I knew that fasting was a part of my learning process in Orthodoxy when I first became an inquirer. Going vegan twice a week didn’t frighten me one bit. I did the Apostle’s and Dormition Fast with some difficulty in the first few days. But, by the sixth day, it was a bit of a cakewalk. As for the Nativity, it was kinda rough avoiding Christmas parties and the day after Thanksgiving turkey and ham sandwiches. I have had my occasional slips and made a couple of loopholes for myself at times. But, for a rookie, this Orthodox fasting thing really hasn’t been as bad as I thought it would be.
Fr. James Purdie, Priest of St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church. My guide in this journey. (C) John Gresham
Great Lent, however, is more intimidating both in diet and spiritual expectation. Clean Monday arrives about the same time the shad start running in the Mattaponi and Pamunkey Rivers. I am not allowed to eat any fish with bones in it and there is no fish with more bones in it than shad. Ah well, at least I can salt a few down for the winter. But, my old man will be smoking his from day one. Kicking red meat for 40 days this time of year will also be more difficult since it is the beginning of backyard barbecuing season. Granted, oysters will still be in season and crabbers will start pulling pots again. But, shellfish will not be cheap with this economy. I had better learn to love tofu.
What really scares me about Great Lent is the significance of it all. The Forgiveness Vespers where everyone, including the priest, ask each other to be forgiven for what they have done wrong to the other? First of all, about the worst thing I can think of that I did wrong to anyone at St. Basil is that I forgot their names. And then they also asking my forgiveness? Who am I that any of these kind people should want such a blessing from me when they have always welcomed me with open arms. And Fr. James to ask me for forgiveness? We aren’t even in the same denomination. Who am I to participate in such a practice? It is at this point that I probably could and should go back to my comfortable corner of Christianity.
I can’t help but to see the beauty and power in such a pre-fast preparation. When we face each other and ask for forgiveness, we will be facing the ultimate icons. The ones God made in his image and likeness. Even for those who have not directly said, done, or thought harm to one another; all are admitting their human problem of sin and seek forgiveness from Christ and each other. I am scared because I know of my own sinfulness. I am intimidated also because I am unworthy to have someone who I just met ask me to forgive them.
Yet, I believe I need to go forward with preparing for and observing Great Lent. I can’t help but to think that there is something very special at the end of this journey at Pascha. Not bragging rights. No, boasting is not the goal here. One of the saints said that if you fast only to boast of your own righteousness, you may as well eat meat. This journey will probably not mean that I will leave my role as Pastor of Trinity Baptist Church. There is a bit more work I need to do in my community and I have a mortgage to pay. Besides, I have not yet been on this Orthodox journey for a full year. Many converts don’t take the plunge until two or three years. Fr. James has told me that the church will be here when I am ready.
Yet and still, there is bound to be something special at the end of this journey of Great Lent. Just like pledging my fraternity and doing my first overnight backpack trip alone on the Appalachian Trail go through this process, I will only kick myself for not having the nerve to do it. Any time a spiritual journey brings us to a point of absolute humility with Forgiveness Vespers, the end must be an incredible celebration of the soul.
I imagine this will not be easy. Easter Sunday, my father will have baby back ribs coming out of the smoker fully infused with apple wood or hickory. Tofu will not be able to compare to that. Knowing that I will have no excuse for not, at least, calling someone who is ill and homebound other than my wife will be a challenge as well. I admit, my pastoral care could be better. Although my prayer life has grown by leaps and bounds since joining the St. Philip’s Prayer Discipline, it isn’t as tight as it could be. I will have to read and study when I want to waste time with mahjong and You Tube. Nope, this isn’t like my good old, “do it yourself” fast when I could just give up caviar, champagne, filet minion, and lobster.
But, I remember the way I felt when my Dean of Pledges declared, “You Are Now Brothers” and was presented with the letters “Alpha Phi Alpha.” I remember the way I felt when I reached the intersection of the Old Hotel Trail and the AT at the Hog Camp Gap parking lot where I resolved to go through with a journey that I could have easily chickened out of (especially seeing the bear on the side of the road). In both cases, it wasn’t just a feeling. I had a unique change of perspective. The change I am about to go through will be more profound.