Wednesday, March 15, 2006

A note about fasting and frugality

I've been asked a number of times about the Orthodox Church and fasting. The Orthodox Church provides a number of "tools" to assist us humans who live in a fallen and broken world, draw nearer to God, and fasting is one of these tools. The Church considers it so important and useful a tool, that every Wednesday and Friday are fast days, and there are four major fast periods each year (Great Lent to prepare for Pascha, the Apostles Fast leading up to the the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, the Theotokos Fast during the first two weeks of August which lead up to the Dormition of the Theotokos - the Assumption for you western Christians, and St. Philip's Fast which is aka Advent. A fast period is a time of renewal, recommittment and preparation, during which we are to eat less, pray more, perform more works of mercy and charity, and to generally free ourselves from the cares of the world so that we can draw closer to God.

The basic tenets of fasting Orthodox-style are absention from meat, poultry, fish, dairy and eggs. A stricter fast might also prohibit olive oil and wine except on certain days, or eating only one meal after sundown. If you know 10 Orthodox people, then you also know 10 different ways of fasting because there are no hard and fast rules regarding this particular ascesis. I think of fasting as medicine for the cure of the soul, medicine that is prescribed for an individual, taking into account all aspects of that individual's life. So, fasting is never undertaken without some guidance from a spiritual father. For example, when I first became Orthodox, I was full of zeal and wanted to immediately fast extremely strictly, but Fr. John, a wise man, told me to cut out meat only and to pray more, especially for those people I found irritating. I thought that wasn't strict enough, but as the weeks progressed and I fell again and again, I saw the wisdom in his words.

Another aspect of fasting is that it should be a means of simplifying your life so that you have more time to practice more spiritual pursuits. If we're spending all day thinking about what to cook for dinner, or turning out multicourse feasts to take the place of meat on our plates, then we've missed the point. This is of particular importance to me, because I'm a foodie. I'm Italian, and I love food. I love everything about it - I love to think about it, shop for it, prepare it, eat it, watch others eat it, watch food tv, read cookbooks. Food is love to me, and I feed those I love. Those who have eaten at my table know that "abbondanza" or abundance doesn't even begin to describe it! Grin... I love exotic cuisines and ingredients, and spend a lot of time seeking them out.

But during fast periods, I try to be more frugal. I try to eat simply - a main dish and a veggie, or maybe two veggies. I try to eat what I have in my pantry rather than shopping all the time. I try to never throw any food away - I try to use it all up and not waste. My Italian grandmother, who lived through extreme poverty with 15 mouths to feed during the Depression, explained to me as a child that frugality was buying the best quality that you can afford, and then using every bit of it, wasting nothing. My mother told me her favorite memory of her grandfather; how he brought one perfect orange to the house in the depths of a Depression winter, carefully peeled and sectioned it, thanked God for it, and then shared it among his six little grandchildren. My mother sat on his lap eating her slice, and said it was the best orange she ever ate, her whole life long. She said it tasted like sunshine. Then, he took the peelings to the stove and candied them, and it was those very candied peelings that went into the pizza dolce that Easter. The best quality that he could afford, thanks to God, share with everyone, and waste nothing.

So, I save the ends of onions and carrots and other vegetable peelings in the freezer. When the bag is full, I dump it in a pan and cover it with water and wine or lemon juice with some herbs, and after simmering for an hour or two, or all day in the crock pot, I have a couple of quarts of rich vegetable broth, ready for freezing. I transform leftovers into scrambles, burritos, soups, sandwiches, stir-fries or pates. I save the ends of bread and make my own breadcrumbs. I have a brown thumb, so I don't have a vegetable garden, but maybe this year my dd will grow us some tomatoes.

My household used to consist of four people, but now there are only two. So, I continue to cook for four people, but freeze the other two portions for a quick and easy meal on a night when I'm rushed and don't have time to cook. This cuts down on fast food meals and Healthy Choice entrees, and saves me a TON of money.

So there are my thoughts about fasting and frugality. Your mileage may vary.


Mimi said...

Very good thoughts, thank you!

Carol said...

I think this is one of the best written explanation of the Orthodox fast from a lay person. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

This is very thoughtful and well-written. Thank you! I will definitely spend more time on your blog.


H and S said...

Thank you! Very, very useful. Especially about the ends of carrots!