In my study of Orthodoxy, no author has been more valuable to me than Frederica Mathewes-Green. She is a commentator for National Public Radio, a columnist for Christianity Today and the wife of an Orthodox priest. Her journey from a 9 year old Catholic who wanted to be a nun to Unitarian Church member to hippy vegetarian Hindu took an even more unusual turn when a dramatic conversion experience led her back to Christianity and eventually to Orthodoxy. It's a great story. If you're interested, read Facing East for the details.
My guidebook for Lent this year will be a Mathewes-Green book titled, First Fruits of Prayer: A Forty Day Journey Through the Canon of St. Andrew. St. Andrew was a first century Jerusalem monk who wrote a hymn which is used as one of the Lent worship services each year in the Orthodox church. The canon is divided into nine canticles which Mathewes-Green has rearranged into forty readings that include commentary on the text and brief meditations on the verses. I read it last year and made notes of my thoughts at the time, so it will be interesting to repeat the process and see what (if anything) has changed.
The Orthodox do not recognize Ash Wednesday (March 9 this year), so their Lent officially starts two days earlier than the Western Christian observance. And it really starts a week before that, because they ease into the water instead of taking a big plunge all at once. As a group, the Orthodox church essentially eats a vegan diet during Lent. For 2011, starting Monday February 28 all meat is eliminated from the diet, but dairy products are still allowed. On Monday March 7, the dairy is also eliminated. It sounds hard core, but they allow exceptions. There are feasts (such as the one for St. Patrick) that suspend the rules, and there are allowances for personal situations (like birthdays and other family celebrations).
Last year I kept the fast except when eating with my husband who is not observing Orthodox Lent. Jesus assumed that Christians would fast, and the only rule is gave is to not be a whinin', complainin' showoff about it. (My paraphrase, not a direct quote.) Inflicting my choice upon an innocent man who is in the midst of his busiest most stressful time of the year didn't seem quite right, so I kept our meals together intact. But I hit other snags. I don't eat a lot of meat, but dairy is a significant part of my diet. Eliminating it left a large hole that I unfortunately filled with sugary snacks like Twizzlers. I actually gained weight during Lent. In discussing this with the local Orthodox priest, Father Basil, he suggested that I use the story of Daniel as a guide. Eat simple healthy food like Daniel and his friends chose over the rich, unhealthy choices of the palace. So this year, I decided to keep the dairy and eliminate or at least minimize the sugar and desserts. I'll keep the naturally occurring sugar in fruits and vegetables. I'll only eat meat with my husband. Somehow a simple cheese sandwich seems more in the spirit of Lent than an entire box of SweeTTarts.
Of course, the main point is not the actual food, but the minimization of emphasis on physical hunger and appetite so that spiritual growth can be stimulated. That's the road that I step out on tomorrow.