God of the Fridge

The clear plastic egg rack is empty right now and it mocks me whenever I open the refrigerator door.

The drawer that usually contains bacon, sausages, lunchmeat and chicken is full of flour tortillas. I still haven't thought of what to put in the three cheese slots. The butter has gone AWOL, too, unless you count apple butter.

This is Great Lent and in million of homes the cooks are in a state of shock.

For Eastern Orthodox believers, Lent began all the way back on Sunday, Feb. 25, with the candlelight Forgiveness Vespers. Thus, my family is striving to follow the ancient Christian fasting traditions that ask us to shun meat and dairy products until Pascha (Easter) on April 15. This year, the Eastern and Western church calendars happen to be on the same page, which means that for Western churches Lent began with Ash Wednesday on Feb. 28.

There is more to Lent than the ritual avoidance of certain foods, forcing us to become one with our fruits and veggies. This is supposed to be a season of prayer, confession and intense worship. Lent is not a diet.

And many observe the season in different ways. Some Western believers, such as Roman Catholics and Episcopalians, elect to give up a specific pleasure, such as candy or soft drinks. Some go much further and surrender meat or caffeine. Others, in the East and the West, may add modern twists. A friend of mine gave up email, one year. Some families give up television. Of course, the vast majority of churchgoers -- even in the ancient churches -- totally ignore Lent.

But for those who try to embrace the most traditional disciplines, this is when we venture outside of our culinary comfort zones, way out into tofu territory. Following this kind of fast isn't easy in America. This isn't Greece, where you know who offers a fast-food "McLent" menu.

Do the math. Let's say that your house contains a boy under the age of 10. If you give up all meat and dairy, this means you will not be eating cheese. This means you will not be eating macaroni and cheese. Got the picture? Of course, the church isn't asking us to sacrifice the health of our children, requiring them to stop drinking milk. Still, this is a time for radical changes.

But why place such an emphasis on food? Does anyone really think it's spiritually better to eat dark chocolate (no milk) than to eat milk chocolate? Some people forgo steaks or fried chicken, but eat their weight in forms of seafood that are allowed during the fast, such as shrimp or clams. It would not be a Lenten discipline to eat lobster every day.

A priest I know faces a unique temptation. He has a deep and abiding passion for peanut butter, a substance the Orthodox tend to see a lot of during Lent. He would happily eat peanut butter several times a day. Now, is this good or is it a temptation? Perhaps it would be a better spiritual test for him to give up peanut butter instead of real butter. Go figure.

The bottom line is that the saints and apostles agree that human appetites matter. In the early church, St. Paul preached against the sinful ways of those whose "end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things." But the Bible also warns believers not to turn ancient spiritual disciplines into showy gestures, planting seeds of pride and arrogance. Finding that balance can be tricky.

Still, it's good to open the refrigerator door and ask the question: Who's in charge here? This is an issue that comes up in other ancient faiths, as well.

As an Orthodox Jewish friend of mine once said: "God wants to be in my refrigerator, too. If God isn't in ... my refrigerator, then He isn't in charge of the rest of my life. If God isn't the God of my refrigerator, then He isn't the God of my check book, or my Day Timer, or my television or any of the other things that try to run my life."