From the age of seven, I fasted the full 46 days of Great Lent (Megali Nisteia) in anticipation of Greek Orthodox Easter. Before the major celebration of Pascha, my mother, sister and I abstained from meat, fish, dairy, eggs, wine, sugar (we lapsed often with this one) and on Wednesdays and Fridays, even olives. At Holy Week, we didn’t use any olive oil at all. These were the days before we discovered cacao, coconut oil, nut milks and butters, so our meals were mostly sorry affairs. At least we knew about tahini.
My father helped by shopping for vats of soy milk and lentils and cooking us meals he wouldn’t consider eating. Being Australian, and agnostic, he didn’t fast. Usually Orthodox Easter falls the week after Western Easter, so we were also tempted by milk chocolate Easter eggs, unopened gifts from our Aussie cousins. We were strong even amid the shiny, gold-foiled temptations. We sighed and ate more dry toast and honey and tahini. I still remember the bloated feeling from all the carbs.
I stopped fasting at all when I left home. The deprivation didn’t interest me.
I stopped fasting at all when I left home. The deprivation didn’t interest me. My spiritual needs were channelled into exploring other religious and cultural traditions. Maybe I’d fasted too much as a child and teen, before I had the maturity to consciously choose. I became vegan for seven years in my mid-twenties. When I became sick with an autoimmune disease then cancer, I re-introduced eggs, ghee, fish and seafood, and then began to experiment with intermittent fasting in 2010. I’ve never looked back.
For the last 10 years, I ordinarily eat dinner at around 5pm and don’t eat again until 11am or noon, depending if I’m hungry. I’m no longer starving or light-headed in the mornings. I no longer crave sugar. I don’t get ‘hangry’ anymore. I get up early, do yoga and exercise, swim if I can, have a shower, work a little, then sit down to a large and satisfying meal with balanced protein, fats and carbs.
My mother came to stay with me in Queensland for Lent last year, and I began fasting with her. She’s less strict these days, being nearly 80. But we were able to re-visit my childhood through our shared meals – far tastier and inventive these days – and to appreciate some of the positive aspects of fasting. It was a rare chance for introspection: to re-examine our assumptions about food, which types we think we need, how much we need, where our food actually comes from. Limiting certain foods also creates a pleasant sense of scarcity, with the accompanying appreciation and gratitude. It can foster a sense of balance and stillness in our frenetic society of late nights, fast food and daily indulgences. Doing without, in a time when any food is available at any time of year, can be a radical act of eating seasonally and mindfully. Fasting also allowed us to anticipate the pleasures of feasting, of planning and preparing and enjoying celebratory dishes. There is nothing like coming back home in the dark after the Resurrection midnight liturgy, cracking red eggs and eating fragrant avgolemono (egg-lemon-chicken) soup and tsoureki (brioche) by candlelight.
My mother was planning to come and stay with us this year too, but COVID-19 has put a brake on our plans.
My mother was planning to come and stay with us this year too, but COVID-19 has put a brake on our plans. She’s isolating in the tiny flat I grew up in, unable to go out except for a few supplies or a brief walk in her local park. She can’t attend Holy Week church services or receive communion on Easter Sunday. We call each other and she speaks to me of the small happiness of her days: the autumn sunlight on her balcony, a bird singing in a tree. There will be no shared fasting or festivities this Easter for us.
In the 1970s and 80s, Lenten fasting was widespread in Greek-Australian families. These days, many people fast only for Holy Week, or on Good Friday, if at all. Yet there has been a resurgence of fasting among younger Greeks, not for purely religious reasons, but through a personalised way of honouring culture, spirit and health. Many of my own 40+ generation and younger generations have become long-term vegetarians or vegans. Many of us practice intermittent fasting, as I do, and/or the ketogenic diet. Others adhere to physician-prescribed diets for health issues such as diabetes or high cholesterol. These choices are more about ethics, environment and health concerns than spiritual renunciation. Yet there is a strong connection. Friends tell me their commitment to a plant-based diet can often feel like a catharctic, spiritual journey. They ‘fast’ all the time, or ‘cleanse’ or ‘detox’ in certain seasons, for valid reasons.
The threads of family, culture, religion, personal philosophy and self-care are nuanced and complex. Some of us feel guilt. Guilt at not continuing the old traditions, not carrying on the legacy, or specifically going against the strictures laid down by grandmothers or priests. Others feel the rejection of the Lenten fast is a clear indication they have lost their childhood faith. I too felt this, for many years. Yet, partaking once again in this ancient ritual of humility and contemplation is healing, right now.
Regardless of my personal spiritual beliefs, the intentional rituals of fasting and feasting have created a gentler, less judgmental, evolving dynamic with my mother and my birth culture. In being conscious of my choices, I can find meaning and even grace.