Recently, I came upon information about the nutritional value of different foods that has set me thinking about the way we moderns keep the Fast. In the place of meat and dairy, many of us substitute processed foods, such as soy and margarine. But, these and other processed and fat-free foods may be of minimal if any nutritional value and may do more harm to our health than good. Sugar substitutes and juice from concentrate, for example, may in fact, elevate sugar levels in our blood. Fat-free foods may actually stimulate our body to store and even produce fats.
Our body needs nutrients to be healthy; if the so-called “Lenten” foods we eat are not providing those nutrients, we will still be hungry; and, even though we may be eating less, our cholesterols and sugars, weight and blood pressure will continue to climb. If, on the other hand, we feed our bodies nutritious Lenten foods, then, even as we eat less, we will be less hungry even as our minds will be sharper, we will have more energy and we will need less sleep because our bodies are getting the nutrients they need; and, our cholesterols and sugars, our weight and blood pressure may go down.
But, in the grocery stores of our day, picking out the nutritious from the non-nutritious foods requires that one read up on nutritious foods, and then one needs to be disciplined to stick to a nutritious food plan. But, the results of such effort are their own reward, are they not? Not only are you healthier; you just plain feel better. You now might want to stay away from processed foods.
Since we are body and soul, all of this has real spiritual implications. Our soul, too, needs nutrients, of a spiritual nature. If our soul does not get those spiritual nutrients, she will be hungry emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. Our society today with all its mechanical, technological and digital diversions and entertainments is one big grocery store for the soul. And, like our grocery stores, so much of what our society offers is “processed” soul-food. It has no spiritual nutrients, so that as we feed on these processed soul foods, we only get more hungry and dissatisfied, and our boredom, anxiety, uneasiness and depression continue to climb.
I wonder if it isn’t the case that when we do not feed our body and soul their specific kinds of nutritious foods, that’s when we are drawn, inexorably, if not addicted to the sensual escapes our society sells us: food, sex, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, entertainments, video games, pornography and many other things both “innocent” and not so innocent. Even as we consume more and more of these processed “soul-foods”, our soul only gets hungrier because they are not providing the nutrients our soul needs.
These processed foods are like the spirit that had possession of this little boy, and when we indulge ourselves in them, we become like the little boy. He was helplessly thrown into the water and into the fire; we are thrown into a consuming desire for sensual pleasures: in addition to those I named above, things like popularity, recognition, status, and power, because we are hungry for joy and love. Our soul’s hunger for nutritious “foods” throws us again and again into our “addictions” in which, instead of finding the joy and love we long for, we only become hungrier, more miserable inside. We may descend into the darkness of a “nihilistic narcissism”; the nutritious soul-food of the Church looks to us like broccoli; we become numb – let’s say deaf and dumb – to the tasty goodness of Holy Communion, to the point that we can become suicidal – and the processed foods will have accomplished their hidden purpose, which is to destroy us as they again and again promise us the nutrients they never deliver.
I mean to point out that our physical hunger for food, sex, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, entertainments, popularity, acceptance, status and the like is rooted in the spiritual hunger of our soul. So, to look to these “processed soul-foods” to satisfy the hunger of our soul, is this not to be spiritually deaf and dumb? We hear and speak, we feed our mind and soul on the “word” of the world’s “processed foods”; we neither hear nor speak, we do not feed our mind and soul on the WORD of God. He is the Bread of Life (Jn 6:348) who would give us the food of His own Body and Blood that endures to eternal life (Jn 6:27 & 55). Our LORD Jesus Christ is the spiritual food our soul craves, who satisfies our spiritual hunger and heals us so completely in our soul and body that we are raised from death to life. We are restored to our original beauty, clothed in His Robe of Uncreated Light, in the love and joy our soul craves because we were made in God and for God.
We can see in our epistle lesson this morning how beautiful is the Gospel: by His death on the Cross, God the WORD Himself has entered as our High Priest into the inmost sanctuary of the temple of our heart, to the core of our physical and spiritual longing, so that we can flee for refuge to seize the hope set before us, which is Jesus Christ Himself. We have Him, says St Paul, as a sure and steadfast anchor of our soul, our divine hope who has entered beyond the curtain into the innermost sanctuary of our heart, beyond the curtain of our body, let’s say, and into our heart, our root where we are deep, beyond all things. What Moses said to Israel is fulfilled beyond expectation: The WORD is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so that you can do it (Dt 30:14). It is fulfilled beyond expectation because, in the mystery of the LORD’s Incarnation and Holy Pascha, it is not just the spoken WORD of God, but the WORD of God Himself who has taken up His dwelling in the innermost sanctuary of our heart.
The LORD says to the boy’s father in our Gospel this morning: “Bring him here to me.” May we hear in this the LORD saying to us: “Bring your deaf and dumb soul that is hungry to me!” For, as we see in the powerlessness of the disciples to heal the boy in this morning’s Gospel, no worldly or human food can satisfy the hunger of our soul; the wisdom of princes and sons of men cannot open our ears to hear God or our heart to that heavenly love and joy that bursts spontaneously in praise of the only Lover of mankind; no worldly philosophy or religion, ideology or the latest self-help therapy can satisfy our soul’s spiritual hunger because only the Body and Blood of Christ have all the nutrients our soul needs.
Bringing our hungry soul to the LORD Jesus Christ is what the Lenten Fast is all about. This kind of spirit, says the LORD Jesus, that is deaf and dumb to the WORD of God and takes possession of us to throw us into the fire and water of diversions and escapes to destroy us, does not come out except through prayer and fasting. But, prayer and fasting are the “flowers of abstinence” that grow from the wood of the Cross (LT 231). They are given to us as the Cross we are called to take up if we would follow Jesus and unite ourselves to Him in the likeness – i.e., in the intimacy – of His death and Holy Resurrection; and so, they are radiant with the joy and light of Christ, redolent with the life-giving nutrients of Christ’s Holy Resurrection, so that even as we “fast” we are satiated with the nutrients of Christ’s joy and light that we taste in the communion of prayer .
We pray and fast with both our body and our soul. So, it seems to me to follow that to bring our deaf and dumb soul – and, we should add, to bring a loved one to the LORD in our prayer who is suffering from such a spirit – for healing and salvation, we ourselves begin to fast in the Orthodox manner. I now think that means to fast in both our soul and our body with Lenten foods that are spiritually and physically nutritional and not “processed”. Such a fast illumines the soul and opens our inner ear so we now can hear the WORD of God; and it opens our heart so that we begin to “speak” or to “pray” in the joy and love of Christ both for ourselves and for our loved ones and even for our enemies. Such prayer has power because it proceeds from a soul that is uniting herself to Christ in the nutrition of His life-creating death, so that it is Christ Himself who is nourishing us within and working in us to accomplish what He desires most: that all should be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. Amen!