Unlocking the Feast within the Fast

A reflection by Lindsey

I received a phone call recently from a dear friend. She thought of me because it’s Lent and she doesn’t know anyone who loves Lent more than I do. Every time a friend mentions the Lenten season, I can’t help but smile.

My love of Lent began almost immediately as I started exploring Christianity. I was attending a Lutheran church that had regular Wednesday night soup suppers before a Lenten service series. The theme of the first Lenten series I attended was “Can you drink of this cup?” During the first week we received a small clay cup, and we received items to put into our cup during subsequent weeks. My cup is still on the bookcase in “my” room at my parents’ house. I immediately associated Lent with more communal gatherings and a focused effort to grow closer to Christ.

In college, I attended an Evangelical Protestant church that didn’t make a big deal about the liturgical calendar. Nonetheless, the community believed that God did awesome things when we took time to fast and pray. We started taking a 40 day period before Easter to pray for God to pour His blessings out on us as individuals, on our friends, and on our church. The pastoral team prepared various guides to encourage us to read through a chosen set of Scriptures and to suggest different faith experiments related to prayer and fasting.

Since that time, I’ve become aware of an ancient fasting tradition during the Lenten season that still lives in Eastern rite churches (Orthodox, Eastern Catholic, and some Protestant groups seeking to discover the early Church). The tradition exhorts people to abstain from meat, dairy, eggs, fish with a backbone, wine, and olive oil during penitential seasons and twice a week outside penitential seasons. Like many fasting traditions, it suggests a certain discipline around eating with the expressed intention of helping a person grow spiritually. The ancient wisdom has 2 other teachers: prayer and almsgiving. To be clear: I don’t consider myself to be a good student of any of these teachers. Yet I find that approaching the Lenten season with joy unlocks the feast within the fast.

I’ve found myself gradually shifting towards the Eastern rite fasting disciplines because my local church communities try to keep the Eastern rite guidelines around food. It’s been important to do so gradually because I had to learn to cook first. During the ordinary times of the church year, I rely on easy-to-prepare staple foods that use roughly the same ingredients. Each fast paradoxically presents a new invitation to deepen my appreciation of food. The year I was most observant in the dietary rules was the year I decided to avoid eating out at restaurants during the Lenten period. Having to go to the grocery store regularly caused me to experiment with different combinations of new grains, various vegetables, and beans. Last year, I discovered that avocados have a similar texture to cheese in a lot of dishes. Who knew? Sarah’s higher protein needs have spurred me onward to exploring previously uncharted protein categories of lentils, shrimp, and crab. I haven’t arrived fully yet, but I do enjoy trying. In “fasting” for a season, I actually haven’t lost any foods that I love: I’ve grown in my love for diverse foods, eating a fuller array.

Taking on a certain discipline as a community has a way of bringing people together as a family. You will always have the person who think it’s impossible to eat any foods that follow the guidelines, the person scouring the labels to determine if a particular item has any “forbidden” ingredients, the family quietly inviting lost newcomers to come over for dinner, the person who reminds you that the guidelines emerged during a different place and time, people sick of eating peanut butter and/or lentils, and folks eagerly swapping recipes. Sometimes the same individual falls into multiple categories.

The communal nature of the fasting discipline creates a lot of space for conversations. Looking at my own experiences as a guide, the feast of the Lenten fast can be found in community. No matter what Christian tradition I’ve been a part of, people have made time to come together, pray, and eat during Lent. I find it amusing that churches have more meals together during “fasting” periods than they do in “ordinary” time. Care to pass the guacamole?

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2 thoughts on “Unlocking the Feast within the Fast

  1. Do you and Sarah do this together or is it just you? After reading your hydra post I’m confused about why you would be okay with Sarah doing something like this because it’s not normal eating.

    • Hi Jenny, fair question.

      A claim like “It’s not normal eating” requires asking who gets to define normal. For me, eating in this manner is entirely normal and is done in community. There’s no way around being exposed to this practice. If I eat anything at church during Lent, then I know it will be a Lenten meal. Some foods just taste really good, and I want to try the recipe on my own.

      Yet, when supporting a person with an eating disorder, it’s important to know the etiology and symptomology of a person’s eating disorder. I’ve taken a long time to understand the origins and symptoms present in Sarah’s eating disorder, so I know that Sarah has never used restrictive behaviors. Moreover, Sarah does not experience difficulty in moving into the feasting seasons after fasting seasons. If Sarah had restrictive tendencies and/or problems adjusting back into the feasting seasons after a period of fasting, then I would be much more likely to seek advice from both our spiritual directors and Sarah’s eating disorder therapists as to how to approach the Lenten season.

      As I mentioned my post, observing the fast actually introduces more diversity into our diet rather than taking diversity away. I provided some concrete examples of how the fast has challenged me to enjoy more foods than I’m naturally inclined to use. As we started to establish our life together, I discussed meal planning intentionally with Sarah. To support Sarah’s recovery, I had to be much more intentional about planning meals with significant protein content. As a general rule, I would only eat one meal with a substantive protein component a day when I lived by myself. Sarah needs to have substantive protein in multiple meals a day.

      As a final note, the Eastern practices do not restrict quantity of food, but rather encourage people to add diversity to their diet. Looking to the origins of the Lenten rule, meat and dairy were considered the more luxurious foods while fish, wine, and oil were everyday staples. I recently learned that part of the reasons why the faithful were encouraged to abstain from wine and oil to make sure there was enough wine and oil for liturgical use before the summer crops were harvested. Lack of seasonality in eating is a relatively new phenomenon; there’s a reason why root vegetables are regarded as “winter” vegetables.

      Please let me know if my reply has raised more questions, Lindsey

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