Tuesday, November 4, 2014

When spiritual warfare is friendly fire

As the Church finds itself about to cross under the lintel of a new fasting period I find myself reflecting on how the disciplines of the Church are chum for spiritual warfare. I mean this, however, in a way that many wouldn't immediately suspect.

Fasting is not easy for many people. It's not supposed to be. That's one of the reasons it's so efficacious. If I were to declare not flying first class an ascetic struggle people would rightly scoff.

And yet we don't want to be alone in our struggle. We want the person standing to our left and to our right to be as uncomfortable as we are. "If I have to do this, so do you" goes the thinking. "It just wouldn't be fair if we were all standing in line and you left to get a smoothie then came back and took your place again. I've been standing here for who knows how long and you just saunter back into your spot. What if everyone just got out of line? What then?!"

We are a people that don't like shortcuts or special privileges. We snigger at the guy who says fasting "isn't for me" or the old lady who claims a senior exemption ("Come on! What about the old Russian ladies? Those women make us all look weak!") or the pregnant lady whose diet ruins it for the whole family ("Rice and beans are a complete protein. Is it really so hard to cook some pinto beans?").

At the same time we often use the language of the rules and regulations of the Church to force everyone to conform. In the same way we'd cite city code about a neighbor that doesn't mow his lawn or call the pound about a man who keeps letting his dog out to relieve itself, we want to disseminate the rules so that everyone has to be as uncomfortable as we are.

I once saw a man who had gotten off the train at Dallas Union Station slide on a slick spot of ice and fall flat on his back. It was the sort of fall where his head and feet were at the same height as he landed at a perfect horizontal on the concrete. He got up cursing and slowly made his way to the bus stop across the street. A few moments later a woman, taking the same path he had from the train stop slipped and fell in an equally inglorious fashion. The man smiled a knowing smile seemingly happy to have not been alone in his embarrassment and - it should be noted - made no effort to warn the woman of the danger.

Watch out for that first step, it’s a doozy!
From experience it seems to me that many of us are using the language and tactics of the monastic fathers who speak of giving no quarter to the devil against our fellow man. That's not what those tools are for. We aren't supposed to be vigilant against our neighbor so that we call them out outside their house with armor on, sword in hand, and a firebrand at the ready to smoke them out. "Repent and throw that Chick-Fil-A in the trash before we are forced to put the flame to your home!"

The weapons the Church has given us - almost a battlefield guide to waging war against the devil and the sins he delights in us entertaining - are not for our fellow man. When we attempt to cut off a hand, or seal up a wall with someone in it, or make Sherman's March to the Sea of all our neighbors' homes we are not winning a battle, we are sacking Constantinople. The only person who delights in our destruction is the very creature we are seeking to destroy.

"What am I supposed to do? Should I just be quiet while people disregard Orthodox teaching?" A common question that deserves an answer. If you want to take the food from someone's plate and don't have anything to replace it with, you are replacing bread with a stone (Luke 11:11). Said another way, you are not giving him a fish but neither are you equipped pastorally to give him the fishing lessons he needs. Unless the Church has appointed you to a position of authority, you should expect people to ask why you've taken on such a role and you should be mindful that those people who do listen to you are being put on a path without the tools to succeed and are destined to almost certain failure. Are you prepared to bear the responsibility - the millstone - of sending people off into the wilderness without the support they need?

Fasting is not a diet. It is a battle with the passions and those passions also bring friends. When the struggle to avoid a sandwich becomes a struggle not to lose your temper, not to give in to drinking, not to engage in sexual acts, etc. will you be there to help them in the arena? Do you have the time, training, or temperament to wield a sword and take the blows when they come? If not, I would caution you not to step into the ring. I would certainly discourage you from throwing someone else into the ring to make you feel better simply because you think that's where they should be.

"He's saying people don't have to fast!" I'm not saying that at all. I'm actually a bit of an akrivia-ist on fasting, but I am saying that the struggle is more sizable than the distance a fork has to travel between a person's plate and his mouth. If you want to be helpful by all means put recipes in the church bulletin, bring fasting-friendly foods to Sunday potluck, and most importantly pray for (and not at) those who struggle with fasting and for those people who are ignorant of the need to fast in the first place. "God loves a cheerful giver" and has no purpose for fasting when it is done by compulsion. Shoving someone towards Him is wholly dissimilar to the gait of a man who runs towards Him. When the man falls it will not be his fault, but yours.


  1. This deserves a Facebook-style "Like."

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you. For someone who did not grow up with any kind of fasting tradition, I find the entire thing extremely difficult. I try to figure out what I should eat, try to plan meals, how to manage eating out with others without "looking like' I'm fasting, and trying to figure out the menus when with others so that I have a clue what a fasting friendly meal is. Likewise at home, I try to figure out how to eat anything other than peanut butter and jelly for 6 weeks or whatever the fast is this time. (I can never recall.) I've gotten to the meat-free thing fairly okay. I've gotten somewhat okay with dairy-free, but I struggle with the oil-free thing. I often think that fasting must be somewhat easier in a home where the entire family fasts and has a tradition of fasting, where food prep is not a mysterious land filled with the unfamiliar. Add in health problems you are trying to work around and other dietary restrictions, and lets just say it is daunting to the novice. This is grace-filled, and I love the last idea, that this is not to be done out of compulsion, but is a thing to be cheerfully given. I will be thinking about that through the upcoming fast.