by Angela Hays
After we first started attending an Orthodox church, but before we converted, I tried to prove my husband wrong. He had firmly come to believe that Orthodoxy was the continuation of early Christianity. At the time, he was attending Regent University, an evangelical graduate school founded by Pat Robertson. I went to the school’s library to do some research on early Christian writings. There were hundreds of books on church history.
By the grace of God, I soon ran across The Didache in a compilation of early Christian works. The Didache, also known as The Teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles by the Twelve Apostles, was written between 120 and 180 AD as a practical Church manual. For centuries it was highly respected by Church leaders and St. Athanasius strongly recommended new converts read it. (The Apostolic Fathers, ed. Jack N. Sparks, Light and Life Publishing Company, 1978, page 305.)
Upon reading it, I was amazed. Not only did it quote the scriptures continuously, but it also gave very practical teaching on such topics as the Eucharist, Baptism, prayer, fasting, abortion, tithing, and even hospitality towards traveling Christians. I was amazed at how similar the Christian life in this document was to what I had learned about Orthodoxy.
I almost dropped the book when I read “But do not let your fasts fall on the same days as ‘the hypocrites’, who fast on Monday and Thursday. Rather, you should fast on Wednesday and Friday…” (8:1). I knew my new Orthodox friends fasted from meat and dairy on Wednesdays and Fridays, but I had no idea why until I read The Didache.
For me, fasting during the Great Fast (aka, Lent) is much easier than fasting the rest of the year. During Lent, we have all the extra services, we’ve cleaned our homes of non-fasting foods, and we have the support of our parish. We all go through it together. Even society at large is familiar with the idea of giving up something for Lent. The fasts during the rest of the year, I find, are much more challenging.
The summer fasts, the Apostles Fast and the Dormition Fast, are frequently overlooked. The Apostles Fast starts on the Monday after All Saints Day (eight days after Pentecost) and continues until the eve of the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul on June 29. Since this fast is marked by a moveable feast on one end (Pentecost) and a fixed feast on the other (Ss. Peter & Paul), the length of this fast can vary from a few days (like this year) to six weeks. The Dormition Fast, however, is a set length: two weeks, from August 1 to August 14, just prior to the feast of the Dormition (sometimes called ‘the Assumption’) of the Holy Theotokos on August 15.
The Wednesday, Friday and summer fasts present the challenge of “learning discipline and humility in the face of bounty”, as a friend once told me. It’s much harder to discipline ourselves when we have a lot than when we have very little. All that God has given us is His, not ours. We rejoice in what he has given us, but must learn to give it back to Him.
It’s also very hard to fast when our culture is not geared toward it. Summer is a time for cookouts and beach parties, not spiritual discipline. Once again we are reminded of the “narrow” way we must take (Matthew 7:13-14). We were never told the Christian life would be easy. To aid in our support, some parishes add special week-day services during these fasting periods.
Another problem that people encounter is that many of our “lenten” foods (vegetable soup, vegetarian chili, meatless stews) are better suited for colder weather. The summer, however, does provide us with many fast-friendly foods like fresh garden vegetables, fruits, and salads. There are also many alternatives that you can take to cookouts, including veggie burgers (I usually get the Morningstar Farms brand in the frozen food section of my grocery store), vegetarian baked beans (on the same shelf as the pork & beans variety), bean salad, and potato salad (see recipes with this article).
More important than the food we eat, however, is the attitude we have. Don’t forget the words of the Fathers who encourage us to combine fasting with prayer and almsgiving to combat all our sinful desires:
“There are three things, my brethren, by which faith stands firm, devotion remains constant, and virtue endures. They are prayer, fasting and mercy. Prayer knocks at the door; fasting obtains; mercy receives. Prayer, fasting and mercy-- these three are one, and they give life to each other.”
— Peter Chrysologus, Bishop of Ravenna (+450 AD).
“While fasting, let us purify our hearts, sanctify our souls and trample down all vices.”
—St. Theodore the Studite (+826 AD)
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