Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

Why do we “diet” during Lent?

Posted in Interviews by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 3 March 2010

What exactly are we trying to accomplish during Great Lent? Is it simply to attend services and change our diet? Or are these a means to an end?

Of course, this question is as generic as it is important.  In recent weeks, there has been a wave of opinions in Russian-language internet publications (including Pravoslavie i mir) claiming that Great Lent should not be about food, that there is a higher purpose, that if you want to have oil, or fish, or milk–go right ahead, so long as you fulfil the spiritual obligations of Lent or at least do not quarrel with your neighbor…  Unfortunately, these articles are often read by people who do not fast anyway, and now have a reason not to even try to fast.  Fortunately, these “theologumena,” even when coming from respected Moscovite priests, are not likely to affect those people who are really trying to fast and have experienced the profound spiritual benefits of fasting.

We cannot but agree with the statement that Great Lent is not about dieting.  Indeed, the Church usually tells us what something is about right within its services.  During the Lenten period, we have the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, that of the Prodigal Son, the Forgiveness Sunday, the Sunday of Orthodoxy and one of St. Gregory Palamas, the Veneration of the Cross, the Sunday of St. John of the Ladder and of St. Mary of Egypt, Palm Sunday–nowhere do we see a Raw-Vegetable Sunday or a Pickles-and-Bread Sunday.  Dieting is certainly (at least, according to the Orthodox Church) not the point of Great Lent.

This, however, does not mean that the “dietary” part of Great Lent is not important.  If we think of the dietary part as a tool–a hammer, for example–then we can clearly say that the point of building something is not so one can have a chance to use his hammer.  The point of building is in a temple or a house or a shed, and in their final use.  In the same way, dietary restrictions are merely a tool, a “hammer,” but not the building.  But try pounding nails in with your bare hands!  Sure, some (very few) people can do this at a carnival, but most of us really need the hammer.  In the same way, I am certain that some people can build the temple of the Holy Spirit in their soul without any “dieting,” but most of us can really use this very effective tool…  And the Fathers seem to agree.

I prefer to think of fasting as an exercise.  Before winning a gold medal at the Olympics, an athlete does a lot of warm-ups, workouts, and–yes–proper eating–none of which is the goal in and of itself: it’s the medal that the athlete wants.  But without all of this training, he or she cannot hope to win anything at all!  Sure, it is the heavenly crowns that we all want, but if we are but slaves to our bellies, if we cannot even make the first step and instead desperately keep looking for excuses to please our gut–oil in glass bottles is somehow “lenten,” and lobster tails are “lenten,” and who-knows-what-else is also “lenten”–can we truly hope to win anything other than a seat on a couch in front of the television set, watching others get the crowns as we munch on our chips and pop-corn?!  Nothing in this comment is meant to diminish the role of reason, pastoral guidance, and plain common sense.  But if you want that gold, you just have to get on those skis or skates and push youself…

Orthodoxy and the World


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