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Fasting and prayer can heal people

During the Lenten Great Fast, Orthodox Christians dropping meat, fish, olive oil, dairy products and alcohol from their diets find many alternatives today.

Along with a mainstay of lentil or bean soup in many families, soy products offer substitutes for dairy and meat.  Access to fresh, canned and frozen fruits and vegetables also lend variety.

Eleni Schumacher

Eleni Schumacher

Eleni Schumacher, an iconographer who lives in Rathdrum and attends Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Spokane, finds that keeping to that spiritual discipline means the first egg—the first food to break the fast with the celebration of Pascha, or Orthodox Easter, on May 1 this year—“tastes heavenly.”

Some Russian families in the church have shared how cutting out meat once reduced their diet to primarily potatoes and cabbage.

Even with Lenten Fast cookbooks offering hundreds of simple, nourishing and appealing meals, Eleni said that it’s hard to follow the fast completely.  Some years she follows the vegan diet better than other years.

She explained that must be  about both prayer and fasting:  Merely fasting without prayer is only a dietary exercise, she said.

Prayer, she finds, helps heal relationships.

“I feel closer to God.  I can forgive myself for being less than perfect.  Through fasting and prayer, I realize God’s love,” she said.  “It’s living as we should live for the 40 days of Lent, putting God foremost, rather than our own desires.”

Sometimes Eleni may feel too tired to pray in the evening, but she goes ahead and prays, rather than giving in to her desires.  Because others in her family and church are also fasting and praying, she finds it easier to follow the dietary and prayer requirements.  It’s a group effort.

The Great Lenten Fast is part of a cycle, comprising about half a year of times for fasting and prayer:  most Wednesdays and Fridays, the post-Pentecost Peter and Paul Fast June 27 to 29, the Aug. 1 to 15 Mary Dormition Fast and the 40-day Nativity Fast from before Thanksgiving to Christmas.

Cross icon

Cross icon

Father Stephen Supica of Holy Trinity said fasting and prayer are more “tools than rules.”  The fast is one tool.  Worship is another.

“Fasting is conditioning, like the North Central football team—in the field behind the church—does when they do push-ups and sit-ups to warm up for practices and games,” he said, noting that the disciplines are personal commitments, not something to enforce.  “They are opportunities for people to learn that we do not have to be slaves to our desires.

“Canon law is about standards. We do not change standards because some do not keep them.  We keep them because they work. 

“Pascha means Passover or passage,” he said.  The Feast of Passover is for the Jews the annual commemoration of their history of salvation—their passage from slavery in Egypt into freedom, from exile into the promised land,” Father Stephen said.

For Orthodox, he continued, it is “the anticipation of the ultimate passage into the Kingdom of God, with Christ as the fulfillment of Pascha.  He performed the ultimate passage from death into life, from this ‘old world’ into the new world, the new time of the kingdom, opening the passage to us.”
People can take their age and other health considerations  into account as they decide to fast.

“A fast heightens awareness and the senses.  It detoxifies and purifies the body.  I feel lighter and clearer mentally,” Eleni said, noting that it’s important to re-introduce foods gradually after a fast, rather than with a feast.

“By combining fasting and praying, I gain ears to hear and eyes to see,” she said.  “I may have said or heard a prayer or hymn a million times, but I hear and understand it better when I am fasting.  When I follow the rules, the parts of worship fit together like a Rubik’s cube, helping me to become a better person.”

The Holy Trinity newsletter recently included reflections on fasting by Metropolitan Maximos of Pittsburgh, Penna. He said that abstinence from food and from sin helps people “establish the proper priority between the material and the spiritual.”

Eleni said that for people with jobs, it can be “hard to step out of the secular society, in which we live, to concentrate on what Christ did for us.”
During Lent, she finds secular pressures more intense.

“It’s like Satan tempts us,” she said, “making relationships, health and organizing our time more difficult.”

She experiences such pressures often when she goes to paint icons in her basement studio.  The phone doesn’t ring all day, but as soon as she goes to paint and pray, the phone calls her away from “doing God’s work.”
Secular pressures sometimes can create tensions and arguments in the family, too, she said.

“Satan does not want us to focus on God,” she said, “but when we defer our desires and gratification, it’s much sweeter when we return to our regular diet.”

For Eleni, fasting leads experientially into services in Lent and Holy Week, so they complete her walk through the faith story, like a pilgrimage into the past or bringing the past into the present. 

This year, Orthodox and western Christians had a wide discrepancy in the dates for celebrating Easter.  Western Christians celebrated on March 27 and are now preparing for Pentecost.  The Orthodox date relates to the Jewish celebration of Passover, which was April 23 this year.

Eleni with paschal palm

Eleni Schumacher with paschal palm cross.

The Sunday before Lent begins is Forgiveness Sunday, when Orthodox Christians are to take time to forgive everyone in their families and congregations as a starting point for Lent and fasting.

“We start the journey fresh, in good relationships.  It makes our church family grow closer, more forgiving and accepting of each other.  We are aware we are all sinners in the same boat and each can be aggravating to others at times,” she said.

During Holy Week, Holy Trinity offered three, up-to-three-hour services every day: 

• Lazarus Saturday before Palm Sunday includes liturgy, church cleaning and vespers. 

• In addition to regular services on Palm Sunday, there is an evening Bridegroom service, as well as Bridegroom services on Holy Monday and Tuesday evenings.

•Holy Unction on Holy Wednesday this year brought together St. John the Baptist Antiochian Orthodox Church in Post Falls, Christ Antiochian Orthodox in Spokane Valley and St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox at Holy Trinity.

•Vesperal Divine Liturgy and the Twelve Passion Gospels on Holy Thursday prepare for Royal Hours, Vespers of the Unnailing and Lamentations services on Holy—or Good—Friday.

Cross

Cross

On Good Friday, the cross behind the altar with an icon of Christ on it is brought out.  The icon is taken down in the evening service of praise and lamentation, during which a wooden funeral tomb decorated with flowers is taken outside for a procession around the church.

tomb
 

For the Good Friday lamentation service, Eleni said, “we chant and sing hymns that are 1,500 years old.  Time becomes irrelevant.  It’s like we are worshiping with the saints.”

Eleni said the fast, prayers, hymns, psalms, and worship services help the congregation receive Christ and experience “a resurrection in their own hearts, so they put aside their sin.”

Holy Saturday services include the Vesperal Divine Liturgy, the Paschal Vigil and the Resurrection Services.  The Paschal Vigil begins at 11 p.m. and continues past midnight into Pascha.

For information, call 328-9310.


By Mary Stamp, Fig Tree editor - © May 2005