Monday, July 26, 2010

Substitutes and Alternatives

As an Orthodox Christian, I try to follow the Traditional Fasting Discipline on designated fasting days as well as during fasting seasons: with exceptions here and there, that discipline involves abstaining from all meat, dairy products, olive oil, and "wine" (really, all alcoholic beverages).

Generally speaking, keeping the fast is difficult, though not so burdensome that it's undoable. And it's supposed to be somewhat "uncomfortable"--we're not doing penance or trying to earn Divine favor, but we are attempting to practice self-denial, or at least avoid overindulgence, to remind ourselves that, ultimately, eating and drinking--and all other activities--are opportunities to give thanks to the One who provides for, sustains, and loves us.

That said, I've found that there are roughly two ways to abstain from certain food categories: eating foods outside of those categories for their own sake, and eating foods that technically don't violate the fast but that fool the taste buds (and eyes and nose) into thinking a "forbidden" food is actually being eaten. I'll call the former foods "alternatives," and this category (to oversimplify profoundly) includes vegetables, fruits, many breads, and most foods found in their "natural" or raw state. The latter foods, which I'll call "substitutes," include veggie burgers, soy dogs/nuggets/crumbles, soy milk, and other foods and beverages that mimic the look, smell, and flavor of non-vegan originals.

I'm not sure that the alternatives have any intrinsic spiritual superiority in comparison with the substitutes; I'm fairly certain that the use or negligence of moderation in eating from either category is of greater importance. But sometimes, I can't help but feel that I'm "cheating" when I allow the substitutes to dominate my diet, following the letter but not the spirit of the fast. Is there anything remotely ascetic about drinking vanilla soy milk--or, my favorite, "very vanilla" soy milk? Am I really "denying" myself anything when I eat that gourmet black bean burger?

Those questions have found a permanent home in my mind. Today, though, they also remind me of my present running-related dilemma: my Achilles tendons have forced me into another running "fast," or at least a time of running moderation. And the fast presents me with a choice of non-running activities: "alternatives" that I'd engage in for their own sake, such as bicycling or swimming, or else "substitutes" that more closely mimic running, such as using the elliptical or stair-step machines.

Because I've already started training for a fall marathon, I'm sorely (pun intended) tempted to do the latter, since I'd like to fool my muscles into thinking I'm still running, even when I'm not. Problem is, the substitutes force me to put weight on my tendons—the very thing I’m trying to avoid by cutting back my running. Conversely, swimming, probably the best form of exercise I could choose and the one that would put the least strain on my tender tendons, is not something I enjoy as exercise--it's the workout equivalent of beets and celery. Worst of all, I know that I'll be tempted to "cheat" outright--as I am in my food-fasting times--and run on days when I've planned to not do so; in fact, I’ve already done just that. Self-control is not a spiritual fruit I always cultivate with success.

By no means am I trying to equate the discipline of fasting with making choices based on exercise preferences. And, ultimately, it probably matters little what non-running activity I choose, over the next few weeks, or ever. It is, perhaps, a poor analogy.

But the analogy does cross my mind.


The obliquely spiritual nature of this post may, in part, stem from my thoughts about Fr. Matthew MacKay, an Orthodox priest serving in Houston, Texas, who reposed today. Only 54 years old, Fr. Matthew collapsed while running this morning.

I did not know Fr. Matthew, but several of my fellow parishioners did, and my pastor counted him as a close friend (and had just spent the past week with him at a clergy conference). My prayers are for his repose, and for strength for and mercy on his wife and two sons, the rest of his family, his friends, and his assisting clergy and parishioners.

May his Memory be Eternal.

And may I appreciate every run, not as an end in itself, but as a means of expressing thanks to the One who provides for, sustains, and loves me.


Discourse said...

Good post. Ain't it funny that the wed/fri fasts are tougher than Lent? Or maybe that's just me.

Memory eternal!

David T said...


And, no, it's not just you. I'm a true creature of habit, and I find it easier to keep doing one thing over and over (even something challenging like giving up favorite foods) than to drive in stop-and-go dietary traffic.