Friday, February 17, 2012

7 QuickTakes on Fasting, Prayer and Almsgiving for Lent

For those of us on the 'new' calendar, the Great Fast/ Lent is coming really soon- Monday, February  20th for most Byzantine Catholics and Orthodox in the United States and Wednesday, February 22nd for all Roman-rite Catholics. Here are a few random thoughts...
1- "But thou, when thou fastest anoint thy head, and wash thy face." Douay-Rheims (Mt 6:17) Byzantine Catholics and Orthodox take this literally by not starting the fast with ashes on our forehead. We start with 'forgiveness vespers.' I'm not here to tell Roman-rite Catholics and other Christians to change their tradition. It was one of my favorite sacramentals of the year when I was Episcopalian and Roman-rite. Symbolically, this verse means that fasting should be 'done on the sly' and not for the admiration of others. 

2- Ash Wednesday can be an amazing way to begin this important season. "Remember man, you are dust and to dust you shall return." Whoa, repent and sin no more, everybody! It will be my husband's busiest day of the year, distributing ashes at his hospital and helping local priests distribute at their parishes. More people will 'get their ashes' than will attend church services at Christmas or Easter. Many 'get their ashes' and then go visit their grandmother to assure her that heaven is assured if their death comes this year. This is where non-liturgical Christians guffaw and say that we also should 'love Jesus and hate religion' because of the superstitious nature of so many believers. Anyway, if you see a friend with ashes, invite to Sunday Mass. Maybe they need a friend to be a mentor.

3- the next verse continues: "That thou appear not to men to fast, but to thy Father who is in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret, will repay thee." This is where we all need work. It can be hard to fast and not be a little grumpy, but if we can fast with a smile on our faces, we are also taking control of our pride. If someone asks us how you are observing this season, feel free to share. Otherwise, no one should be aware that there are changes for you during Lent.

4- If we are fasting in secret, this means one needs to accept hospitality that we might not otherwise want. We are going meatless for the season and vegan on Wednesdays and Fridays. If we are guests in a home, I am not going to refuse what someone serves me. If they ask if we have dietary restrictions (there are thankfully no allergies in the family), I will mention that 'we are trying not to eat meat...' In this way, I am not making it overly complicated with insisting on a vegan meal and also keeping the door open to accepting whatever they serve. This season is about repentance, cooling of the passions and humility- announcing how we are fasting could lead to pride which defeats the purpose.

5- So if fasting should develop virtue- a person who feels called to a 'monastic-style' fast (perhaps very small amounts of only vegan food for the entire season) may need to forgo this if it would cause strife in the family. In a mixed marriage (perhaps Orthodox/Roman-rite Catholic or Protestant/Byzantine-rite Catholic) one spouse might be more inclined to have a strict fast and insist that the other spouse and the children need to adhere to how they interpret the fasting season. I suggest that the 'strict' spouse speak to a solid spiritual father. I wouldn't be surprised if the spiritual father encourages the spouse to a more balanced fast, asking the 'liberal' spouse to simply fast from meat on Fridays as a compromise and then adhere to a stricter style when away from the home. 

6- "All things are lawful to me, but all things are not expedient. All things are lawful to me, but I will not be brought under the power of any." (1 Cor 6:6) "Wherefore, if meat scandalize my brother, I will never eat flesh, lest I should scandalize my brother" (1 Cor 8:13). So fasting from meat and other things doesn't mean that they are evil; this is just one way to 'refresh' the soul (with increased prayer and almsgiving/service being the other two sides of the triangle)at this important time. The Great Fast is the "tithe of the year"- and we owe this time to God to remind ourselves that the entire year is His. 
Another interpretation of these verses might also be- fast from meat in front of people in order not to scandalize them- do what is best for you (eat meat/animal products) when you are alone. To a certain point, there is some truth to this. If one needs to eat meat for medical reasons, there is still no reason to order a big steak when the rest of the group is fasting from meat. Even a pregnant woman can wait to indulge in non-fasting food so that the fast isn't so difficult for the rest of the people. But the fast becomes a lie when one does an 'Orthodox' fast in public and then eats non-fasting food in private. It would be best to be honest and just eat that hamburger. 

7- Why is this fast such a big deal? There are many people who eat vegan-only all year long for only health or the environment. We have Jesus and His passion as inspiration for this fast. So I am trying to make this fast easier than past years. I started with cleaning out the refrigerator and buying plenty of fast-appropriate ingredients. I stay away from soy (the health benefits/risks just aren't clear) except for tofu about once a week, so we use almond and rice milk when needed. And I am making a meal plan (I'll post it up at the 'fasting' tab) that I will repeat every week for the fast period. We might get bored with repetition, but that is part of the point. And because the other two sides of Lent are almsgiving/service and prayer, we are stepping up our Crafters for Life/40 Days for Life activities and family prayer life. I'm looking forward to this "tithe of the year"- I need it!

more quick takes at


  1. One day I will share the story about how me wearing my ashes to work prompted all of the ex Catholics out of the closet and into theological discussions with me. It was not the reason I wore my ashes to work, but it sure made me aware that God will use us when we don't expect it.

  2. Do you have any suggestions on how to start a more rigorous 'Orthodox' style fast if one hasn't ever done it before? I'm Roman Rite, but I feel like I ought to do more of an 'Orthodox' style fast this year, but I don't have any experience (or recipes). Any tips?

  3. Thank you for these thoughts. I am in a mixed marriage (my husband is a non-practicing Baptist and I am a convert to Roman Catholicism of 4 years). I let my spouse help me determine my fasting, which helps him respect it more. He has a feeling of derision for the Church, which has made things complicated at times, but by being flexible and communicating, and on my part understanding what the fasts and feasts are really for, we have kept the peace.

  4. There is the possibility that leaving the ashes on one's forehead is motivated by something other than pride in one's self. Thanks for your good article on fasting during lent.

  5. I don't think I was understood about the ashes in the Roman-rite- I think the tradition is beautiful- and when I was Roman-rite I would not wipe them off. For me, it was both a cool sign of brotherhood with fellow believers and a sign of humility because I would get a little worried about what my boss would think (I got over it)

    As a 'new' Byzantine Catholic of 14 years, I am trying to learn the traditions of my rite- so Lent begins on Monday for me now

  6. Rachel- it seems like you have found a good balance- about peace in marriage- try to find St Vladimir Seminary Press' On Marriage and family Life (sermons of St John Chyrsostom)amazing stuff!

  7. Elizabeth- about a more 'Orthodox' or Eastern Lent- you might think of going meatless (or vegan) every Wednesday and Friday- I think twice a week helps with remembering that we are in a season of penance.

    Try to increase what you do normally with the three sides of the triangle of the Christian life- fasting, almsgiving (service work/charity) and prayer. Your service could be driving an older person to church or bringing a meal for a new mother. many people give up coffee shop coffee and then donate it to their favorite charity ('Smile Train' is a great one) Increasing prayer might be to pop into a church during the week for personal prayer.

    Click on the labels 'fasting' or 'Lent' to the right and there might be more info

  8. Priest's Wife,

    Why do we start on Monday. How is the beginning of Great Lent calculated?

  9. Sean D- I believe it is because the Annunciation and Palm Sunday are 'islands' in the fast and are not fasting days -so we need to begin 2 days earlier

  10. #5--when we were first married and I was still a little standoffish to ByzCath, we went meatless only on Fridays. Now we do it both days.

    BUT, I asked C just last night (after returning from my parents' house where we celebrated my brother's birthday with meat loaf, ha!) "Do you really feel like you're giving it up for Jesus when you don't eat meat? Because I'll be honest with you, that type of sacrifice isn't really a big one for me and I'm not thinking of Jesus." He felt similarly. To us, especially, there are so many foods to have instead of meat (and dairy for today), that it's not like we're really starving over here. Like I wrote the other day, I don't think the church fathers imagined Gardenburgers when they initiated going meatless. ;-)

  11. Priest's Wife,
    In the traditional Roman calendar, the beginning of Lent is Ash Wednesday because we do not fast on Sundays and six weeks of six days would leave us with only thirty-six days for penance between the First Sunday of Lent and Easter. If you fast on all Sundays but Palm Sunday and take Annunciation off, doesn't that leave you with 47 days in Lent?

  12. Thanks for explaining the differences between the Byz/Roman Catholic Lent practices, as well as for mentioning mixed marriages. Your recommendation of balance is key, as well as working together to determine what is right for your individual family.

    I like the idea of the "forgiveness vespers". Can Roman Rite Catholics attend and participate? Maybe that's something that we'll try for next year. I am trying to expose Ryan and myself to the different rites of Catholicism. Maybe Roman isn't for him, but Byzantine will be?

  13. Alice- Sunday shouldn't be part of the fast for us either...I need to get an official answer on this question

    1. In the Byzantine tradition Sundays do count as fast days.......but the fast is relaxed to allow wine and olive oil (meat, fish and dairy still NOT allowed). In the Byzantine reconing Lent ends on the Friday evening before Palm Sunday. Lazarus Saturday, Palm Sunday and Holy Week constittute a whole different fasting period. We still fast on Annunciation and Palm Sunday but fish is also permitted.

    2. Just seconding anonymous. Sundays are included, Holy Week is not. The East divides Lent differently so there are still just forty days. Here's a link, try the fourth paragraph titled, "Great Lent"

      We have learned so much from the fasting cycle- observing when it is strict and how it relaxes... even if we do observe a "modified fast." I loved last year when you posted the Hymns of St. Ephrem. "The Fast Purifies the Eye of the Soul to See God" This quote saved my (modified) lent last year- remembering the purpose of the fast gives perspective and joy.

  14. Priest's wife, thanks very much for the advice! I already have meatless Fridays (here in the UK the bishops have reinstated this as mandatory for all Catholics) so I was thinking of trying to go meatless Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I think the biggest hurdle is learning some nice vegetarian dishes to cook - I need to get my hands on a Byz Cath cookbook! Anyways, thanks for the tips!

  15. I LOVE the idea of beginning Lent with forgiveness. I don't know why the church dropped that - at least in the Anglican church it used to be called Shrove Tuesday. Seems like such a good idea.

  16. @Kayla--yes, you could attend and participate in forgiveness vespers. You'd totally be welcomed at a ByzCath parish! We don't get a lot of visitors (speaking for ALL Byzantine parishes), so prepare to be greeted by many :)


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