When I started investigating Eastern Christianity, I was struck by the emphasis of fasting as a means of spiritual renewal. While Roman Catholics are well-known for abstaining from meat on Lenten Fridays, I was surprised by the rigor of fasting in the Byzantine tradition: Abstinence from meat and animal products (eggs, dairy etc.), fish, wine, and oil.
Fasting rules can vary between regions, but they are observed during four penitential seasons of the liturgical year: Great Lent, Nativity Fast, Dormition Fast, and the Apostles Fast. The Fast is also observed most Wednesdays and Fridays of the year to commemorate Jesus’ betrayal and death, along with other important days sprinkled in such as the Beheading of John the Baptist or the Feast of the Holy Cross.
This made a lot of sense to me. I was used to hearing about fasting as a routine cultural practice; something optional or a ritual “we just do”. But the emphasis of fasting in liturgical churches is much different. The Church is known not primarily as an institution, but as our Mother.
Jesus said, “But this kind [of demon] does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” (Matthew 17:21) As our Mother, the Church cares for our souls and gives us guidelines to temper our passions and increase our reliance on divine providence.
The tension within my own spiritual life has been balancing this corporate expectation of fasting with the individual care of my soul. The truth is, I’m recovering from years of intense, long-suffering bulimia. Restricting what I eat at this time is simply too much of a burden in my healing process. Combine this with relentless seasonal depression, and it’s a recipe for Advent disaster.
However, as a person who longs to be in intimate union with the Body of Christ, not participating in the Fast sometimes feels like another form of isolation.
I’m still figuring out what life looks like in both managing an eating disorder and participating in the life of the Church. Right now, I’m resolved to make my “no” to dietary guidelines a “yes” to humility. My current approach has yielded several important truths:
- I desperately require grace to recover from this awful disease.
- I need to humble myself to the care of my spiritual director, my priests, my doctor, mental health professionals, and friends.
- Fasting in itself does not save anyone. Christ is working out my salvation in and through my baptism even without the Fast.
- Because I suffer from the sin of pride, to not excel at a spiritual practice is actually good for my soul.
- Not participating in the Fast in this season of life is honoring my body as a temple of the Holy Spirit.
A deep solace of mine has been turning to the wisdom of the Liturgical calendar. Two weeks before the start of Great Lent, the week of the Publican and the Pharisee, the Church forbids Her children from fasting to remind our souls and bodies that we cannot boast in our observation of the Fast. It is the grace of God that saves. I can take this fast-free week of the year and apply it to my daily life.
As we approach the end of the Nativity Fast, my desire is for those of us with eating disorders to delight in the feast of Christ’s birth as though we fasted in expectation.
“…This is our festival, this is the feast we celebrate today, in which God comes to live with human beings, that we may journey toward God, or return – for to speak thus is more exact- that laying aside the old human being we may be clothed with the new, and that as in Adam we have died so we may live in Christ, born with Christ and crucified with him, buried with him and rising with him.”
– St. Gregory the Theologian, Oration 38, “On the Nativity of Christ”