During the weeks before the Great Fast, it happens. The questions from friends and family begin.
"You fast from WHAT?" "What exactly do you eat?" "Do the kids fast too?" "Isn't that awfully hard"?
I'm a cradle (Ruthenian) Byzantine Catholic, homeschooling mother of five. I understand what "busy" means, and therefore, I appreciate the value of a good routine. Changing up the family's dietary habits was a very difficult penance, but now that the change has become the habit, it has become an exercise so very worth the effort. Let me tell you how I began.
When I was growing up my family kept only the most basic fasting rules and as I got older, about 16, I felt called to take it a bit further. I began fasting more strictly then, daily instead of just on Wednesdays and Fridays like the rest of my family. I also opted to ditch the dairy for the full forty days, not just sporadically or when it wasn’t too inconvenient. I grew in this practice during those years as a young adult, when I lived on my own and cooked only to please myself. After I got married, my husband and children joined me abstaining from meat, eggs, and dairy as a family during the Fast for many years. I had grown quite comfortable in my fasting routine. I had collected quite an array of tips and recipes and thought I had definitely come to the finish line regarding my ability to keep the fasts. Then the Lord taught me a lesson in humility. You see, we fasted, but we didn’t connect our willingness to eat something simple and to refrain from eating animal products with any spiritual growth or benefit of any kind. I remember asking the Lord in prayer to help me to better understand the merits involved in observing a fast like this. I knew that many cultures had promoted fasting as a way to spiritual enlightenment, not only the Christian culture, but it all seemed so inconsequential. How could my small sacrifice, which wasn’t too bad a sacrifice at all since I really did quite like all the grains and vegetables, possibly please God in any way, or help anyone? I knew the Church required it, and the ascetics all preached of its merits, but why?
My husband had suffered two heart attacks in the tenth year of our marriage, when all the children were still quite small. As he recovered, I began doing some research, frantically looking for a better, more heart-healthy diet for my family so that I would never, ever have to sit in that wretched little waiting room ever, ever, EVER again. I became very familiar with doctors like T. Colin Campbell, Caldwell Esselstyn, Dean Ornish and John McDougall. I read books and watched documentaries about reversing heart disease like the China Study, Food Matters, Forks Over Knives, and Hungry for Change. At that time, I decided to turn into a full-time vegetarian in order to give my husband a very good excuse to eat more plant products than animal ones. His cholesterol definitely had to be kept in check, and I knew he would have great difficulty in staying away from meat on his own. It was much easier for me, so I would be the example for him and the children and I could be used as a convenient excuse as to why he was eating lots of beans and greens instead of cheese and steak. We lived this way for 13 years, eating what we thought was a heart-healthy diet, when a routine stress test taught us otherwise. It seems that all seven of his stents were now found to have been filled with plaque. Bypass surgery was offered, but there was an alternative. Our cardiologist advised us of a new dietary protocol which had proven to not only halt, but even reverse heart disease as severe as my husband’s. We needed to try this. To our great surprise, it consisted of exactly the requirements of a strict Byzantine fast! They call it a plant-based, whole-food, no oil diet. No meat, dairy, eggs, fish (even shellfish), no fats or oils of any kind, and for those battling heart disease, no avocado, nuts, coconut, or soy; and all grains must be whole and unprocessed. In short, it seemed to be none other than the diet of Adam and Eve. God told the first human beings on earth that He had given them “every green plant for food”, and this was the concise content of our new diet.
Because of my own curiosity, and to satisfy the questions of concerned family and friends, I plotted our food intake on a computer ap for months, just to be sure we were getting the nutrition that we needed. Our calorie intake turned out to be about 75% carbohydrate, 12.5% fat, and 12.5% protein, on average. It was definitely different than the standard American diet, but definitely life-sustaining. The only supplements we were advised to take were Vitamins d3 and b12, all else would be adequately supplied by the food itself. This would be healthy enough to live on for the rest of our lives, but it would be so very difficult for my husband. He dreaded eating this way during fasts and clearly maintained that it was indeed penance. He had no choice but to try this, but for this particular man who not only enjoyed eating but artfully preparing meats and other culinary delicacies, life as an essential oil-free vegan would be almost unthinkable.
So we went home that day very anxious, to say the least. I thanked God that I had been given the inspiration to have developed at least some skill in preparing fasting dishes over these past few years and called upon Him to help me to really make them shine now. My husband needed something delicious to eat to keep him on track, and at the same time, it HAD to adhere to the guidelines so we could keep him here on Earth with us! I prayed harder those days than I had ever prayed before. I kept track of recipes, read every blog post and article, watched every video on the subject that I could for inspiration, and I documented everything, so changes could be made and recipes perfected. Our five children, all very young adults and teens at the time, decided to eat this way as well, as long as they were in the house. This was so very good of them, and made things so much easier for both their father and me. Yes, they were young and healthy, but if this was a genetic disease, and we had every reason to believe it was, there was a distinct possibility that our children would need that skill set someday. By our example in the home, I would teach these children of mine to cook and eat in a way that just might save them some literal heartache in the future.
So I began to cook some Lenten meals from my repertoire that my family actually liked, and it was fine for about a week. Little did I realize how difficult it would be to cook for a group of people who were going through meat and dairy withdrawals! Nobody was happy at mealtimes anymore. We ate in silence. Somebody was always “not hungry” and had somewhere they just had to go after dinner, which just happened to include a drive-through. My husband lost all interest in cooking or eating anything, which was very unusual for him, and he just glumly ate whatever was put in front of him without comment. I could see he was trying so very hard. Detoxification is a very real thing, my friends. There were some very severe mood issues too, as we adjusted to our new way of life, making it even more difficult to cope and I really needed some inspiration to continue. “Oh, Lord, help me!” was my constant prayer as I tried to press forward and keep this perpetual fast well for the sake of my husband. The thought of losing him to this disease haunted me constantly, yet there were days when I was so tempted to just give in and hand the poor man a hamburger, keeping him happy instead of keeping him healthy. Specific thoughts came to me often that I could not overlook, reminding me that my efforts were so unappreciated. Nobody understood how hard I tried to present this nourishment to them in an appealing way. If they would only let go of their old ways and see that this was so much better, they would thank me instead of rolling their eyes at me! In fact, MY cholesterol was just fine, thank you very much, yet I gave up my favorite foods too. Why was I putting myself through all this anyway? I was doing this to save my husband’s life, for heaven’s sake!...then I understood.
It was then that Christ condescended to look down at me from His cross with the most loving but saddest eyes I had ever imagined. They pierced my soul as I understood that all I was going through for my husband paled as I contemplated what the Lord had gone through for me. It was but a poor comparison, I know, yet it was so very helpful to me!
I realized that although He had no sin, He endured immense suffering death for me. Did I sufficiently appreciate that?
He didn’t need baptism, or a 40 day fast in the desert, but I did, so He gave me His blessed example so that I could have the skill set I would need to help me through this life.
He didn’t need anything at all, yet He endured every kind of unpleasantness in order to ensure life for those He loved!
I began to wonder what thoughts Our Lord had harbored in His own heart at that time. If only that rich young man had realized what was in store for him and had just given away all that wealth that had weighed his spirit down and had chosen to follow Him. If only Judas had noticed the look on His Holy Face as he was offered the cup in the upper room and had changed his mind; if he had only chosen to defend Him. If only the three disciples had provided the comfort, support, and camaraderie he had longed for in Gethsemane! My goodness, Peter walked away and had denied that He even knew him! It was so clear; I had no right to complain. I had asked to become like Him, hadn’t I?
Learning how to grow in the observance of the fast is not at all a mere exercise. It’s a journey which we must make step-by-baby step. We must grow in the observance each time we practice it and learn to offer it well because it really is all about theosis; we are all called to become as much like Christ as we possibly can. This does not happen overnight, or even in the course of a few years, but must be learned over a lifetime. I am so grateful for having been inspired to even attempt this fast when I was younger, despite the poor execution of it at the time. I am grateful that I was led to learn more and more about it each year, and that I was led into the company of those more experienced than I to learn and then, step by step, apply what they taught me. I am grateful to have been challenged to keep growing in this practice, even if I didn’t understand its full merits. This is what I have come to understand from having endured this perpetual fast. It isn’t about a diet, or bodily health, or penance, or community, or any of the other things I had imagined that fasting was all about. All these things are noble byproducts, because as scripture tells us, once you set your mind and heart on the Lord, all other good things come to you besides. Without even knowing what I was doing, the Lord provided a way for me to learn how to give as He did, without need, or even gratitude for the gift. From now on, instead of looking as my circumstances begrudgingly, I will try to concentrate on enduring this small bit of suffering as silently and willingly as Our Lord had endured all of His immense suffering, now knowing more about the fullness of its merit by the example Christ had set for me. I found that I have suddenly grown to understand Him so much better as He did exactly as He had promised; He turned my suffering into joy.
I'm looking forward to sharing my ideas and my recipes here with all of you.