Pious Orthodox Christians all over the world are enjoying one of a very few “fast-free Fridays” today. The usual fast prescribed by the Orthodox Church includes fasting from meat, dairy, fish, wine and oil on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year. But the period between Christmas and January 4 is fast-free. Since my husband makes a much better effort than I do with fasting, it will be more satisfying for him to enjoy some meat, dairy, fish wine and oil today. I still struggle with the “rules,” although I understand—mentally at least—the purpose of an ascetic struggle.
For me, the discipline of fasting pales in comparison to the struggle of physical illness. I’ve been sick since Christmas Day, with only a few hours here and there where I wasn’t pretty “miserable,” either with sinus headache and congestion, coughing, sore throat, sneezing, nausea, vomiting, etc. Not sure if it’s a mild version of the flu, or just a winter cold which often affects my GI system as well. At any rate, the last thing on my mind this week has been the fact that it’s a fast-free week.
Fasting is designed to encourage prayer. But I’ve discovered that pain and suffering trump fasting in this department. Whether or not I’ve been even somewhat faithful to my Orthodox “rule of prayer,” (Morning Prayers, Evening Prayers, and a mindfulness of God throughout the day, sometimes including the Jesus Prayer) nothing brings me to my knees—physically and spiritually—more intensely than physical pain and illness. I used to think that was pretty selfish, to mainly seek God when I desperately needed Him. But I love what Anne Lamott says in her wonderful little book, Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. In the first section, “Help,” she says this about prayer:
“It begins with stopping in our tracks, or with our back against the wall, or when we are going under the waves, or when we are just so sick and tired of being psychically sick and tired that we surrender, or at least we finally stop running away and at long last walk or lurch or crawl toward something.”
Some of us have to be fairly desperate to pray. But hopefully God understands that about us, since He made us. And while Lamott wasn’t specially writing about physical illness in that comment, I think she would include that as one way we are “going under the waves.” She then expands on her understanding of prayer:
“Prayer is talking to something or anything with which we seek union, even if we are bitter or insane or broken. (In fact, these are probably the best possible conditions under which to pray.) Prayer is taking a chance that against all odds and past history, we are loved and chosen, and do not have to get it together before we show up. The opposite may be true: We may not be able to get it together until after we show up in such miserable shape.”
I have a friend who hasn’t been to church in several years, and she feels terribly guilty about it. But now she feels she is unworthy of “showing up,” since she’s been away so long. She wants to “get it together” before showing back up. I’ve tried to tell her that it works the other way around, but I don’t think she’s ready to hear that. (And when I’m not ready to hear something, you might as well save your breath.) I’m thinking of giving her a copy of Lamott’s book. It’s been a breath of fresh air to me. Especially when I’m having one of those dark nights of the soul. Or just not hanging around the light very much. I’ll close today with one more quote from Lamott’s book, and with it, wishing you peace in the midst of whatever you’re going through right now. And as always, thanks for reading, and I’d love to hear from you.
“Light reveals us to ourselves, which is not always so great if you find yourself in a big disgusting mess, possibly of your own creation. But like sunflowers we turn toward light. Light warms, and in most cases it draws us to itself. And in this light, we can see beyond shadow and illusion to something beyond our modest receptors, to what is way beyond us, and deep inside.”