Growing up Greek Orthodox, as most of you know, involves following a set of rules. Among them is fasting during Lent.
There is what I call “hardcore fasting,” eating only Lenten foods during the entire 49-day period (it’s not 40, it’s 49; “40” is an urban myth). Then, there is an entire array of modified versions, tailored to the degree of modification with which a person if comfortable (after-all, these are self-created modifications, so they are based on one’s own standards). These include: 1) fasting only during the first and last weeks of Lent; 2) fasting only Holy week only; 3) fasting only on Good Friday; and more variations.
Typically inclined to think outside the box, I often asked questions along the lines of: “so, if fasting is a sacrifice, or a cleansing, or a preparation, and eating steak is not ok, but eating lima beans is perfectly fine, how exactly does that benefit someone who hates steak and loves lima beans to begin with? Isn’t that ‘fast’ really what that person does year round anyway?” Not satisfied with any of the answers to my question, I created my own rules, whereby I would use the Lenten period to do something “special” – something I normally don’t do year round.
For me, a steak-eater, giving it up for Lent is certainly playing by the rules. In fact, I did that one year – and even remember going to a steakhouse with a bunch of friends, and I ordered the mutton instead.
In other years, I began to cut out other things during Lent. Ice cream, for instance (back then, I used to eat it at least three times a week). And it went beyond food. In my 20s and 30s I smoked cigarettes socially – not every day, but when I’d go out to a bar with my friends, say, on the weekends. One year, I gave up cigarettes for Lent.
After a while, I decided that the “special” thing I would do should not be limited to abstinence, but rather a focus on being more Christlike. Doing something different during Lent than I do throughout the year. One of my best decisions in that respect was one year, when I chose to take five minutes each day and pray for a specific person. Not my loved ones – for whom I pray regularly anyway – but random people, whom I barely knew. Throughout the Lenten period, I evolved to pray for people whom I did not particularly like. I wouldn’t quite call them “enemies,” as I’d like to think I don’t have actual enemies – but let’s just say people not on my list of favorites. We all have those – you can probably think of some right now. Well, after a while, those were the ones I prayed for. The experience was liberating – like a weight had been lifted from my chest.
And then there was the year – not too long ago, maybe eight or nine years – when I decided that I would give one dollar to five different people every day for 40 days (yes, Lent lasts 49 days, as we discussed earlier, but I allotted for weekends, etc.). Working in New York City as I did at the time made it easy – it doesn’t take much to bump into a panhandler in Manhattan.
I went to the bank and asked for $200 singles. I wasn’t going to take the easy way out, and write one check for $200 to charity. I wouldn’t even give a five dollar bill out every day. No – I would hand a dollar to five different people for 40 days – that’s how I would extinguish the wad of 200 singles I kept in my jacket pocket, separate from the rest of my money.
Well, things didn’t go quite according to plan. That particular year was a very cold one in New York. A lot of the folks sleeping on the street asking for some help found warmer locales. I realized that not every day would result in a perfect dollar-to-five-people situation. Some days I would give more, and others less.
Much to my dismay, I sat in my Midtown Manhattan office on Good Friday (yes, I’m not one of those who usually takes that day off), and counted my “Lent cash”: I realized I still had 67 singles left, with a day and a half left before the Resurrection!
I worked into the into the early evening (as I did on Fridays back then), until it was time to call it a day – take the train Uptown, and visit the church that remains most special to me, because it is the one from my childhood: St. Spyridon, in Washington Heights. It is located on Wadsworth Avenue between 179th and 180th Streets. I thought about putting the rest of my money in the church collection plate – but that seemed like my last resort. Again, too easy. On a worst-case basis, I would do that the following night, at the Resurrection service. But I still had about 24 hours to go…
After the Good Friday evening service, I walked to Jesse’s Place – which was a few blocks away on the corner of Pinehurst Avenue and 181st Street. Jesse’s was a bar/restaurant that featured the greatest karaoke show I have ever seen. Most karaoke experiences are hokey, goofy, silly, and not even close to being “high-quality.” This one was very different. Profoundly better. It was run by a friend of mine, and I had the privilege of cohosting it for five years – just for fun. Sadly, Jesse’s Place no longer exists – it closed a few years ago.
I walked from St. Spyridon to Jesse’s, and less than a block away from my destination, I encountered a man on the street who asked if I could spare a dollar. I looked at him and said: “You are in luck, my friend!” I reached into my jacket pocket, pulled out the wad of 67 dollar bills, and handed it to him. He couldn’t believe it! “Bless you!” he said, over and over, “Bless you!”
I saw how overcome with joy he was, and that brought tears to my eyes.
Hardly a sacrifice for me, it was actually quite a wonderful treat. And one of my favorite Lent experiences ever.