Fasting and Communion with God

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.

Orthodoxy, Boredom and the Demon of the Noonday

The secret sauce to the Orthodox way of life is that it is frequently so boring and often very tedious.  The Sunday Liturgies are the same year after year.  The Sunday Gospels are the same, season after season.  We confess the same sins over and over again.  There are only so many ways you can dress up lentils and beans fast after fast.  Morning prayers.  Mealtime prayers.  Evening prayers.  How many “begats” can Scripture have?  It’s all so very, very tedious and uninteresting.  This is a good thing.  It is a very good thing.

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Proper Names

The ancient Greeks distinguished human beings from the rest of the cosmos as having the capacity for articulation, having the capacity of language. But not merely the capacity for communication, because, broadly speaking, even some non-human animal species have some limited means of communication.

But human beings are able to communicate their own inner states and experiences such that other humans beings can both understand and can similarly articulate the same experiences. But finally, human beings do something else: they give names to the cosmos and that which moves and breathes, and even to give names to things that do not, strictly speaking, exist.

This is why, in our present society, so much power is given to naming. And when the civic agreement on which a society is bound together becomes tattered and frayed, the power of naming becomes distorted. While it purports to represent reality, in actual fact, it doesn’t matter whether the name has any basis in reality or fact. Where there is rumor and innuendo in a society in which shame is the cultural coin, all that matters is whether a name may take hold merely by repetition and tribal cohesion around such naming. If my tribe says that a member of our enemy tribe is evil, that coin is both valuable and powerful. If I wish to make exchange within the parameters of my tribe, I am bound to agree with, indeed, to believe in the naming. Even if I merely question the name, I risk the loss of my cultural purchasing ability, and perhaps exile.

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A Summary of the Book of Job

Let us be clear of one thing: suffering is evil, particularly the suffering of the innocent. No appeal to the instrumentality of suffering–it leads to this or that good–justifies it. I speak here not in philosophical terms, but from the standpoint of those who suffer.
But if suffering cannot be justified, neither is God to blame. This, too, is a falsehood, a series of false dichotomies. A good and loving and all-powerful God is neither to blame for the suffering, nor blame-worthy for not delivering each and every victim from every stab and pain of suffering. I speak here not from a framework of theodicy, but from the standpoint of those who experience God in suffering.
For this is the great and awful mystery of suffering, the deliverance in suffering is not always deliverance from the pain of suffering, but rather the deliverance to faith in the midst of suffering, the transfer of the soul to God.
I do not say this lightly. There are those who experience unrelenting, lifelong physical pain. There are those who experience unrelenting, lifelong mental and emotional pain. And it is quite clear how such pain can warp and embitter the soul. And no philosophical justification, no doctrinal theodicy, can straighten or sweeten such souls.
But the deliverance that can come in such suffering is the divine presence. This presence does not eliminate pain of body, heart or mind. It does something different. It enables the soul, that inward heart, that center of one’s being, to enlarge, to take in a certain divine darkness, which is dark only because it is absolute light, which goes beyond all sight, all reason, and speaks wordlessly, communicates a kind of infallible ignorance, which is sweeter than any bitterness, which straightens all things bent, and fills beyond all capacity.
These things cannot be expressed adequately, and most terrible of all, for us sinful ones, it is only seen from afar, with a kind of hopeful trust that in an unknown time, in a manner unlooked for, this deliverance into the divine embrace will come. It is hope for this deliverance which keeps the suffering soul circling around the cruciform axis. Where else could such a soul go? For here alone is the Bread of Life, the Medicine of Immortality.

The Myth of Self-Discovery

Our culture focuses on self-discovery.  From our youngest years we are inculcated in the pursuit of “finding out who we are.”  In a psychological sense, we do, indeed, need a strong and healthy sense of Self, of a sense of being that is separate from and unique as compared to others.  Failure to develop a healthy sense of self can lead to all sorts of personality disorders, including narcissism and codependency.

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The Myth of Progressivism

Modern citizens of Western democracies, children of the Enlightenment, profess to be devotees of the scientific method of observation, hypothesis, empirical and repeated processes to test hypotheses, followed by more observation, and leading, so it is affirmed, to a logical conclusion.  And yet, conversely, these same devotees of the scientific method insist on one empirically falsifiable notion: that with enough knowledge, technological know-how, and the scientific method, human nature is perfectable.  Coupled with this belief in the perfectibility of human nature, is its obverse twin: all of human history and society are progressing to ever-more enlightenment and perfectibility.  Thankfully, the ancient Greeks, and with them, all of Christian tradition, did and do not hold to such empirically false dogmas.

The evidence that human nature is both imperfect and wholly imperfectible is all around us.  Murders.  Theft.  Adultery.  Greed.  Let’s simply run through the list of seven deadly vices, or log on to social media.  Better yet: read a Twitter feed.

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An Incomplete Life

One day, I will die.  My life here will come to an end.  I say that not to be morbid, but to state the obvious.  Whatever I am doing in that final moment, wherever I am, when I die, I will leave my life in media res.  The relationships I have cultivated will still be in motion.  The consequences of the words and deeds I have said and done will still trail out behind me.  All the work of my life, all the love I have given, will finally end incomplete.  If I have any material goods to leave to my estate, they will dwindle away, parceled out here and there.  My legacy, whatever it may be, will pass out of my hands.  All that I have, all that I am, will end with much still left to do.

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To Speak of the Sacred

It has been understood for millennia that what makes humans unique above all creatures is our power of speech, that is to say, our ability to communicate.  We certainly have the capacity for the most rudimentary forms of communication: “food,” “water,” “hungry,” “danger.”  But we also have a unique capacity to speak of immaterial realities: “love,” “spirit,” “god,” “heaven.”  In the preceding and most recent centuries, some have taken great pains to explain how alike we are to certain animal species.  But one glorious and irrefutable example suffices to emphasize our uniqueness: we can communicate about things we cannot see, and about those things that are not strictly necessary for material survival.  Monastics who never procreate can speak of the sublimities of divine love.  Yeoman farmers who will never study Kant or Descartes may nonetheless speak of existential angst; which speech does nothing to plant or harvest the crops.

Indeed, it is particularly the most obvious inutility of certain aspects of human speech that make us most unique and make us most human.  But perhaps such inutility is only obvious from a certain perspective.  For the power of articulation is precisely the ability to grasp the abstract realities from concrete particulars.  The observations of dozens of planting seasons yields the deduction of planetary motion.  That is to say, the uniquely human power of speech is the necessary comprehension of the realities underlying the perceived world.

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The Place of Reason and Science

If you’re looking to build a house, a hammer is an indispensable tool.  But it is not the only tool you’ll need.  To build a house, you’ll need a large array of tools and materials.  To insist that a hammer, and only a hammer, is the sort of tool you need to build a house is, at best, impractical.  It may also be delusional.

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Sorrow and the Poetry of Healing

Ours is a world of stilted prosody, flat and banal, the flourish of ad copy, the etymology of the focus group.  It is speech calculated to intended effect, never deeper than the sheen, no wiser than the fortune cookie paper slip.  It’s a monotone babble, furiously expounding the nothingness that fills that wasteland of spinning static, born of an ersatz orchestra of twittering chatter.

But we are made for much more.

In a mystery, we come to this at times when we are hollowed out by pain and loss, the trauma that raises that terrible tonicity, the deepening of the heart in lament.  Our mundane routine shifts, that sudden departure from the expected, the wrench that shreds us from within.  Suddenly what was, is gone, its fading imprint turning us inside out.  And the identity which shaped us is shattered at the leaving.  We are torn, the grasp on ourselves loosened.  We turn, looking for the poles.

We cannot speak of it.  The quotidian vocabulary no longer satisfies.  We are dumb, mute before the monstrosity which our world has become.

In that confrontation, sorrow stretches the soul into poetry.  We are given the unexpected meter and rhyme of tears and heartache.  New words are shaped, and we name again the things around us.  Including ourselves.

Trauma and loss are a sort of soul amnesia, the forgetting of the self that once was.  The stanzas which are written by tears, however, call out from the shadows the one we have been and are becoming.

It is through sorrow’s lament, that keening of the soul, that the self remembers whence it came, remembers and burns in that ache and that agony of loss.

In that piecing together of the self from the broken shards amid the ashes, there is a poetry that shakes and shapes, at once terrifying and comforting.  There I am, but who am I now?

We come to ourselves again, in these bits and pieces, glued together by compassionate embrace, the loving exhalation, inarticulate and fecund of meaning.  The breath trembles with the vibration of new harmony, the melody of a minor key, a refrain different but the same.

We are no longer, yet still we are.  New and fantastic, unknown to ourselves, yet known from the foundation of the world.  Poetry creatures in a prosaic world, we are misshapen and misnamed, but still anchored in the love which was ours, given and received, while being born in this strange new moment.

But ever the ache.  Hearts broken and not fully to be mended in this life.  Stuck in between until that reunion of lovers and loved.  Now singing, ever singing, in minor key, but lovely and beautiful.