Saturday, January 23, 2016

Fasting, converts, Jesus, etc.

I once made a bad joke, "How can you tell if somebody's a convert? They start talking about fasting." This can come off as mildly mean-spirited, but I don't mean it that way. There's a perverse focus on that matter in a lot of discussions. I spend some time on the internet in places where there are a lot of people who are having their first exposure to Orthodoxy or are starting their inquiry or catechumenate, and it seems like the focus of Orthodoxy in their mind is fasting, prayer ropes, and prayer rules. This is bad marketing: the first three things that pop to mind should be Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, or maybe Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or something else more basic, not these little external things that are helpful perhaps but not central.

Perhaps once they start hanging around a parish a little more some of that sanity is going to get through to them, that the point of our religion isn't to think about whether "tree-oil" is synecdoche for all oil or really just means olive oil, it's about the gospel of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.

So I try to do my part to reorient their questions to "the one thing needful" rather than reciting the party line (which, if you're interested, is explained well in the front matter of the edition of The Lenten Triodion translated by Mother Mary and now-Metropolitan Kallistos - but this is the least important part of the book, much more valuable is te liturgical material, which is generally about our life in exile and the salvation we have in Christ's passion and resurrection). I can't however give them real guidance (I'm not qualified to give spiritual advice nor am I disposed to be) nor can I really concretely tell them the various ways in which the disciplines of fasting actually play out (I don't want to scandalize people who have a more rigorous rule, worry people who have a less rigorous rule, give people the wrong impressions, etc). So I generally tell them something along the lines of the above and noting that advice about these things generally comes in a pastoral context from your priest, and that generally you do what you can and then forget about it rather than taking on a hard task and failing and worrying about it. That's a distraction and it's not healthy in any sense. It's better to start with a more minimal rule that you keep without fail than something you fail at all the time and spend a lot of "noetic energy" fretting about. So that's what I say to them.

But here is what I would say when it comes to how we advertise ourselves: we should not emphasize fasting and prayer rules and big long ropes, and discussion of the fasting discipline should primarily be done in pastoral settings rather than bruited through the village. Web-log posts about Lent should be more about repentance than that, gosh, we don't eat cheese right now but maybe shellfish is okay. And when these things do come up, they should primarily be discussed in terms of the Good News of Jesus Christ (rather than even discussing Orthodoxy qua Orthodoxy).