We’re now into the Apostles’ Fast, the variable-length fasting period between the Monday after All Saints (for Orthodoxy, the Sunday after Pentecost) and the feast of the Apostles, Peter and Paul, on 29 June. Our men’s group at All Saints parish wanted to go out to a pub after our last meeting, which is today, but because of the fast, we did it last Sunday. While all the rest of America has been cranking up the grill and getting back into barbecue-form, the Orthodox take a few weeks off to discipline the body for the sake of the soul.
Pretty crazy, if you ask me.
I’ve been noticing how what once was a way of life for me, in terms of my religion and faith, I’m both becoming more conscious of and more annoyed by its evidence in my own life and that of the culture around me. I’m speaking, of course, about self-interest.
I came of age, faith-wise, in a conservative evangelical youth culture which on the one hand said, “It’s not what you get out of worship, but what you give to it,” but then spent a lot of energy and money catering to almost my every whim. Sermons were evaluated on the basis of what it did to me. This could range from being convicted of sin to being comforted, but the focus was on what happened inside me. My Protestant paradigm for spiritual growth was a continuous gauging of “where I was at” in terms of my faith walk. This evaluation was not usually done in conjunction with anyone else except me. I might use teachings that I had gotten from sermons, books and conferences to do that evaluation, but it was me evaluating myself. I might go for weeks without a sense of nearness to the Lord, and even if I remained steadfast in my Christian duties, this time of dryness was seen as a problem to be fixed. Maybe having more quiet times, listening to more Christian music, doing more Bible study. One could not rest until one once again felt close to God. How did one know that? By how one felt. (Conversely, one could be derelict in many of one’s Christian duties, but so long as one felt close to the Lord, one’s spiritual life was not deemed to be in any significant trouble.)
This, of course, was how I turned to Orthodoxy in the first place. I didn’t like what I’d seen at the Episcopal seminary I was then going to, nor what was happening in the Episocpal Church at large, so when I sort of by happenstance began looking at Orthodoxy, I looked at it in terms of where it fit me and my preferences. It definitely had the “high church liturgy” that as an Anglo-Catholic leaning Episcopalian I liked. It definitely matched my theology more. And there was a certain sense of “being different” that Orthodoxy afforded me: I could stand out against mass churchianity.
How adolescent and self-absorbed!
But clearly I didn’t know better. In fact, the first time I consciously remember that my me-centered religion wasn’t going to fit very well into Orthodoxy was when I had received a reply from my now-parish-priest, Father Patrick with regard to my bellyaching about fitting my career goals in with being assigned a parish in Podunkville, Illinois. Father’s reply was a single line: He wouldn’t entertain any thoughts of going anywhere else than where his bishop sent him. There was no commiserating: “Oh, yes, Clifton, this must be a difficult challenge for you.” Just: “What else do you expect?”
Then there was all the standing for Orthodox worship. I shuffled from foot-to-foot. I was continuously looking at my watch. I noted that the Antiochian prayerbook made rubrical provision for sitting at certain points in the service; why didn’t this parish do that?
But perhaps the quintessential example of my trying to form Orthodoxy into my own image came in the arena of fasting. I would go to Father Patrick again and again and ask his advice with regard to strengthening the Advent or Lenten fasts. But I quickly learned that Father wasn’t going to put any restrictions on my diet except for meatless Wednesdays and Fridays. “That’s it?!” I asked myself. Ah, but I was wiser than Father Patrick and all of the Orthodox Church, I would add more rigor to these fasts. I would skip breakfast or lunch, or even plan to fast all of Holy Week, like the monks. Every time I would fail. Every time, Father Patrick would look at me gravely, knowing that though I meant well, this sort of autonomous authority was not good for my soul.
I have thoroughly enjoyed learning more about the Faith and Tradition of the Church. The more familiar I get with the Liturgy, the better are my private prayers. The more I invoke the saints’ prayers, the more frequent are the Lord’s blessings on us.
But when it comes to giving up the heresy and idolatry of the religion of Me, I’ve got a long way to go.
Father won’t allow me to practice the Apostle’s Fast–mainly for Anna and Sofie’s sake. Anna is nursing and doesn’t need to restrict her diet. Or at least that’s the spoken reason. I’m beginning to see that by refusing me this sort of participation in the Church’s askesis, Father is actually getting me to fast in the way that is really the whole point of it all: killing my old self-absorbed man, so that the new creation in Christ can be given room to grow.