Time for another rant about Lent

With Ash Wednesday behind them, online friends of Hollywood screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi braced themselves for what has become a Lenten tradition -- fasting-day manifestos from the witty former nun. "It's a Friday of Lent dear Catholic brethren. And you know what that means," she wrote on Facebook. "Corporate Sacrifice Power Activate! No meat. No braised oxtail. No venison medallions. No veal short ribs. No rabbit sausage. NO MEAT. No Muscovy Duck. No Turkey jerky. No Kangaroo Loin Fillets. nO mEAt. No elk flank steaks. No Wagyu beef. No Chicken Kiev. No MeAt. No meat. No meat. NO MEAT."

In case anyone missed the point, Nicolosi has strong convictions about the tendency these days among Sunday Mass Catholics to assume that centuries of traditions about fasting and the spiritual disciplines of Lent have been erased from the church's teachings and canon law.

Yes, skipping that Friday cheeseburger may seem like a symbolic gesture for many Americans, she said, reached by telephone. Nevertheless, these kinds of small sacrifices add up and they can help believers focus on bigger questions about this life and the life to come.

"The attitude among way too many people these days is that there's no real sin in anything, anywhere, anymore," said Nicolosi, who leads The Story Institute at Azusa Pacific University. "Everyone has taken in the idea that God loves them and then decided that the whole idea of sin and repentance and sacrifice and punishment and hell just doesn't make any sense. ...

"It's like there are no bare minimum membership requirements for being a Catholic and there's no bare minimum requirements for Lent. There's no eternal accountability. Everyone thinks they're basically OK and that everything they want is basically OK."

Meanwhile, in an ironic twist, it seems that more Americans are talking about the 40-plus day penitential season before Easter. And Lent isn't just for Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox anymore. Lent is for bookish evangelicals and all kinds of liberal mainline Protestants, not just Episcopalians. Ministers in a variety of churches are distributing Lenten meditation booklets, planning special retreats and even adding midweek services for truly die-hard worshipers.

But at the heart of this modernized version of Lent is a popular concept that has little or nothing to do with ancient church traditions. This is, of course, the idea of each individual believer choosing to "give up one thing" for Lent and then, apparently, sharing this choice with the world through social media.

A recent glance at the 2014 Twitter Lent Tracker found that the Top 10 items to sacrifice during Lent were school, chocolate, Twitter, swearing, alcohol, soda, online social networking, sweets, fast food and, wait for it, Lent. Giving up meat came in 11th and surrendering coffee was the 14th choice. Those in need of guidance may turn to for help.

"To the extent people avoid 'real Lent,' I would suppose it's because of our society's difficulty with the idea of religion making claims on our lives and obligations," said Jimmy Akin, director of apologetics for the website.

"To the extent people embrace this 'do-it-yourself Lent,' I would think it's because of two factors: first, our innate religious impulse seeking a way to express itself and, second, the therapeutic, self-help current in our culture."

Meanwhile, the updated online resources in what Akin calls his annual "Lenten rant" continue to note that Catholics are supposed to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, the Fridays of Lent and Good Friday. He added: "The law of abstinence binds everyone who is 14 years old and up unless they have a medical condition that would interfere significantly with abstinence from meat."

Meanwhile, Nicolosi noted, it may be a good thing that the spiritual curious are at least experimenting with the "give up one thing" Lite Lent concept. The problem is that so many Catholics have settled for this radically individualized take on a crucial season in church life.

"Come on, people! It's Lent," she said. "We are supposed to believe in the power of corporate prayer and sacrifice and we should be hearing about that from our priests and bishops. ... It totally frosts my cookies that I have heard more about Lent this year on Fox News than I have from the pulpit of my own church. That's just not right."

Now that's a tough Lent

It was a decade ago during Lent that author Lauren Winner was visited by an angel, unawares. "Actually, it was my priest," said Winner, who teaches Christian spirituality at Duke Divinity School. "I have learned that people in my life often tell me what I need to do during Lent. ... It's kind of like hearing from angels."

Although the voice wasn't miraculous, Winner thought it would take a miracle to follow her spiritual guide's advice. The challenge was deceptively simple: Could she give up reading during Lent?

At the time, Winner was working as book review editor for and studying for her doctorate at Columbia University. She was a writer, editor and student and, naturally, was surrounded by books day after day.

How in the name of God was she supposed to stop reading?

Nevertheless, she decided to try.

"This was not your normal 40 days of work," said Winner, author of "Girl Meets God: A Memoir" and other works of contemporary spirituality. "What I was doing was attacking my own work obsessions. This forced me to examine the place of work in my life. It made me examine other parts of my life, as well."

Fasting traditions during Lent -- the 40-day penitential season before Easter -- have evolved through the ages, especially in Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and liturgical Protestant churches that emphasize the church calendar. Winner is active in the Episcopal Church.

For centuries, Catholics ate only one real meal a day, with no meat or fish. Today, Catholics are supposed to observe a strict fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday at the start of Lent and Good Friday at the end. In many parishes, the faithful are still urged to avoid meat on Fridays during Lent. Orthodox Christians strive to fast from meat and dairy products during all of Lent and Holy Week.

Meanwhile, millions of Americans in a variety of churches follow an informal tradition in which they choose to fast from "one thing" -- such as chocolate or soft drinks -- during Lent. This practice may be linked to a passage in the sixth century monastic Rule of St. Benedict, which states:

"During these days, therefore, let us add something to the usual amount of our service, special prayers, abstinence from food and drink, that each one offer to God … something above his prescribed measure. Namely, let him withdraw from his body somewhat of food, drink, sleep, speech, merriment, and with the gladness of spiritual desire await holy Easter."

Winner noted that this practice of "giving up one thing" was supposed to build on the traditional Lenten disciplines linked to food, prayer and almsgiving -- not replace them. The goal was to shine a spotlight into some unexamined corner of one's life.

It didn't take her long, for example, for Winner to realize that she couldn't stop reading -- period. She needed, for example, to reread one book to prepare for an exam. She had to do some reading in order to do her day job, but she asked if she could be relieved from some assignments that she would have accepted, if not for this unique Lenten discipline.

The surprise, said Winner, was how this fast touched her life after the working day. That's when she could almost hear her favorite volumes of history and fiction calling her name (especially the detective novels).

"What this showed me was that I was using reading as an escape. I was reading books as a way to get away from some things," she said, and then laughed. "Fiction is probably a better way to cope with some issues in your life than heroin. But if books are what you're using, then you need to find that out."

In the years since, Winner has repeated this bookish fast several times, while searching for other disciplines that would have a similar impact. This year she is trying to fast from "saying 'yes' all the time," which is harder than it sounds.

"The thing is, Lent isn't a therapeutic self-improvement project," she said. "We're supposed to take a hard look at our sins and then repent. But how do we get to repentance if we have never truly paused to examine our lives? ...

"Most of us are morally and spiritually sleepwalking. We need to wake up and see where we are and what we're doing."

Fasting, for evangelical Protestants?

Elmer Towns had a big problem three decades ago after he moved to Lynchburg, Va., to help a Baptist preacher named Jerry Falwell start the school that grew into Liberty University. Month after month, Towns faced two house payments -- a real family crisis. Thus, the veteran Bible professor decided to try something that he considered a radical, "Old Testament thing." In addition to praying that someone would buy the house back in Chicago, Towns and his wife Ruth began fasting on the day that mortgage was due.

Not much happened, but they kept praying and fasting.

After a year, the house sold and Towns has been pondering this question ever since: What role did their fasting play in solving this personal problem?

"What I have learned is that there is much more to fasting than trying to get something from God, because we cannot say what God will do," said Towns, the author of 100-plus books and dean of the School of Religion at Liberty.

"You are really fasting because you want a closer relationship to God. ... There are fasts where you are seeking an end result -- like the deliverance of a person from addiction. But that is not the norm. That's not the main reason God wants us to fast."

These kinds of mysteries have driven Towns to do something that may sound strange for an evangelical Protestant. He has written three books about fasting, including the recent "The Beginner's Guide to Fasting," and has already finished a fourth book on this topic.

Fasting, of course, is a familiar practice for Jews, who observe a strict fast on Yom Kippur ("Day of Atonement"). Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan and believers in many other religions also practice forms of fasting.

Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians fast several times during the church year, especially in the pre-Easter season of Lent -- which began this past week. Some modern Catholics continue to fast from meat during Lent, while the Orthodox strive not to eat meat or dairy products.

This practice -- eliminating specific forms of food from the diet -- is one of several different forms of fasting found in the Bible and in religious history, noted Towns. In the Book of Daniel, the prophet and his friends only ate vegetables and water for 10 days. The leader of the Methodist renewal movement, John Wesley, often fasted for 10 days before major conferences, eating only whole-grain breads and drinking water.

Another common practice, which Towns considers a "normal" fast, is to eat nothing, while continuing to drink liquids. The Gospel of Luke observes that during a 40-day fast Jesus "ate nothing and afterward, when he had ended, he was hungry."

An "absolute" fast, said Towns, eliminates both solid food and liquids, as in St. Paul's three-day fast after his conversion on the Damascus road. This strict form of fasting is not for beginners and never should exceed three days, he said. On Mount Sinai, Moses is said to have survived a 40-day fast without food or drink -- which would clearly be miraculous.

Believers who are new to fasting should seek guidance from experienced clergy and even from doctors, stressed Towns. The bottom line: It isn't physically or spiritually wise to "put God to the test by rushing off and doing something irrational," he said.

In the past decade or so, interest in spiritual disciplines such as fasting is on the rise among many Protestants, including evangelicals and those in Pentecostal or "charismatic" movements, said Towns. This is interesting because, at the same time, many Americans seem anxious not to be labeled as religious "fanatics," "nuts" or "extremists."

Yet many Americans seem open to new forms of religious experience.

"I think that there's a growing interest in spirituality among all kinds of people -- people inside the church and people outside the church, as well," said Towns. "Some people are willing to try all kinds of things right now, including some things that I think are very dangerous.

"People may hear about fasting and say, 'That sounds interesting. That sounds powerful. I think I'll give that a try.' ... The issue is whether they have the commitment to stick to it. I'm concerned that most people aren't willing to pay a price to experience the presence of God."

One thing about Lent

Faithful fans of ESPN's "Mike & Mike in the Morning" know that former NFL lineman Mike Golic takes great pleasure in skewering his urbane shrimp of a partner, Mike Greenberg.

But in recent weeks, the sarcastic jabs by the University of Notre Dame graduate began drawing an ominous canned response from the producers -- a doomsday choir chanting "Golic's going to hell."

You see, Golic vowed to make a big sacrifice this year for Lent, the 40-day penitential season that precedes Easter. When he was in Catholic school, he told listeners, he was taught to give up one thing during Lent. This time around, Golic elected -- rather than donuts or another great pleasure -- to give up making fun of "Greeny."

When most people think of Lent, this "giving up one thing" concept is the one thing that comes to mind, even for many of America's 62 million Catholics. Now, many Protestants have adopted the same practice. This is, however, a modern innovation that has little or nothing to do with ancient Lenten traditions, in the West or the East.

"There are Catholics who don't practice their faith and they may not be up on what it really means to observe Lent," said Jimmy Akin, director of apologetics and evangelization for the Catholic Answers ( website. "But active Catholics know there is supposed to be real fasting and abstinence involved in Lent.

"The question is whether they want to do more, to add something extra. That is what the 'one thing' was supposed to be about."

Lenten traditions have evolved through the ages. For centuries, Catholics kept a strict fast in which they ate only one true meal a day, with no meat or fish. Over time, regulations were eased to allow small meals at two other times during the day.

Today, Catholics are supposed to observe a strict fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday at the start of Lent and Good Friday at the end. In most parishes they are urged to avoid meat on Fridays. However, Lenten guidelines have been eased so much in recent decades that even dedicated Catholics may become confused. Akin tries to cover the basics online in what he calls his "Annual Lent Fight" roundup.

It's impossible to know how or when the idea of "giving up one thing" came to dominate the Lenten season, he said. The roots of the tradition may date back to the sixth century and the influential monastic Rule of St. Benedict, which added a wrinkle to the usual Lenten guidelines.

"During these days, therefore, let us add something to the usual amount of our service, special prayers, abstinence from food and drink, that each one offer to God ... something above his prescribed measure," states the Rule. "Namely, let him withdraw from his body somewhat of food, drink, sleep, speech, merriment, and with the gladness of spiritual desire await holy Easter."

The key, Akin explained, is that this was supposed to be an extra sacrifice. The Rule even tells the monks to seek the approval of their spiritual fathers before taking on an extra discipline, so as not to be tempted by pride.

"It's understandable that when you have a season in which you're supposed to do something -- like penance -- there will always be people who want to do more. They will want to observe both the letter and the spirit of the law," said Akin. "At the same time, you're going to have people who want to go in the opposite direction. They will want to find a way to do the bare minimum, to set the bar as low as possible."

It's also possible, he said, that the "give up one thing" tradition grew out of another understandable practice. Parents and Catholic teachers have long urged small children -- who cannot keep a true fast for health reasons -- to do what they can during Lent by surrendering something symbolic, such as candy or a favorite television show.

But if grownups stop practicing the true Lenten disciplines, then the "one thing" standard is what remains.

"You can have a good example set at home and then undermined at school or it can happen the other way around," said Akin. "Our children need to see the faith lived out at home and the school and in the parish. You need consistency."

Food and the basic faith groups

It's Yom Kippur. Will your Jewish grandmother serve shrimp-and-bacon hordeurves when the family breaks the fast?

It's Ramadan. Will your devout Muslim parents smile if you serve dinner several hours before sundown?

It's Good Friday. Will the Catholic college cafeteria serve hamburgers?

It's Thanksgiving. Can you predict the foods that will be on your mother's table? Will the German grandmothers bake Christmas cookies at the Lutheran church? Is the tuna casserole served at potluck dinners at rural Minnesota churches truly a sacrament?

When it comes to the rhythms and symbols of faith, it's easy to see the role that food plays, especially in the intense and emotional final months of the religious calendar.

"Food is all about the stories that define our lives," said Daniel Sack of the University of Chicago Divinity School, author of the book "Whitebread Protestants: Food and Religion in American Culture."

"I'm not just talking about religious rituals that involve food. ? For many church people, what happens in the social hall week after week is more important than what happens in the sanctuary. They come for Communion, but also for community."

Sack said food traditions -- with a big "T," as well as with a small "t" -- demonstrate why it's almost impossible to draw a line showing where religion ends and culture begins. Food is one of the basic building blocks of life and, thus, is one of the "passions" that religious believers have always struggled to keep under control.

Change what people eat and you change their lives. However, there are times when the religious significance of food is obvious and there are times when it is not. While studying this subject, Sack said he began sorting the different kinds of food traditions into four groups.

* Sometimes, the food becomes a holy object in and of itself. One example is when a Buddhist takes a food offering to a temple. In other cases, ordinary food becomes sacred as part of an intricate ritual that is defined by prayers and scripture -- such as the bread and wine in a Catholic Mass.

"What is crucial is that this sacramental understanding of food seeps into other parts of life," said Sack. "And we're not just talking about Christianity. If you start talking about bread and wine, it's hard to take that symbolism out of there."

* Most religious traditions, to varying degrees, claim some right to control the role that food plays in daily life. This is most obvious in faiths such as Judaism, with its "kosher" traditions, and in Islamic laws to establish what is and what is not "halal." In other faiths, believers fast from eating certain foods at different times of the week or year.

* In many cases, these sacred laws and traditions then begin to shape the festivals and the cuisine of a particular culture or ethnic group. At this point the line between Greek cooking and Greek Orthodox cooking starts to blur. What role does faith play in the menus of Ethiopian, Italian, Lebanese, Indian or Swedish restaurants?

* Food also reflects what people believe about family and community life. It would be strange to see conservative Evangelical leaders serve the same food at a men's dinner that they serve a luncheon for the women's group. Foods reflect social roles, too.

Sack said that every community, every family, cannot help but develop informal rituals linked to meals, because meals are such symbolic times of fellowship. And when the times change, so do the meals.

Consider the food served at youth-group meetings. Once, parents organized these meetings and prepared the food, helping to maintain a sense of watch-care and protection from the outside world. Today, most churches hire professional youth pastors who plan multi-media programs and -- naturally -- send out for pizza.

"When we assimilate at the level of the table, we have truly assimilated to the world around us," said Sack. "When you take this view of life, those parents are not just sending out for pizza -- they are sending a symbolic signal of acceptance of the surrounding youth culture. ?

"You see the same thing happening when people start lining up those fast-food boxes at church potluck dinners. Some megachurches even have food courts, these days. Who has the time to prepare those special dishes that people used to take to church?"

Lutherans in non-Roman Lent

Eric Phillips really likes soup at lunch.

One of his favorites is baked-potato soup, a filling option that, at first glance, appears to be meat-free. That's important because Phillips isn't eating meat during the 40 days of Lent preceding Easter. Alas, baked-potato soup almost always contains chicken fat, as do many vegetable or pasta soups.

"I gave up meat for Lent last year, which was a pain in the neck," said Phillips, who has a Catholic University of America doctorate in Patristics, the study of the early Church Fathers' writings.

"I decided that I didn't want to go through all of that this year, but then I realized this was actually a pretty good reason to try to do it again. ... The whole reason we fast is to do something that gets our attention, something that reminds us that we're sinners in need of redemption."

While all this Lent talk may sound Catholic, Phillips is a convert into the conservative Missouri-Synod Lutheran Church. He grew up "low church" evangelical and is still adapting to a denomination that includes both modern multimedia megachurches and congregations that embrace old hymns, "high church" liturgy and some ancient traditions.

Phillips attends Immanuel Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Alexandria, Va., a small church near Washington, D.C., that includes many who are striving to embrace fasting, almsgiving, Vespers services and other Lenten disciplines. Some are avoiding meat, while others are surrendering one cherished pleasure -- such as desserts, soft drinks, pizza or candy. Phillips said a friend is "trying to give up sarcasm for Lent."

But Lutherans are Lutherans and these believers are not following a specific set of Lenten rules. They are not Roman Catholics or Orthodox Christians who, to one degree or another, follow ancient traditions that ask them to fast from meat or even from meat and all dairy products.

For traditional Lutherans the words of Augsburg Confession, article XXVI, are clear: "In former times men taught, preached, and wrote that distinctions among foods and similar traditions which had been instituted by men serve to earn grace and make satisfaction for sin. For this reason new fasts, new ceremonies, new orders, and the like were invented daily, and were ardently and urgently promoted, as if these were a necessary service of God by means of which grace would be earned if they were observed and a great sin committed if they were omitted."

The writings of Martin Luther make it clear that he was rebelling against practices common in the medieval Catholic churches and monasteries of his day, said Immanuel Pastor C.S. Esget.

Thus, it's easy to conclude that Luther rejected fasting and similar disciplines altogether, when what he rejected were mandatory rules. Instead, the Protestant reformer embraced voluntary fasting and almsgiving and argued that these disciplines were like weight lifting and running -- part of a spiritual exercise regime.

"The key is that anything that smacks of legalism will raise all kinds of red flags for Lutherans," stressed Esget, who has promoted Lenten disciplines in his own kitchen as well as his pulpit. "We want to be able to say that fasting, for example, is a good thing. But the minute it becomes a requirement, then there's going to be trouble."

For centuries, Lutherans in Europe chose to follow many fasting traditions found in Catholicism and other Western churches, such as the Church of England. But this gradually evolved into a minimalist tradition that Esget said he has never been able to find in Luther or any other church traditions -- the popular modern practice of giving up "one thing" during Lent.

"What has happened over the centuries is that many Lutherans -- especially after the move to America -- have tried to blend in with all of the Protestants that surround us in this culture," he said. "So most of our traditions have faded over time into a kind of vague idea that it's Lent, but we're not really sure what that is supposed to mean."

The pastor paused, struggling to define the safe middle ground between laziness and legalism, between apathy and dead ritualism.

"I wouldn't want to see my people doing all of these things during Lent just because I laid down the law," said Esget. "Yet, I have to admit that really wish they would do them. Does that make sense?"

A short test for Lent 2006

Now that Ash Wednesday has passed, the world's 1 billion or more Roman Catholics have entered the season of Lent. It's time for a short test.

During this holy season of penitence and reflection, America's 62 million Catholics are required to:

(a) Go to confession.

(b) Abstain from meat and fast by eating only one full meal on Fridays.

(c) Pray and meditate on biblical accounts of the suffering and death of Jesus, including attending weekly Stations of the Cross rites or an extra Mass.

(d) Increase their efforts to help the needy through volunteer work and donations.

(e) Make a unique personal sacrifice, such as giving up sweets, coffee, soap operas or SportsCenter on ESPN.

(e) All of the above or some combination of the above, depending on the conscience of the individual Catholic.

(f) None of the above.

Yes, this is a trick question and the key is the phrase "required to."

Modern Catholic leaders have steered away from dogmatic pronouncements about practical details in the spiritual lives of the faithful. The end result is that Catholics are gently encouraged to practice many spiritual disciplines during the Lenten season, including all of the above and more. However, they are required to do few things in particular and millions of Catholics ignore those regulations, as well.

"What is the reality? The reality is that most Catholics do not think much about the meaning of Lent," said Father William H. Stetson, director of the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C., only a few blocks from the White House. "Most Catholics have little or no idea what they're supposed to be doing during this season, although they all want to go get ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday."

Lenten traditions have changed dramatically through the centuries, with some form of pre-Easter fast beginning in the early church. This evolved into a penitential season of 40 days, a number rich in biblical symbolism-- including the 40 days of prayer and fasting that Jesus spent in the wilderness.

For centuries, Roman Catholics observed a strict fast in which they ate only one meal a day, with no meat or fish allowed. Over time, regulations were softened to allow small amounts of food at two other times during the day.

Today, Catholics are asked to observe the strict fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent and Good Friday at the end. They are urged to avoid meat on Fridays in Lent, but the U.S. Catholic bishops now allow other acts of penance to substitute for this.

These Lenten regulations are usually published in parish newsletters and explained by priests during services.

According to canon law, noted Stetson, Catholics are supposed to take Holy Communion at least once a year, a tradition that millions of church members have grown up hearing described as their "Easter duty." The assumption is that this would require Catholics to go to confession during Lent before fulfilling that duty.

However, few priests and bishops would assume that to be true in American pews today. In the mid-1980s, a University of Notre Dame study found that 26 percent of active Catholics never go to confession at all and another 35 percent may go once a year. No one believes that those numbers are rising.

This points to a problem, said Stetson, a problem larger than any confusion that exists about the myriad layers of church laws, regulations and traditions that govern the holy season of Lent in America and the rest of the Catholic world.

The biggest problem, he said, is that so many Catholics no longer think of themselves as sinners.

"There are all kinds of actions that the church teaches are seriously sinful that the typical modern Catholic no longer believes are seriously sinful," said Stetson, who, as a 75-year-old priest, has seen many changes sweep through the Church of Rome. "Therefore, these typical Catholics walk up to the altar week after week to receive Communion without a single thought entering their minds about repentance or confession or anything like that.

"So you have to take that into account when you talk about Lent. In a penitential season you are supposed to feel real sorrow for your sins, which can be hard to do if you really do not think that you're sinning."

Facing a low-carb Lent

Depending on who is counting, somewhere between 5 million and 50 million Americans are on low-carbohydrate diets -- give or take a few million.

Trend watchers are even tossing around this monster statistic -- one in four Americans has caught the low-carb bug. That's a lot of bacon, sausage, eggs and cheese for the Atkins disciples and turkey, fish, egg substitutes and low-fat cheese for those who walk the way of the South Beach Diet.

This also means -- with 5 million Eastern Orthodox Christians in America -- that lots of people are trying to reconcile low-carb diets with the fasting discipline of Lent.

"I know that I'm struggling and everywhere I go I discover I'm not the only one," said Chuck Powell of the national Orthodox radio program Come Receive the Light ( "Lent is always a challenge and that's a good thing. But combine Lent with trying to stay on a low-carb and it's like, 'What is there left we can eat?' "

This leads to new questions, he said, such as: "What is the purpose of food anyway? What is the spiritual lesson to be learned here?"

Fasting is a part of life for many religious believers, including Jews at Yom Kippur and Muslims in the season of Ramadan. During the 40-day season of Lent, which precedes Easter, faithful Catholics will abstain from meat to varying degrees. Christians in other flocks may give up sweets or some other favorite food.

But Eastern Orthodox churches urge their members to follow an ancient fast that means abstaining from meat, eggs and dairy products. Orthodox believers do eat shrimp, scallops and other shellfish, but avoid meats with bones. There are subtle fasting differences between Greeks, Russians, Arabs and other Orthodox.

Nevertheless, these traditions tend to push those keeping the fast toward rice, pasta, corn, potatoes and bread -- the very foods shunned in low-carb diets. For many dieters the fear is real: What if they strive to keep the fast and, with a burst of carbohydrates, start regaining the weight they have struggled to lose?

"It seems like everybody in America is concerned about their weight and their health right now and you'd have to say that is a good thing," said Father Christopher Metropulos of St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., founder of Come Receive the Light. "At the same time, it seems that this is making everyone totally consumed with food and the reason we fast is to try to learn not to be consumed with food. ... The goal of the fast is to learn to crave God, not food."

And it's not just the lay people who are struggling with the fast, or being tempted to deny that these diet conflicts are real.

"I know priests who doing these diets and they are working for them," said Metropulos. "But I asked a priest who is doing the Atkins Diet, 'What are you going to eat during Lent?' And he said, 'I'll be busy. I just won't eat. I won't have time to eat.' I told him, 'Good luck. You'll need it.' "

Some Orthodox people cope by sharing recipes for tofu desserts, falafel, oriental salads (the key is the right sesame-seed dressing) and every imaginable casserole that can be made with beans. They know the microwave properties of every soy product on the market. They can read food labels like scientists.

In the end, many find it easy to lose sight of what Lenten fasting is supposed to be about in the first place, said Father Matthew Streett of Saints Peter and Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church in Potomac, Md. The goal is to discipline the will and to encourage repentance. Anyone who thinks of fasting as a form of dieting is missing the point.

"Fasting from food is only one aspect of fasting," he said, in a commentary written for strugglers. "Lent is a time for turning away from the emptier pleasures of our society: television, video games and the other forces that often do more to harm family communication and bonding rather than help.

"In Lent, we should examine our lives and isolate the influences that are destructive or silly, the habits that draw us away from God."