Yesterday morning, during the last service for Lenten Matins offered at our parish for the week, we heard chanted
“With great gladness let us accept the proclamation of the Fast: for if Adam our forefather had fasted, we should not have suffered banishment from Eden. The fruit that brought death upon me was pleasant to the eyes and good for food. Then lest us not be taken prisoner by our eyes; let not our tongue delight in costly foods, for once they have been eaten they are worthless. Let us shun all greed; then we shall not become slaves to the passions which follow an excess of food and drink. Let us sign ourselves with the blood of Him who for our sakes willingly was led to death and the destroying angle will not touch us; and may we eat the Holy Passover of Christ for the salvation of our souls.” — Aposticha of Matins for the Friday in the first week of Great Lent (The Lenten Triodion, p 272)
Food and eating is the central preoccupation of our lives. This is a fact, not an aspiration. More so is this the case in twenty-first century America, where eating has become a constant activity throughout our days. We awake to breakfast, snack through the morning, eat lunch, continue snacking in the afternoon, nosh on the commute home from work, have an evening meal, and snack while we watch TV, play video games, or enjoy the company of other people. Fast food offerings, and vending machines are everywhere. Due to the modern day prevalence of food, we consume it virtually nonstop from waking to bed. Virtually the only time we refrain from food is when we sleep. Our children dare not play an entire soccer game without eating food at the half. Our children dare not go an entire morning or an afternoon without snacking. We are inculcated from our toddler years to a regimen of constant eating throughout the day.
These thoughts are not going to promote dieting, or a particular form of diet (vegetarianism, veganism, the carnivore diet, keto, clean eating, etc.). I am going to ponder the notion, however, that it is the uncontrolled desire for food which led to a choice that brought death upon the world.
A notion I had to clarify upon becoming Orthodox nearly thirteen years ago was what fasting in Orthodox practice meant. Coming from an evangelical Protestantism, fasting was commonly understood as not eating food. And normally while fasting one only drank water. Coffee was probably okay. It was a very black and white understanding. But going back to the account in Genesis, we see that Adam and Eve were called to fast from the moment of creation: they were restricted from one thing in terms of their diet.
“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”” Genesis 2:15-17 (ESV)
That is to say, while Adam (and later his wife Eve, whom God, beginning in the following verses, subsequently creates from Adam’s rib) had freedom to eat of anything in Paradise, God commanded a fast from one item: the produce of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was forbidden. That is to say, from the beginning of creation, fasting, abstention from certain forms of food or from all food, was a part of human existence.
We certainly have gone far from Eden in our modern world. From Adam’s choice to break the fast, we are now in a world in which we rarely break the eating. And while this has physical effects, with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, and ballooning medical costs, the spiritual effects are as real and far more costly.
By constantly consuming food throughout our day, we subtly but nonetheless quite actually, distort what it means to be a human being. Our constant consumption shapes our self-awareness as consumers, and our mission to satisfy our desires. Want becomes the dominating force of our decision and choices, and that which frustrates our wants and desires becomes the primary adversary to our sense of well-being. When all the world is seen as the means to satisfy our desires, it distorts our very perception and comprehension of reality. Freedom means access to anything I want. Slavery is being limited in any of my wants. This is a pernicious evil delusion. It is in fact, not freedom. It is slavery. Indeed, just as Adam and Eve found, it is death.
This can be illustrated by certain of the foods we consume themselves. The snacks we consume are often not real food. A diet soda, for example—we’re watching our weight after all—has no nutritional value whatsoever. And the man-made sweetener infused in the drink may very well be destructive to our health. But the can looks amazing. The ad to promote our purchasing it was slick and inviting. There’s a tribe, a community out there of X-Beverage drinkers of whom we feel a part (“Do the [Diet] Dew!” “The Sweet One!”). And yet none of it is real. The identity of being a X-Beverage drinker is a mirage. There is no community there. Do X-Beverage drinkers show up for you when you’re experiencing a bad time with crates of X-Beverage in hand? Does the glittery beverage container actually contain anything nutritious? Is the ad promoting the beverage depicting any reality we currently know? The life of constant consumption is a delusion. And it hides something far more insidious. Not simply the fact that X-Beverage actually contains no nutrition and may seriously harm you by constant consumption, but also the more deleterious fact that life is not about satisfying the desire for the glittering image.
This inculcation in consumption distorts our understanding, both rational and spiritual, of the world around us. The only way to combat this delusion, the only way this goes out from us, is by prayer and fasting. We need to, if you will, return to Eden, return to abstaining from food, not because food is bad. Indeed, it was created for us. Indeed, we know that Jesus himself declared all foods (ritually) clean. But Jesus also told us that man does not live by bread alone, but by the words which proceed from the mouth of God. That is to say, our life is meant for the intimate communion with our Creator. “And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day . . . .” (Genesis 3:8)
The monastics understand fasting as a means by which, through God’s grace, we return to Eden. In fact, the monastic practice is “the return to the state of Adam’s primal blessedness in paradise before the fall, during which time Adam and Eve did not eat meat but kept their physical and noetic eyes fixed on God alone.” (Elder Cleopa of Sihastria, p 214). And while we know that from the time of Genesis 9:3 (“Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.”), mankind became omnivorous, the Orthodox practice for non-monastics is to follow an Eden-like diet of veganism on fasting days.
All of this is to say, simply, the life of communion with God is centered around not consumption but abstention. We certainly must eat to live in this mortal life, but we do not need to eat all the time. And by abstaining from certain foods for certain days and seasons, we embrace a far different reality than the consumerism which is the foundation and bedrock of modern society. It is a reality which says to us, there is something higher and better than this life. Our life does not consist of food and drink. There is something greater and wider and deeper than our desires. Indeed, there is Someone who fulfills all desires.
In Adam, we learn unbridled consumption leads to death. Because Adam failed to fast, we die. But today, through fasting, through abstaining from certain foods, for days and seasons, and even from all foods (such as during the first days of Clean Week, the beginning of Lent), we may live.
Life is not found in consumption.. It is found in communion. By refusing consumption, we may learn to commune.
May God strengthen us in our Lenten fasting and bring us to the joy of the Paschal Feast.