of the appetite allows the appetite to control us rather than the other way around.
And that's where it starts, isn't it? When we are unable to exercise self-control over something as rudimentary as food, what hope do we have of being able to overcome the internal passions? Jesus knew this and He made it clear that He expects His followers to fast. The Church in her wisdom has provided ample opportunity for us to fulfill this expectation. It's not good enough to fast when we feel like it, at random times. The more often it is done, the more regular our practice, the more powerful its effects. Fasting brings with it great spiritual benefit; it is like a potent remedy which enables us to grow stronger and stronger. Indeed even those who are not Orthodox and have no set fasting periods are aware of its effects. But it seems to me that such a powerful remedy for our spiritual health is much more effective if we take it regularly, rather than waiting until we feel the need. It's like maintaining a healthy diet for the sake of the body's wellness, rather than ignoring healthy guidelines and allowing one's body to become ill and in need of medicine. The medicine will help of course, but would it not be better to avoid the illness altogether?
Fasting brings us back to reality. By denying ourselves and remembering what it is like to feel hunger and weakness, we are reminded that we are not self sufficient. We have nothing which was not given to us; nothing we can call our own. And so we turn again to the Source of All Good Things and we realize that we are helpless in the face of His Goodness and we encounter A Person. It's the only Encounter that matters and we have the opportunity to come to it again and again. Each encounter will be different, and we have the chance to be transformed if we will.
*I came across this idea of time as a spiral in the book Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin and have been contemplating it ever since.