While it is possible to keep the fast of Great Lent by paying strict attention to every ingredient in the foods we eat, in a previous blog, Fasting: the Rules and the Individual, I quoted St. John Cassian, a disciple of St. John Chrysostom, who in the 5th Century reported on the Tradition he received regarding fasting. He clearly believed it was not possible to have one rule for all and claims that is the Orthodox Tradition he received from the Fathers of the Church who came before him. St. John Cassian is famous for taking the teachings of the Dessert Fathers and spreading them throughout the church of the 5th Century.
A friend of mine wrote some months ago about a teaching on fasting she had learned from an Orthodox priest which is another way of understanding the Tradition of St. John Cassian. One might say it is an apophatic fasting teaching:
Remove the food that is between you and God
put Christ between you and the food.
Any food – whatever quality, quantity, or type – which in any way gets between you and loving God or loving neighbor is the food you should fast from. This calls to mind the teachings of St. Paul which we also proclaim on the Sundays before Great Lent begins:
We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. Only take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if any one sees you, a man of knowledge, at table in an idol’s temple, might he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak man is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.
Therefore, if food is a cause of my brother’s falling, I will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother to fall. (1 Corinthians 8:8-13 read on the Sunday of the Last Judgment!)
St. Paul reiterates the same teaching in his letter to the Romans:
If your brother is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. (Romans 14:15)
And we can have Christ before us when we eat as long as the food – whatever quantity, quality or type – can be blessed by Christ, can be shared with the needy and hungry (or angels unaware or as happened to Abraham when he showed hospitality to the Three), can reveal Christ to us (as happened to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus), can cause us to offer thanksgiving to God rather than causing us gluttonously to over-eat or indulgence. When the meal puts Christ in front of us and we see the Lord or see Him in the least of His brothers and sisters, then the food is blessed whatever it consists of.
This is a different and more blessed way to understand food and fasting – to see them as both gifts from God for our salvation, rather than to think of them only in terms of rules and regulations which we want to know if we are keeping to the Nth degree, or which we try to figure out how to get around technically without violating the rules.
Our foremother Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3) was tricked by the talking serpent into thinking about God’s food and His fast as merely rule. She completely puts out of her mind that the fast prohibiting eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is not so much about rules as it was about relationships.
Eve thinks the fruit is good for her. It is a selfish, self centered idea which is the epitome of self-love. She forgets about her relationship with God, Adam, and creation. She forgets to love and engages in self-love.
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate… (Genesis 3:6).
Had she thought about the fruit/food of that tree as getting between her and God, she would have said no to it. But God was gone from her self-loving mind. Had she kept God’s Word between her and the fruit/food, she also would not have sinned. Instead she neglected her relationship with God and though only of herself.
Remove the food that is between you and God and put Christ between you and the food.
Food, as St. Paul teaches us, cannot commend us to God – whether it is festal or lenten food. Food when understood as something to bring us into relationship with God and with neighbor is most blessed – whether lenten or festal. Heart healthy food is the meal we eat in love for God and for the neighbor. Food which brings us into communion with God and with neighbor is holy, blessed and divine.