I'm new to the forum and I hope I give no offence, but I think many of the “down-sides” for converts aren’t as high-flown as jurisdictional and calendar issues. For me, it was utterly wonderful to find Orthodox spirituality and I, personally, don’t give a fig for jurisdictional and calendar issues. Infighting and ethnic issues go right over my head. We are all faulty human beings and I accept each person as I find them and can only hope that others can do the same with this humble sinner. My issue as a convert has been with what I consider the impracticalities and even dangers of the sudden implementation of the Fasts with converts, especially within the setting of our Western society.
I think with Orthodoxy, as with all things, there is a “honeymoon” period and then the realisation hits home that to continue in the relationship you have chosen (Church, marriage or anything else for that matter) hard work and commitment is necessary. And sometimes, one simply has to make some practical adjustments or leave altogether.
I remember well the first flush of my romance with Orthodoxy. With great enthusiasm I approached the times of Fasting, searching the net for recipes, buying in all the “right” foods (which were completely foreign to my normal diet), and following all the rules to the letter. Then after about three years of progressively worse reactions to each period of fasting, I realised I had a serious problem. Fasting had actually made me overweight, (I just couldn’t shift the extra weight during the non-Fast periods and so each time a Fast came around I piled on more) - and worse than that, it had made me ill.
At the time, my priest’s wife, rather than my priest, was very rigid about the matter and heaped (I’m sure without meaning to) a lot of guilt onto the situation. I talked to her about the difficulties I was having. She kept encouraging me, supplying me with her favourite Fast recipes, advising me to keep my energy levels up with fruit-juice and what amounted to highly refined carbohydrate foods. Basically, when I told her how awful I was feeling, so awful that I considered it irresponsible to drive in such a condition, I was told that I should be — and I quote - “happy to eat beans for Jesus!” (Whatever that is supposed to mean.) Well, such advice is all very well, but I’m home-schooling and it wasn’t any benefit to anyone if I couldn’t cope with lessons for almost two-thirds of the year, was wasting money on up-sizing my clothing, was physically ill and feeling utterly dejected. How was this doing anything “for Jesus”? And what did this all have to do with theosis? When she suggested that I join Weight Watchers (no way!) for the times in between the Fasts, I threw my hands up in despair. Was life ever going to be normal again? And could I continue with this?
By this time, I really could not come to grips with it all logically. I had converted for the sake of receiving the Eucharist and if I didn’t fast I couldn’t participate. So did that mean I had to already be perfect before being able to partake of the divine nature? But hold on a moment, isn’t the Church the hospital where the spiritually sick receive the “medicine of immortality” so that they overcome passions to attain theosis?
It didn’t make any sense. It was permissible to eat chocolate cake made with heaps of sugar, egg substitute and chemically-laden margarine instead of butter. One could replace milk with soy (which I am violently allergic to), olive oil with canola, indulge in all sorts of other unhealthy “treats”, but couldn’t have a boiled egg and a piece of toast for breakfast? So four times a year I was replacing my normal healthy diet for one loaded with carbohydrates, lacking in adequate sources of protein, making myself fat and ill — all for what? For Jesus? The whole enterprise seemed more like a farce than a fast.
When I finally was so sick that I had trouble getting out of bed in the morning, I popped along to see my doctor. After a whole raft of blood tests, there were some alarming results. My doctor called me in to see him and asked me what on earth I had been doing with regard to my diet. (Of course, he had noticed the extra weight, but the blood tests revealed how bad things really were.) After I told him what I was doing with regard to my diet, he advised me to stop immediately. I spoke to my priest who was shocked that fasting had been so detrimental to my health. He was very kind and explained to me that the Fasts aren’t all about what we eat, but the condition of our hearts (I’m not talking cardiac health, here — though it’s a point to consider) and our approach to serving God. So together we worked out a strategy for the Fast periods.
My approach to the Fasts is much more practical and relaxed now. I simply do the best I can. I eat as normally as possible, but cut out all red meat, all desserts and treats (no chocolate cake of any kind!). I don’t rent movies. I read inspirational Orthodox literature, and give as much as I can to Orthodox charities (not Weight Watchers!)
I’m not suggesting in any way that people shouldn’t attempt the fasts, and all power to those who are successful. I think it’s wonderful! What I do think is that with converts there needs to be some consideration to the lifestyle and society in which we live and the possible effect such drastic changes in diet can cause. Whereas in the Middle East and other places it’s perfectly natural to have been brought up on lentils and chickpeas, it’s a darned painful experience for those who haven’t! It’s even worse if a convert is rushed into fasting without consideration of the possible negative affects on their health.