Tuesday, March 3, 2020

The Year I Kept the Holy Three-Day Fast at the Beginning of Great Lent

When I was fifteen my grandmother in Greece told me how she once met a monk who ate or drank absolutely nothing for the entire first week of Great Lent beginning on Clean Monday until after the Divine Liturgy on the first Saturday of Great Lent. The only other ascetic feat I remember her telling me about this monk was that every time it rained he would go up to the roof and stand outside with his face upwards towards the sky until the rain stopped. I was fascinated by this, and it was the first time I ever heard about the tradition of keeping a strict fasting rule for the first week of Great Lent. It was then that I also learned about the tradition of keeping a three-day fast from Clean Monday, or more specifically from Forgiveness Sunday Vespers, till after the Presanctified Liturgy on Clean Wednesday, during which time absolutely no food or even water is permitted. When I asked my pious grandmother if she ever did it, she replied no, because of its great difficulty.

Later that year, in my high school sophomore biology class, I had a teacher who almost daily ridiculed the idea of the existence of God, and tried to get the other students to join him. Even though the majority of my fellow students were Catholics and Mormons, they felt obliged to agree and affirm his convictions. I never did. The things he would say were absurd, and sometimes I would call him out on his absurdities in front of the class. Other times I would just skip class, cause I was tired of hearing it, to the point where I skipped one or two more than I should have and I flunked the class. But during one of his rants, he talked about how a human being cannot survive without food and water beyond three days. I told him that there are many recorded instances of people surviving without food and water for more than three days, and as an example I told him how my grandmother met a monk who was known to go at least five days without food or water, and I added the story of Jesus fasting in the desert for forty days. He doubted the truth of these stories, and said that maybe you can survive without food for a while, but certainly not water beyond three days. Since then, I was determined to prove him wrong.

I never got around to attempting to prove him wrong until I was a junior in Hellenic College as a seminarian. After emerging from probably the worst and most despairing period of my life, Great Lent was upon me and I was feeling spiritually rejuvenated. It was the perfect time to do the Holy Three-Day Fast during the first three days of Great Lent. It was almost a last minute decision and really didn't give myself time to prepare for it mentally. I was just going to do it. So before Forgiveness Vespers on Sunday evening I went out and ate a cheeseburger and fries, drank some water, and decided that was going to be the last thing I put in my mouth until Wednesday night when I received Holy Communion at the Presanctified Liturgy. I woke up the next morning, and I had no hunger or thirst. As I saw my fellow students go to the cafeteria for breakfast, lunch and dinner, I just went to my room. Tuesday was the exact same - no hunger or thirst and went to my room during each meal. I had already lasted longer than I thought I would, but I was astonished how easy it was. Surely Wednesday would be different. But it wasn't. In fact, I felt even better and more energized. I received Holy Communion that night, then sat down in the cafeteria at dinner to eat my first meal since Sunday. However, I felt strong enough to go on. I got the urge to imitate the monk my grandmother told me about and continue the fast till Saturday. But I decided not to, since I had never come close to fasting like this before and didn't want to overdo it, but my willingness to do so was enough proof to me that I could have easily gone at least one more day without food or water, thus proving what my high school biology teacher taught was wrong. Even when I had the food in front of me, I didn't want to eat it, but I forced myself to.

This was my experience of the Holy Three-Day Fast of Great Lent. I had the will to do it, and I did it. Though I thought it would be difficult, it wasn't. Do I generally recommend it? No, not really.

Here's the thing. When I decided to do this fast, I was in a very good state of mind. Let's rewind. Remember when I told you about my last meal on Sunday being a cheeseburger and fries? Well, when I ate that meal, it was also a first date with a female fellow student I liked a lot who became my girlfriend. When I told her about the fast I was going to do, she encouraged me. She would be the only one I would tell till this day. I tried to encourage her to do it with me, but she insisted she was too weak for it. On top of that, as I mentioned, I was a seminarian, where church services were mandatory, and on Clean Monday there was an all day retreat. If I wasn't in such a liturgical environment and receiving encouragement from my girlfriend, and being in a very positive state of mind and feeling spiritually rejuvenated, I don't know if I would have been able to do it, and especially do it so easily. I was also very excited about it while I was doing it. In fact, I would tell my girlfriend how easy it was very often, to the point that on Tuesday evening during my fast, after a church service and as she was going her way to the cafeteria for dinner while I was going my way to my room, I mentioned how I didn't even feel an urge to eat dinner, and she snapped at me thinking I was being prideful and making her feel guilty, which I wasn't - I was just amazed by the whole experience. This was also a main reason why I decided to just call it quits on Wednesday night; I didn't think my girlfriend could handle more of my fasting.

I never did the Holy Three-Day Fast again after this. I proved to myself that I could do it, but I've never again had such a perfect environment and perfect moment in my life to be excited about it like I was then. In fact, I think I did it at the wrong moment. It was too easy for me at that time. It should have been a little more difficult. I think I spoiled the experience for myself. I would encourage others to at least try it once in their life, if they think they are able. I don't generally recommend it for the average Orthodox Christian, because most people are on the run all day and work their jobs and have a bunch of obligations that would make such a fast a burden. But if you find yourself in the right mentality and right moment in your life, give it a try and see how it goes. If you can't abstain from water, then just do the food. If you do it prayerfully and without pride, I believe it will be beneficial for you as it was for me.