On Saturday, April 1st, parishioners from several Orthodox churches in Stark and Summit Counties of Ohio gathered at St. George Serbian Orthodox Church for the 2nd annual Lenten workshop, sponsored by the parish’s women’s auxiliary group - the Circle of Serbian Sisters. This year’s theme was “Fasting in the Fast Food Nation”.
Participants began gathering around 9:30am, enjoying fellowship over a light, Lenten breakfast. The workshop began at 10am, with a discussion that offered a great deal of back-and-forth between the facilitator, Rev Presbyter Aleksa Pavichevich, and all those present.
The group started by discussing their experience with, and understanding of, fasting during their formative years. The group had a diverse experience with the fasting discipline, with some mentioning a strict fast that was related entirely to communion, while others grew up in non-Orthodox traditions where fasting was a completely foreign concept.
Fr Aleksa then allowed the group an opportunity to reflect on what ways fasting in this American context might be different than fasting in a predominantly Orthodox country. The group identified a number of different challenges unique to their American setting, including the predominance of non-Lenten options, the differing understanding of the Fast throughout various generations of Orthodox, the ‘abnormality’ of the fast to the average American friend or peer, and the ever-present ‘work’ that often pervades all aspects of life.
Before considering how we, as Orthodox, might face these issues, Fr Aleksa transitioned the discussion into a journey through the development of fasting. Looking at the Old and New Testament, the group identified the various ways in which the fast is utilized throughout the Bible. They then identified how the early church came to outline the fasting rules as we have them today. In a fun and oft-surprising exercise, the group tried to identify the rules as precisely as possible - as well as all the fasting and non-fasting days.
The conversation then turned to other aspects of the fast by looking at various quotes of the Fathers. As they discussed the wisdom of the early church, workshop participants reflected on ways in which the ‘fast’ was much deeper than food and rule alone. The talk culminated in the powerful words of St. Nikolai of Zica from Prayers by the Lake:
Fasting makes my body thinner, so that what remains can more easily shine with the spirit. While waiting for You, I wish neither to nourish myself with blood nor take life – so that the animals may sense the joy of my expectation. But truly, abstaining from food will not save me. Even if I were to eat only sand from the lake, You would not come to me, unless the fasting penetrated deeper into my soul.
After a short break, the group then synthesized all their workshop efforts in a challenging exercise. After breaking off into three groups, each team was given two real-life scenarios wherein their understanding of the ‘fast’ was put into a direct encounter with real-life in America. Each scenario offered a situation in which the participants had to respond to an encounter, or question from a peer, that dealt directly with the fast.
How would participants handle a friend ordering them non-Lenten food? What would they do if a well-meaning young person began fasting to the detriment of his health and body? How might they respond to an accusation that fasting is nothing more than a ‘work’ and that our ‘works’ don’t get us to heaven? What if they tried to fast with a child, grandchild, niece or nephew - and the child was not interested?
The groups formulated answers to their scenarios and presented those answers to the larger group. During each presentation, participants engaged in a lively discussion of the many ways to approach each scenario. The day ended with fellowship that lasted far beyond the scheduled conclusion as participants stayed to enjoy their light meal and continue their lively discussion.