I’m not a psychic, so I can’t make predictions. But as a fiction writer, I can indulge in the occasional fantasy. And having been both a Sunday School teacher for first graders (“What it Means to be an Orthodox Christian”) and the first-ever beauty editor for People magazine, I’ve got a fantasy-slash-prediction about the upcoming celebrity fad diet: Orthodox fasting.
For Orthodox Christians, Lent started on Monday. So for the next 40 days we’re supposed to avoid eating products that come from animals who have red blood (basically, meat–including chicken, pork, and poultry–and dairy). Shellfish are OK, because of their bloodless status. If you were to follow the ecclesiastical calendar year-round, as many Greeks used to back in the day, there would be 180 days a year that you’d be vegan-ish (given the shellfish, maybe it’s pescatarian).
Since so many celebrities are vegan already, the Orthodox fasting plan seems like a slam-dunk for Hollywood, where the preponderance of veganism among celebs has led cynics to wonder if it’s less of an animal-loving lifestyle choice and more of an exalted cover-up for focusing on weight loss.
The whole weight loss angle doesn’t work for me–I tend to put on weight during Lent, maybe because of all the pasta in tomato sauce, and all those peanut butter sandwiches. But what I like about the Orthodox eating plan, aside from the fact that less meat is more environmentally-friendly and animal-friendly, is the sense, during Lent, that we’re all in it together. Regulating what you eat isn’t meant to keep you Anne-Hathaway-wasting-away-in-Les-Miz thin (yes, according to reports, she’s a vegan), it’s just meant to remind you, each time you choose something to eat, that this is a special, solemn time of year.
You’re not supposed to flaunt your fasting; in fact, a brochure from the Department of Religious Education, Orthodox Church in America suggests “Suit your fast to your work, but avoid luxury. Again, tell no one. Do not advertise or discuss your fasting with anyone.” (Oopsie! I guess blogging about fasting, and imagining starlets doing it maybe isn’t quite in the spirit…) The brochure, which also recommends giving to charity, praying, and meditating, goes on to say, “If we do these things, not in a spirit of gloomy self-denial or irritated self-pity, we will gain an awareness of genuine peace and joy in communion with God and those around us.”
It’s the communion with others that makes Orthodox fasting seem so much more fun than run-of-the-mill veganism (unless you’re a shellfish). At this time of year in Greece, restaurants start writing in their cuttlefish risotto and vegetarian specialties on the menu, and even McDonald’s introduces its McFasting placemats and value meals (I remember spring rolls being a prime feature, making this a cross-cultural celebration).
In Nicaragua, where Western Lent has been in full swing for weeks now as Western Easter is March 31st this year (Orthodox Easter is May 5th), my mother-in-law secured for us a fruit paste delicacy that is only made in Granada at Easter. And there have been Via Cruz parades through town every Friday, with the faithful following a wooden statue of Christ carrying the cross. When I first saw the parade, I thought that the worshippers carrying the statue did so in imitation of Christ bearing the cross. But then I noticed the fruit vendor balancing her basket of fruit on her head, and the ESKIMO man leaning on his cart of ice cream, and I realized that everyone watching the parade had their own cross to bear, and that perhaps Christ carried his in imitation of us and not just vice versa.
One of the magical properties of rituals is how they manage to slow time for us, to remind us of the season, the day, the moment. When I became an adult it seemed that the world moved so much faster than it had when I was a child, and then when I got married and had a baby of my own, it sped up even further. A communal, seasonal observance such as Lent allows me to stop and remember that this is a specific time unlike any other; it’s not Christmas, it’s not Fourth of July, and it’s not just an ordinary Tuesday. I like being reminded of that each time I eat.
I also like ice cream and steak, although not together. But the beauty of the Orthodox meal plan is that I know I’ll get back to those treats when the time is right.
Maybe I’m a little nostalgic about Lent because I wasn’t able to observe the fast the past two years, because I was pregnant and then breastfeeding. “That’s your fast,” a priest told me last year, and it’s true, feeding another human several times a day is a great way to foster communion with an other and with God. (Breastfeeding would also be a great Hollywood diet craze.)
This year, I’m able to dig in to the chickpeas and the tourlou with everyone else. And I plan to enjoy it while it lasts.