Today is Clean Monday, and I would like to wish everyone a beneficial Lent.
Appropriate for the day is a practical address about fasting that Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov gave at the most recent Saint Herman’s Orthodox Youth Conference: “Fasting for Non-Monastics.” Fr. Sergei begins:
A curious phenomenon can be observed in the interactions between pastors and their parishioners at the beginning of each major fast of the Church. Pastors attempt to call their parishioners’ pious attention to the spiritual heights of fasting: the fighting against sin, the conquering of passions, the taming of the tongue, the cultivation of virtues. In turn, parishioners pester their pastors with purely dietary questions: when fish is allowed, whether soy milk or soy hotdogs are fasting, whether adding milk to coffee is breaking the fast, or whether there is some dispensation that can be given to the young, the elderly, those who study, those who work, women, men, travelers, the sick, or those who simply do not feel well. In response to the overwhelming preoccupation with dietary rules to the detriment of the spiritual significance of fasting, some pastors, seemingly out of frustration, began to propose in sermons and internet articles that dietary rules are not important at all: if you want yogurt during Lent, just have some as long as you do not gossip; if you want a hamburger, then eat one, as long as you do not devour a fellow human being by judging and backstabbing. Unfortunately, such advice rarely helps eradicate gossip, judging or backstabbing. Rather, it seems to confuse people into thinking that since they have not yet conquered these and many other vices in their hearts, they do not have to fast from hamburger either. . . .
Indeed! Spiritualizers who grow impatient with low minded, “fundamentalist” peasant pharisaism end up destroying both the pharisaism that they rightly reprove and the foundational piety required as a condition for the higher spiritual state at which they aim. This process is repeated again and again in the modern world as johnny come lately wise guys move ancient landmarks to reflect their subtler boundaries of truth, but they end up mucking up the field of human toil. Their cures tend to be worse than the ills they seek to treat. So, by all means, do not stop reminding people about the more important aspects of the Church’s discipline, but remember that men are animals with bellies and that ascesis begins with disciplining the beast. To appropriate our fellow Abrahamic friends’ terms: of course, we need to lead people to the inner jihad, but we must keep in mind that slaying pagans where one finds them remains an important practical matter in one’s spiritual struggle.