I have told this story many times, so forgive me as I repeat it. A number of years ago, I served as the priest of a parish of new converts who were not accustomed to fasting. Even the idea of fasting before receiving Communion on Sunday was new to them. A father relayed to me that his son, who would have been about eight or nine years old at the time, complained about fasting on Sunday morning. He said, “Dad, if I don’t eat, I am gonna die!” Well, he didn’t die and things did work out.
This implies to me that it takes time for people to adjust to the habit of fasting as a regular ongoing rule. I liken learning how to fast to adopting an exercise routine when one is trying to lose weight. If someone is 60 to 80 pounds overweight, they are not going to start their exercise routine by running four miles, or doing 100 sit-ups, and so on. They may run a quarter of a mile (or walk it) and start with five sit-ups. As they get used to this routine, they then may add to it, little by little, so that in six months time they indeed will run four miles and do 100 sit-ups, provided that they continue to be consistent in maintaining the gradual increase of their routine.
I think fasting for people who have never done so works in a similar manner. Maybe one starts with fasting from meat on Wednesday and Friday. After a month, dairy products get added. Then, after a few months, the complete fasting rules are observed on Wednesday and Friday.
I think the same reasoning needs to be applied during the 40-day fasts. If this is the first time a family has observed such fasts in earnest, they could begin by refraining from eating meat Monday to Friday, and then allowing dairy products every day except Wednesday and Friday. (Saturday and Sunday would be fast free). At the next 40-day fast they could observe a complete abstinence from meat and dairy products, with dairy products allowed on Saturday and Sunday. At the third 40-day fast there would be a complete abstinence of meat and dairy products. Finally at the fourth 40-day fast, the rules would be fully observed.
These are suggestions only for people for whom fasting is completely new. Before doing any of this, it would be wise for one to speak with his or her parish priest, who might propose a better way of approaching this than that which I offer here. It is interesting to note that during the Pre-Lenten cycle (when the Lenten Triodion begins), fasting is gradually introduced in a similar manner — step by step — during the weeks that precede Great Lent.
Next week I will speak on whether there should be rules that call for fasting from the countless modern technological gadgets and apps we have at our disposal.
The blessing of the Lord be upon you,