During Lent, you may see two people eating identical meals. One of them may be doing so out of spiritual laziness, while the other person has worked very hard to get to this point . . .
During the Lenten fast, is it OK to eat tofu-burgers, egg substitutes, shrimp, and vegetarian dishes that are prepared in a delicious manner?
Or is it more spiritual to avoid all delicious food, and to make sure that Lenten meals are as bland as possible? (Disclaimer: I am not suggesting that tofu-burgers are delicious.)
There are multiple reasons for the fast.
One of the reasons is simply obedience. The Orthodox Church tells us to abstain from certain specific foods, so we do. Hamburgers and fish are prohibited. Shrimp and lobster are permitted. The point is not about what we like or don’t like. The point is that we obey the rules given to us. On this point, a trip to Red Lobster is obedient, while a simple tuna fish sandwich is disobedient.
Another reason for the fast is for the sake of spiritual exercise, so that our body learns to obey our mind, instead of the other way around. We are not to be slaves to our bodies. Rather, our body is to obey our mind, and our mind is to obey the direction of the Holy Spirit. There is nothing evil about eating a hamburger. But when our body wants a hamburger, and we tell our body “No!”, we are performing a spiritual exercise. It is sort of like weight lifting. The more you exercise, the stronger you get. That way when your body wants to sin, you have greater strength to tell your body “No!”, and to resist sin. On this point, it is good to tell your body “No!” when it wants to eat something delicious. Whether that delicious food is made of meat, or whether it is vegetarian, we gain benefit from the spiritual exercise of abstinence.
Of course, just as everyone is at a different level of physical fitness, so everyone is also at a different level of spiritual fitness. Some people can easily bench press 315 pounds. Other people struggle to bench press 135. Some people can go all day eating nothing but prosphora and drinking nothing but holy water. Other people are at the full extent of their current abilities, simply to avoid the hamburger.
This is why we keep our eyes on our own plates. Loading people down with too much exercise, too quickly, is disastrous both in the gym, and in the spiritual life. If you are able to lift 225, but you only lift 135, your strength will decline. If you can only lift 135 pounds, and you try to force yourself to lift 225, you will hurt yourself.
We should be content when our Orthodox brothers and sisters simply avoid meat, eggs, and dairy. In so doing, they are being obedient, which is one of the central purposes of the fast. And at the same time, they are already saying “No” to certain things they find to be delicious, so they are benefiting from the spiritual exercise as well. Glory to God for this!
Of course, there are two sides to this story. If you can only lift 135 pounds now, and 5 years from now you are still lifting only 135 pounds, then something is wrong. You should be working hard to improve, and to lift more. Some meat substitutes have become so convincing that, during Lent, these foods may no longer represent sacrifice. And if we are honestly trying to exercise spiritually and to grow stronger, this is an important point to consider. Today, maybe a minimal amount of fasting is all you can handle. But there is no reason to be content with mediocrity. With the guidance of your priest, you can increase your fasting little by little, improving over time.
Everyone is at a different place, spiritually. And most of us are not well equipped to judge the quality of another person's fasting. During Lent, you may see two people eating identical meals. One of them may be doing so out of spiritual laziness, while the other person has worked very hard to get to this point. If you don't know where they are coming from, there is no way for you to know which direction they are going.
That's why we shouldn't concern ourselves with nitpicking the details, when we see how other people eat during Lent. Quibbling over tofu-burgers can cause spiritual harm, just as it could cause harm if you criticized the new guy at the gym, because you think he hasn’t added enough weight to his bench press.
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