It was one of the most mortifying moments of my life. I’ll never quite shake free of it. I pray that it shapes my life into one more pleasing to God each time I recall it.
I was in my first year of college. At my family’s insistence, I was supposed to take it easy on fasting. Some loving and protective members of my family felt that–with access only to cafeteria food–I should not fast at all. But I was 18 years old, and it didn’t feel right. Confused and conflicted, I decided for the Nativity Fast to go vegan just on Wednesdays and Fridays (basically take it as ordinary time). On one of the off days, I was caught red-handed with a plate full of very non-vegan food by a fellow Copt.
No, it’s worse than you think. You see, I had just called out this poor young man the Friday before for eating parmesan-crusted breadsticks on a Friday. Here he was trying, and I had made his fasting life harder while I was not trying at all. And now he’d caught me in my hypocrisy.
I can’t forget his face as I turned with my tray stocked with pepperoni pizza, the blood rushing to mine, my lame, mumbled explanation. I vowed it would be the last time I willingly do not live up to my own professed standards, my own chosen ideals. (Ha! If only life was this simple.)
Things had been so straightforward at home. Mom made the food. I fasted when they told me to and feasted when they told me I could. Suddenly, I was in charge of choosing my food; I was in charge of making those decisions.
This was not the first or last time I flubbed it all big time. I made mistakes, I got forgetful, I flat out cheated, and I behaved hypocritically. All in all, I was just mucking around. (And I had so many cafeteria fries that I never wanted to look at a fry again.)
By the last year of college, though, I like to think I had somewhat figured it out. Here are five steps I took to get my fasting habits straightened out (and I still refer to these steps nearly a decade later when I need to renew my fasts).
Take responsibility for your fast.
If you are anything like me, you spent many fasts of your childhood obeying your parents’ rules and guidelines (whether encouraging or discouraging) of the fast. At some point, you need to decide you’re an adult and to realize that you are now responsible before God for your fast.
Assess your fast habits.
How do you tackle your fast? Under what conditions are you weakest? How can you bolster your efforts at those times? Maybe you are used to skipping Fridays for social reasons. Maybe you are weakest in the mornings and feel like you can’t hold on till noon (or your prescribed time). Noticing these habits can help you troubleshoot and stretch yourself more with each fast.
Take the church guidelines seriously.
The easiest card to play is “Oh, well, if I follow the fast too well, I’m a Pharisee.” The easiest excuse to shrug off slacking is “It’s not a sin; it’s not like God is going to punish me.” And everyone’s favorite: “Where did the church come up with these rules anyway? Why should I really have to follow them?”
The truth is that fasting is a personal discipline. Like your prayer life and your quiet time with the Bible, these are tools to use to train your body as any athlete would. But instead of an earthly race, this is a heavenly one that you are training for.
Ask any serious athlete if they take their running schedule or their lifting schedule or their diet seriously. Do you think a dedicated marathon runner skips training for every excuse? Instead of a finely tuned body, at the end of the fast you get a finely tuned heart + soul. If you do it right, your body won’t be doing too shabby either.
If you wanted to be a great basketball player, would you follow the game coaching advice of Lebron James or that of Ellen Degeneres? In the same way, if you want to be a spiritual light in the world, you should follow the diet, prayer, and charity advice of the Church–which has produced giants of the faith.
If you are a healthy person between the ages of 20 and 60 (and not pregnant or breastfeeding) there is no reason not to fast every fast the whole fast and thank God that you are able. Any excuse you make is just that.
“But, dadddddy, they are having cupcakes at work today.”
“But, daddddddy, you know I hate to have to cook.”
“But, dadddddy, everyone else is having a milkshake!”
“But, dadddddddy, the cheese in this sushi doesn’t count. Be nice.”
Be nice? God isn’t holding the fast over your head. This is a decision you made, a promise you made to the One you love, to show Him in a small daily way that you love Him. He doesn’t need it. He already loves you 100%. But out of the fullness of your heart, out of gratitude to your Creator, you suffer in such a minute way for such a short period of time in honor of Him.
Put the fast central to your life. Don’t let the devil put excuses in your heart like “It’s so hard to keep track of!” You know, a lot of things are hard to keep track of. Your budget is hard to keep track of. Your health checkups are hard to keep track of. That’s the thing about being a grown up.
Are you a grown up in your faith or are you still messing around? Let it become a good habit in your life to discipline the flesh, to set aside animal products, for the duration of the fast, every fast. Yes, you may have to go at it gradually. It may take a few fasts or a few years. But get that down because that’s really a baby step before getting serious about metanoias and increased prayers and charity. Get to the point where food in the fast is on autopilot, and you can focus on the other important aspects as well. (When do we fast? 2015-2016 Calendar)
It’s not too late to start.
It doesn’t matter if you’re 25 or 85. Whatever age you are now is a perfectly appropriate age to start taking fasting seriously. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never done it before. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a whole pile of empty excuses. Talk to your father of confession, get a plan into motion, put your hand to the wheel of your spiritual life. If your father of confession is anything like Abouna, he will help you get a personalized plan into place.
You CAN do this. And it is WORTH IT. As those of us who fast regularly will tell you, it is SO worth it.
I just got off the phone with my Teta (grandma) recently, and we both vigorously agreed. We can’t wait for the fast. We miss fasting so much. That’s the power of a good and holy habit.
I have a lot to say about fasting. Fasting outside of Egypt has its own set of challenges (no foul and ta3meya shop!), for sure, but it’s something I truly love. It can be an incredible catalyst in your spiritual life if you let it. It helps me work through my hypocrisy a little more each year.
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