Great Lent: What Fasting, South Park and Your Inner Toddler Have in Common

David J. Dunn, PhD, Orthodox lay theologian

Lent began on Ash Wednesday for Catholics and many Protestant Christians. They mark this season by having the sign of the cross smudged onto their foreheads with the ashes of burnt palm fronds from the last Palm Sunday. It is a beautiful reminder of the Christian’s never-ending journey to the New Jerusalem, and a fitting symbol of the believer’s repentance, penance and renewed spiritual commitment.

We do Lent a bit differently in the Orthodox Church. We enter it through the ritual of Forgiveness Vespers. This Sunday, I will make my way around the church, and ask forgiveness from each and every member of our congregation. There is certainly repentance happening here, but that is not really what we stress. For us, Lent is more about a kind of training. In the Orthodox Church Great Lent is a dojo of desire -- a place we go to learn to tame our basest and most selfish impulses.

Perhaps the best way to explain the way we look at Lent in the Orthodox Church is by invoking the usually not-very-reverent show, South Park. In an episode from a few years ago that was especially rich (theologically speaking), the buffoonish Randy Marsh put the economic crash of 2008 in biblical terms. He explained to his family that “the Economy” (with a capital “E”) had become very angry because “a bunch of idiots” went into debt buying frivolous luxury items they could not afford.

At least, that’s the gist of what he said. Randy is mixing a drink while offering this diatribe, and his exact words are hard to make out over the loud “whirr” of his “Margaritaville” blending machine.

Humor only works if it is both true and a little personal. If we find Randy’s hypocrisy funny, it is probably because we see something of ourselves in him. Most of us have bought a thing or two that we are still paying off long after we stopped using it. In Randy we remember that to know the good is not always to do the good. We, as a society, buy so many “Margaritavilles” (or their equivalents) because big businesses pay advertisers billions of dollars to exploit our psychological weaknesses. An ad “works” when it overpowers the rational mind with what the economist Charles Lindblom called a “reason-overriding impulse.”

With all due respect to people who work in advertising, the demons work the same way. Both use outside stimuli to mess with our insides. Both try to give us a desire for something that we never knew we always wanted.

Great Lent can help!

Christians have always fasted, ever since Jesus spent 40 days without food or drink in the desert. Usually we fast by going without certain kinds of food or drink for brief periods of time. For even briefer periods we will avoid eating and drinking altogether. During Lent, observant Catholic Christians give up some “luxury” item and avoid meat on certain days of the week. Protestants, who often shun “ritualized” abstention from food, usually give up something they enjoy (you know who they are by their 40-day absence from Facebook).

Our fast is a little more stringent in the Eastern Orthodox Church. I do not want to exaggerate our differences from other Christians, so I will not get into details about what we do (but the curious can read about our fasting practices here). Besides, if fasting is something you can brag about, then you’re doing it wrong (Matthew 6:16-18).

The point of the Lenten fast, for us, is not really about what we give up. It is about what we are supposed to do when we feel ourselves wanting what we have told ourselves we should not have.

In the late 19th century, Ivan Pavlov famously discovered that he could condition dogs to salivate at the ringing of a bell. The Lenten fast is like that bell! Giving up certain foods is not about suffering. It is about learning to tame our impulses -- our desire to have what we want, how we want it, now!

During Lent, the grumbling stomach becomes Pavlov’s bell. We are not supposed to focus on our hunger or visualize our next meal. Instead, we are supposed to pray the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner!” In this way, our most basic desire -- the desire for food -- gets associated with a desire to pray.

Most temptation preys upon our desire for instant gratification. Fasting transforms that desire into a holy reflex.

If any of that sounds far-fetched, one might consider that in the history of the church, theologians from St. Gregory of Nyssa to St. Augustine, have all commented on the connection between the pleasure of food and the pleasure of sin. They did not believe eating was a sin, mind you, only that eating for pure self-gratification was spiritually dangerous.

The problem with gratifying our desires, instantly, all the time, every time, just because we want to, is that there is an inner toddler in each of us. He stamps his little feet when he does not get what he wants. She holds her breath when we tell her, No! Our inner toddler lies to protect himself from the consequences of his mistakes! Our inner toddler wants a new toy! She does not want to go to work! ... You get the idea.

To put it another way, both Christians and “New-Agey” types talk about an inner child. We just think ours is a spoiled brat! When we gratify every desire we have, we confirm our delusion that, yes, the world really does revolve around us. Lent provides us an opportunity to discipline the baser part of ourselves.

That is not to say that Orthodox Christians -- or other Christians who observe Lent -- become spiritual wonders! We are just as sinful as everybody else. (In fact, in the prayer we pray before communion on Sunday morning, we confess that we are the “chief” of sinners!) We will always have to contend with that part of ourselves that wants a new toy, and kicks and screams when it cannot have it.

But we participate in Great Lent in the hope that those tantrums can become less intense and less frequent. We fast and pray in the hope that sin can lose some power over us. That is, if we train ourselves to do what any good parent does when their kid throws a fit in the middle of a shopping mall: Don’t say anything, just keep walking, and pray! “Lord, have mercy!”