This post in the series should wrap up the meandering thread I’ve been tracing through the story of my life. For no discussion of encounters with fasting communities could ever be complete without discussing Orthodoxy. Somehow, in all my wide-ranging study, modern Orthodoxy still managed to catch me off-guard. Like many, at least in the US, I thought of them as an Eastern or even a Greek sort of Catholic (as defined by my encounters with Roman Catholicism) rather than as another Tradition of the faith. And as such, I never really spent any time looking at the thread of the Orthodox Church following the Great Schism of 1054.
Oddly, it was a distinctly Protestant book, Praying with the Church by Scot McKnight, that abruptly shook me from that complacent (mis)understanding. That book explores the tradition of set prayer within the church and includes a chapter on the manner in which it is practiced within Orthodoxy. If you recall from earlier in this series, I mentioned my love for Brother Lawrence and his The Practice of the Presence of God. One of the disciplines in that book is the discipline of breath prayers, short prayers that you can say, almost with the rhythm of your breath, as you work or engage in other activities. I’m not particularly skilled or disciplined in any of the Christian spiritual practices, but I had been using breath prayers for some years by that point in time. I had several that I found particular helpful and even compelling. These were the prayers to which I kept returning. When I read the chapter in the book above, I was shocked to discover that the breath prayer which I most used, the short prayer I had thought I had found on my own, was in fact a common variation of the Jesus Prayer, one of the oldest prayer traditions of the Church!
With that, I began to truly explore Orthodoxy to better understand it. You can’t do that for very long at all without running into their ascetical practice of communal fasting. It’s deep and rich. I would say that even after several years I’m only beginning to scratch the surface of the subject. The typical Orthodox fasting regimen is a fast from meat, fish with a backbone, dairy, oil, and wine. It’s very similar to what we would call a vegan diet. There are various periods of fasting in preparation for feasts. And they fast most weeks of the year on Wednesday and Friday. Perhaps you recall the excerpt from the Didache I posted earlier in this series? The Didache was one of the earliest rules of fasting within our faith. It had seemed to me that the practice of a weekly, communal fast had vanished from the modern landscape, but it hadn’t. I found that a very encouraging sign of continuity within our faith.
But I’m not Orthodox and I did not fast. I was intrigued, but still reluctant to jump in. I also did not live at that time with even a rudimentary rule of prayer. And I knew that a rule of fasting without a rule of prayer would be very dangerous indeed. Fasting, whether an ascetical fast or a total fast, still seemed strange to me. I did what I typically do when I’m unsure how to proceed and there is no urgent reason for action. I read and listened and waited while changing little in my daily practice.