Fasting, Abstinence, and Liberation

JMJ

WHAT DID YOU GIVE UP FOR LENT? Don’t tell me – you’re not supposed to tell folks. But what was it? Do you think of it as a struggle or a punishment to do so? Are you making a sacrifice for God? Or are you doing something to make up for your sins? What is fasting about? If you follow through on “just the rules” there is both fasting and abstinence: we’re supposed to eat less, and not eat certain things. And then something else (TV? Chocolate?) sort of creeps in because we know we can substitute something else for the food thing. So, if I give up my phone for a couple of hours a day, then I can keep eating hamburgers, right?

Why do we fast?

In the east and the west, Christians used to have a more strict fast: generally, all animal products were removed from the diet (there were some exceptions for Sundays and feast days). Additionally, the amount of food was limited: one meal a day, only eaten late in the day. The timing was relative to the liturgical practice: you only take communion after fasting. So Mass or (in the east) the Divine Liturgy were postponed until very late in the day. In the west you said Mass in the afternoon. In the East, communion came with Vespers. You ate only after communion.

Why? What’s wrong with meat or cheese or even wine? Nothing at all. Why do we do it then? Can’t we replace giving up wine (how much do we drink anyway?) with no chocolate? And who fasts until 3 in the afternoon? Pshaw. That’s all just showing off. Works don’t make us more holy. God loves us as we are. Those last two sentences are totally true. They are not modern. All of the Church Fathers – including those who wrote the rules about fasting and abstinence – would agree that rules don’t make us holy and God loves us fully even if we eat hamburgers on Good Friday. So what’s this about?

Look at the rules:
– Don’t eat until late in the day.
– Don’t eat more than once.
– Don’t eat animal products.
– Don’t drink alcohol.

Who would those rules affect? Farmers? Peasants? Homeless? Not really at all. Many if not all of these folks were lucky to eat – usually bread and maybe veggies – after working all day. These rules would affect the rich. In fact, these rules would force the rich from your local officials all the way up to the emperor (if he were pious) to live – at least a little – as if they were poor. When coupled with the traditional command to give alms during Lent, this all begins to make sense. Lent is a spiritual practice of solidarity with the poorest in our Christian family. It’s not enough to be in solidarity as such – this is not about political action per se – but it is exactly a political act in itself. It is acting in a way contrary to the world: my riches mean nothing to me. I give them up, even if only for a time, to live in solidarity with the poor. If you realize that the most ancient Christian traditions did not only fast/abstain in Lent, but several periods throughout the year as well as every Wednesday and Friday throughout the year, suddenly it’s nearly 50% of the time was some form of Lent, some form of solidarity with the poor.

What made me realize this was a comment about feasting. The rules about fasting only cut out feasting foods. The issue, for us moderns, is that we feast all the time. We have meat all the time. We have fats and adult beverages whenever we want. We have no idea what it means to feast because we don’t have fasting days anymore and – more importantly – we don’t have normal days where it’s mostly a fast. Feasts are not special because every meal is a sumptuous feast from our bagel and coffee to our late-night snack of ice cream. Even our standing in front of the fridge in a daze eating leftovers out of Tupperware with our fingers is feasting.

This is why it’s important not to imagine giving up TV or sweets is the same thing.

Fasting and abstaining are intended to make us uncomfortable, are intended to be hard, not because of our sins but because of our comfort, because of our ease.

The patristic teaching on these practices included the counsel to take what you do not spend on your feasting foods and hand it directly to the poor. What a concept! Fasting leads directly to charity. Abstinence leads to liberation.

Pray
Give up costly things
Give your money to the poor
Pray.

This is not only a problem in the West, even the Orthodox have forgotten the “fasting” part of the equation. A priest commented to me “We too are supposed to only eat one meal a day, but we ignore that part…” They pretty much eat all they want, just vegan. So you can have all the soy ice cream you like. And, as one layman joked, “Who cares if you can’t eat steak. Lobster is fine.” (Shellfish is poor people food…)

If you think, though, that this is about the rules as such, or that fasting is some Mediaeval (and mistaken) idea about paying God back for our sins, then, of course you would get rid of this. You might even quote scripture:

This is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin. (Isaiah 58:6-7)

But these are not conflicting: these are the same thing. You can’t share your bread if you eat it…

A blessed Lent!

Advent Soup & Frybread

For Orthodox of both eastern and western rites, the period leading up to Christmas is a time of abstaining from animal products.  Fish may be ok, shellfish too, but meat, dairy and eggs are right out.  So we find other things to do.  These two recipes have become mainstays for me this season, already: and I’m surprised I never thought of them before.  Both allow for a lot of variation and so I’ve added notes to each.  Salad goes nicely with them.

Ramen Miso
We will start with the soup.  You see the ramen packs above, that’s what we want – but throw out the flavour packets. It’s all salt and some other crap.  It’s totally pointless: what we want is the noodles.

Bring two or three cups of water to a boil.  To this add some miso paste: follow the instructions on the package, mine says 1 tbl per cup of water.  Then add one extra serving – so for two cups of water, I add 3 tbls of miso.  YMMV.  Then add the noodles and simmer until tender. Salt and pepper for taste.

That’s it.  Miso soup with ramen.

It’s also very boring.  So:  try adding diced up tofu, seitan, or tempe.  This can be flavoured anyway you want.  Try adding veggies!  I’ve found that a bag of frozen mixed veggies works just fine here. As does leftover Chinese food diced up. Stir fry something or add it raw and simmer until done. Greens are good, bok choi rocks. Last night I had it with box choi and mushooms.  This works really well for two servings: one for supper and one to take to the office.

Frybread
This one is a little more complex but very tasty.

Combine 2/3 Cup self-rising flour with 1/2 tbl of NRG Egg Replacer powder. Whisk the dry ingredients together and stir in about 2/3 cup of water.  You want a very stiff dough and, depending on the flour and the weather, you may not need all of it, but you don’t want it runny: a well mixed cookie dough is about right.

Heat up a couple of tbls of olive oil or canola oil in a deep frying pan for which you have a lid.  You’re going to want about 3 inches above the bread – so pick wisely and do so before you have hot oil!

Place the dough in the oil and spread it out a little. It should start frying instantly. Add the cover and then get a couple of tbls of water.  Carefully spritz the water around the bread and cover instantly. DANGER Water and Hot Oil is a volatile mix.  Be very careful.  What you are doing is setting of a mixed cooking method of steam and fry.

In about three or four minutes the bread will rise up be easy to flip over with a turner.  Cover again and cook until done (another 3 or 4 mins).

DANGER there is still hot oil here…

Slice, spread some vegan butter spread on top and nom away.

Variations that I’ve tried so far this year: instead of water I added almond-based “winter nog” and some sugar got a wonderful fried dessert product.  I’ve mixed the bread with 1/3 cup self-rising flour and 1/3 cup self-rising cornmeal and had fried corn bread!  Instead of water I’ve added veggie broth – very savoury bread!  I’ve also made it with mushroom broth. One failure though: I tried it with cranberry sauce. Just don’t do it.