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Justice as Asceticism

by Maria Gwyn McDowell

Originally delivered as a part of St. Mary's Lenten Lecture Series 2004
St. Mary Orthodox Church, Cambridge, MA
Friday, March 12, 2004

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Justice as Asceticism: Part 1

I recently spent a week at Project Mexico, where fasting came up a number of times. It started with the effort to find food in the airport which did not contain meat, inspiring a few conversations about the idea of ‘travel mercies,’ the leniency granted to travelers who may not be able to find options which fulfill the fast. The conversation continued at the Orphanage. Due to government regulations imposed by the Mexican government, a certain amount of meat must be served each week at Orphanages. Our host made it clear to us that the primarily Catholic staff of the orphanage would do their best to make Lenten meals for us, but may at times forget, and for us to be gracious. He further pointed out that our presence in building a house was itself a fast, a ‘work of mercy.’

As we discussed the particulars of fasting, I learned, for the first time, that we are supposed to fast from animals which have a back bone. I heard this, thought for a moment, and realized that for the first 16 years of my Orthodox life, the only times my family kept this version of the Lenten fast were the days my mother made spaghetti with Clam Sauce, about the only way you could ever get a clam into me. We survived the rest of lent eating $1/pound whole Tuna that my mother would buy at the coast, fillet, and freeze until lent. Every member of my Russian Orthodox Church ate fish, it was our Lenten food. I had no idea that fish were eliminated from the fast because they have a backbone. I asked why the backbone was the issue, and the answer seems to be that animals without a backbone are a lower form of life. Ironic, given that the economy of Maine is sustained by this $15/pound form of ‘lower life.’

What struck me in these conversations was not the content, but the very fact that we were spending so much time talking about fasting. We pick apart the phrases ‘fast’ and ‘abstain,’ wondering if one means the type of food, the other the amount of food. We wonder whether on Sunday, as a day of Resurrection, we can break the fast, or do we just not abstain. Underlying all of this is a different conversation. What we are really discussing was not whether or not we should eat this or that, how much we should eat, when we should eat and when we should abstain. Rather, we are struggling with what fasting means for us today in a culture of abundant and varied food, where it is not beef or poultry that is the luxury, but those very forms of ‘lower life’ which we are permitted.

Fasting is not meaningless today. Kerry SanChirico pointed out in his talk last year, “Lenten Transformation,” that the money saved on meat both enables almsgiving and reminds us that most of the world survives without meat, not by choice, but by necessity: meat is expensive. Schmemann argues that fasting, the feeling of hunger, is a physical reminder that we ‘do not live by bread alone, but by every word that flows from the mouth of God.’ Fasting as practiced in the monasteries was in part intended to create more time. In certain monastic communities, the weekend fast specified uncooked rather than cooked vegetables. Why? The time saved by not cooking is spent in more prayer. In each of these examples, fasting is never intended as a goal in itself. Fasting is meant to lead to something more.

The question is, what more does this lead to? Fasting saves money, and makes us conscious of the ¾ (no longer 2/3) world which is malnourished; fasting reminds us of our dependence on God; fasting gives time for prayer. We do one thing, which leads to another. Hopefully. I say hopefully, because often fasting may lead us nowhere. I think our debates over various canons, traditions and customs can easily turn into a debate over exactly how much mint and cumin we tithe, without ever addressing the important question, what does fasting lead to?

Prayer, fasting and alms-giving, the three main characteristics of the ascetical life, are understood throughout the tradition of the Church as the means towards our transformation, as our participation in the process of becoming who we are, the image of God. Debates have raged over the centuries in the effort to specify the image of God in humanity. Short cutting all of these debates, and in agreement with particular strands of thought that run through a variety of our Church Fathers, I am going to summarize and say that the image of God in humanity is anything in us which is a reflection of our Creator. When we love, we express the image of God; when we are generous, when we are trustworthy, when we act with fidelity, when we are encouraging, when we are truthful, when we are servants. Notice that all of these require other people. We can only be the image of God in relationship with other people. You must love another person to be loving. You must serve another person to be a servant.

I think there is a real danger that our fasting, our prayer, and even our alms-giving, becomes self-serving. These elements become our own private discipline, focusing on our own inner change, our own ‘salvation’ which may or may not press us to become people of greater love. I have often heard the argument that these disciplines are social because we do them together. We fast together, supporting and encouraging one another to walk past that oddly appealing hot dog. Our time in church increases, adding in Wednesday liturgy as well as the Friday akathist. While the encouragement of the community is crucial to Lent, simply doing things together does not necessarily make us less self-focused, less individualistic. Lent can still be all about me.

This focus on ourselves, this focus on what is good for me, maybe my family, or perhaps (in a generous moment) I extend it to my group, ethnicity, nation, still has me and ‘mine’ at the center. The reality is that we live in a world and a culture that is particularly ‘me’ focused. We all know that, we all experience it. It is a genuine danger. Yet it is not a unique danger; it is not new with the advent of the ‘West.’ The ascetical life of the East, by which I mean the Orthodox East, can run the same danger. Time spent in fasting and prayer, the life of the desert, is often done alone. But if Mary of Egypt had never met Fr. Zossima, would we benefit from her wisdom? If the monks of the desert had not settled themselves at the edges of cities, would we even have the ‘sayings of the desert fathers and mothers’? It is only in the return to one another that whatever we have learned comes to fruition, enabling everyone to experience greater transformation, greater deification. By the return from the desert, the whole community is blessed, and thus the community can bless the world.

But let me complicate this further by pointing out that most of us are not called to a monastic life. We are not called to years of strict fasting and prayer. Monasticism is a calling, but it is not a calling given to everybody. Frankly, it is not a calling given to the vast majority of the members of the Church. Most of us are called to live embedded in this world, embedded in business and chaos, living lives as mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, workers, commuters, students…leaving the world is not an option.

Part 2, where the question is asked,

"So the question is, what does asceticism look like for us?".

Maria Gwyn McDowell is a Doctoral candidate in theological ethics at Boston College.  She has a Master of Divinity degree from Fuller Theological Seminary. She is a member of St. Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church in Cambridge, MA.


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