During the Lenten fast, is it OK to eat tofu-burgers, egg substitutes, shrimp, and vegetarian dishes that are prepared in a delicious manner? Or is it more spiritual to avoid all delicious food, and to make sure that Lenten meals are as bland as possible? (Disclaimer: I am not suggesting that tofu-burgers are delicious.)
There are multiple reasons for the fast.
One of the reasons is simply obedience. The Church tells us to abstain from certain specific foods, so we do. Hamburgers and fish are prohibited. Shrimp and lobster are permitted. The point is not about what we like or don’t like. The point is that we obey the rules given to us. On this point, a trip to Red Lobster is obedient, while a simple tuna fish sandwich is disobedient.
Another reason for the fast is for the sake of spiritual exercise, so that our body learns to obey our mind, instead of the other way around. We are not to be slaves to our bodies. Rather, our body is to obey our mind, and our mind is to obey the direction of the Holy Spirit. There is nothing evil about eating a hamburger. But when our body wants a hamburger, and we tell our body “No!”, we are performing a spiritual exercise. It is sort of like weight lifting. The more you exercise, the stronger you get. That way when your body wants to sin, you have greater strength to tell your body “No!”, and to resist sin. On this point, it is good to tell your body “No!” when it wants to eat something delicious. Whether that delicious food is made of meat, or whether it is vegetarian, we gain benefit from the spiritual exercise of abstinence.
Of course, just as everyone is at a different level of physical fitness, so everyone is also at a different level of spiritual fitness. Some people can easily benchpress 315 pounds. Other people struggle to benchpress 135. Some people can go all day eating nothing but prosophora and drinking nothing but holy water. Other people are at the full extent of their current abilities, simply to avoid the hamburger.
This is why we keep our eyes on our own plates. Loading people down with too much exercise, too quickly, is disasterous both in the gym, and in the spiritual life. If you are able to lift 225, but you only lift 135, your strength will decline. If you can only lift 135 pounds, and you try to force yourself to lift 225, you will hurt yourself.
We should be content when our Orthodox brothers and sisters simply avoid meat, eggs, and dairy. In so doing, they are being obedient, which is one of the central purposes of the fast. And at the same time, they are already saying “No” to certain things they find to be delicious, so they are benefitting from the spiritual exercise as well. Glory to God for this!
Quibbling over tofu-burgers can cause spiritual harm, just as it could cause harm if you criticized the new guy at the gym, because you think he hasn’t added enough weight to his benchpress.