Am I the only one who finds it hard to maintain a Lenten spirit when it snows during the first week? It is probably a Southern thing. When you grow up somewhere where it may only snow once every few years, snow days are like a party. It is hard to imagine one without hot chocolate, snow cream, and lots of wild outdoor play. We’ve managed to forego the hot chocolate, made vegan snow cream (coconut milk, vanilla, sugar, and sprinkles poured over fresh snow, if anyone wants to know), but we played outside until we were soaked, and I cannot say we have maintained a particularly quiet or prayerful spirit. Maybe next year…
Okay, on to the excuses. I apologize for my almost complete lack of posts during the Nativity fast. It turns out that morning sickness and food blogging just don’t mix. Who ever could have guessed. Now that I am squarely (roundly?) in the second trimester I will try to do a little better.
Alright. Finally. Time for the deep end. I am going to share a not very well-kept secret about the first week of Lent, sometimes called Clean Week. Depending on your own experience and education in Orthodoxy you may already know this secret. You may wonder why I event refer to it as a secret. But the truth is that in many parishes people are a bit reluctant to share and compare the specifics of how they keep the fast, and some priests and catechists prefer not to lay out hard and fast rules or delve too deeply into the nitty-gritty details of fasting. All that is probably for the best, but it means that it is possible that no one has shared with you this important secret about Great Lent. So here it is: the harder you fast during the first week of Lent (within reason), the easier the rest of the fast will be. The actual rule of fasting for the first week is no food at all from midnight on Sunday until sundown (or after Vespers/Presanctified Liturgy) on Wednesday. On the other days only one meal is to be eaten, consisting only of uncooked or very plainly cooked foods. If I lost you at “no food for three days,” you are not alone. I doubt that many people, especially outside of monasteries, keep the letter of the rule these days (and who knows how many did even in ancient times). However, before you dismiss the rules entirely, stop and consider two things: 1) you may be able to do more than you think you can, and 2) pushing yourself a little harder may actually make your life easier. If you try to “give up” your normal comforts but otherwise maintain normal life, it is hard not to be grouchy and feel deprived. It’s like trying to walk the dog when it is cold and grey and wet outside. Or, to stick with my first metaphor, like easing slowly into an icy pool. But if you do something a little drastic, if you change your normal routines, you will feel like you are entering into a special time and things that would normally seem impossibly will become easier. It is like walking the dog in fresh snow. It’s still cold, but there is something special going on, so the cold doesn’t bother you as much.
So practically, what does this mean? I am not suggesting anyone necessarily try a complete fast for three days (certainly not without talking to your spiritual father or a trusted friend). I won’t even share exactly what my family does during the first week, since that changes from year to year based on our specific circumstances. I will simply suggest this: whatever your “normal” is during the fast, kick it up a notch during the first week. If you are pregnant, have food allergies, or are otherwise unable to keep a full fast normally, try to go vegan just for those first five days. If you fast from meat, try going dairy-free, too. If you keep the full fast, give up snacks, skip breakfast, try eating plain or uncooked foods for the first week. If you take it a little farther than you are used to, something lovely happens. Instead of feeling deprived, you may find yourself feeling renewed. Instead of mourning the cream in your coffee, you just might find that you appreciate the simplest foods in a whole new way. There is nothing like a little real hunger to make one appreciate the sweetness of carrots, the goodness of plain bread, the luxury of tasting a far off summer in a bite of dried fruit. Rather than a rejection of food, simplicity makes gratitude possible. When we are hungry we remember what a blessing it is to have food, to be nourished. And hopefully we also remember that, no matter how hard we fast, we have so much more that most people before and around us could ever dream of.