I remember blinking into the bright window at the allergist’s office as he handed over the prescription for my Epi-pens. “Anaphylaxis is a train leaving the station. We have to catch it before it gets going,” he said. I had gone to him after my throat started swelling closed on an ordinary morning. I thought maybe I had developed a peanut allergy because of how dull my breakfast had been: toast with butter and strawberry jam, tea with sugar and milk, and a bite of the peanut butter Lara bar my son handed me. But the allergist was holding a readout with a very strange set of answers. I was allergic to wheat.
The first thing I thought about when I got home was how I was going to commune at church. I inquired of the Lord and immediately heard a word of comfort: Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.
I was going to have to overhaul all of my habits and diet and, when the sensitivity got too strong later, my family’s diets. But at least I knew that I was not saying goodbye to God when I said goodbye to bread.
After months of trying to manage with Benadryl and near misses on throat swelling, my priest and I found a way for me to receive communion that allows me to participate in God and stay alive. I have to come to the chalice like one severely ill and have the wine-dipped spoon just touch my lips.
I find it humbling in a good way to come to the hospital for souls and receive communion like someone in the hospital for bodies. In fact, the differences forced on me by food allergies do not cause any spiritual obstacles to me at all. They are a gift, reminding me of the deep love of God who made me and has arranged the challenges and gifts of my life for our salvation.
But there are also external challenges from people who have a hard time believing that food allergies are a big deal. Here are the most common misconceptions and how I’ve navigated them prayerfully through the tradition.
Either God Or Bread–Oops! Casual Heresy
- The most basic push back when I tell people I cannot eat bread, including the Holy Gifts, is that I am wrong. The Holy Gifts, according to this logic, are either bread and wine OR the Body and Blood of Christ; I cannot have it both ways.
- #nope: Time warp with me back to St. Irenaeus (or even St. Paul, but Irenaeus is clearer). The gifts of God are given by Him, and we offer them back to Him, and we see that this means that the material world is good. With me? The reason that matters is because…
- There is no either/or when God comes to us. Our Lord was both fully man and fully God, and the Holy Gifts are both fully God and fully bread.
***Take-away: You can be allergic to bread without being allergic to God.***
“Marytrdom” and the St. Polycarp Side-eye
- “Eating blessed bread or Holy Gifts in the Liturgy when you have celiac/allergy can be thought of as a form of martyrdom.”
- Teensy bit of medical info before the theological importance: Celiac damage is cumulative, so the idea that no harm is done is, well, false. Allergies to wine or wheat have more immediate consequences. All of them cause harm when a person with the condition is exposed to the allergen/gluten.
- #nope: Time warp back to St. Polycarp. Yes, the beloved and aged bishop who, once he was finally caught, denounced an entire coliseum of Romans as “athiests.” Let’s look at his story and see how many times he deliberately turned himself in for martyrdom. That would be none. And in fact, in the prelude to his martyrdom, we find an illustrative story about how people who zealously went forward to prove themselves by trying to become martyrs wound up chickening out and renouncing the faith when it came to it.
- Martyrdom is not self-harm. Martyrdom is witness to the truth of the Incarnation and Resurrection. Self-harm undermines witness.
- Hey, Ms. Early Church Examples Person, what about Ignatius of Antioch, who told people not to rescue him from martyrdom? 1)He was already captured when he wrote his letters, and he wanted his flocks to understand their role in bearing witness with him. 2)He was going to offer himself in language remniscent of the Eucharistic offering in order to bear witness to the Resurrection, not intentionally off himself by eating poisons.
***Take-away: Hurting yourself is not martyrdom. It actually diminishes witness.***
Just Believe the Anaphylaxis Away
- If you have faith, God won’t let you be hurt by Holy Communion.
- #nope: Time warp back to our Lord in His 40 day temptation. Yes, that temptation, the model for our own fasting. What did He say about just having faith and doing something you know is harmful? Do not put the Lord your God to the test.
- Look, I’m an Orthodox Christian. Like most of you, I’ve seen miracles with my own eyes, besides reading about the multitude of miraculous stories in the lives of saints. I’ve even added my “amen” to the Church’s request for them, and seen the energies of God the Holy Spirit change things.
- The miraculous is normal for us. But that does not mean that we know better than God. If we tell a member of Christ’s Body that they have to prove their faith by asking God to save them from an attempt at harming themselves, we are not being faithful to God. We are not encouraging the brother’s or sister’s faith. By telling other people that they will not be harmed if they do something they know is harmful, we are not showing faith at all. We are being self-centered and trying to comfort ourselves by endangering another. We are saying, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
***Take-away: Demanding that your brother or sister test God shows lack of faith, and it’s not faithful to God or neighbor.***
Allergy sufferers are not the only Orthodox Christians facing troubles with holy food. Medically fragile persons, persons with feeding tubes, persons with muscular issues, special needs, and mobility issues all might need modifications in how they celebrate with Orthodox cultural foods and, importantly, how they receive the Holy Gifts.
This blog category–Always Lent– is for those of us who, due to medical needs, cannot partake of many of the traditional foods of the Orthodox Church, and for their communities. Some of us cannot even share _in the usual way_ in the Holy Gifts. We are always fasting. It is always Lent for us.
As my husband likes to remind me, some were born eunuchs, and some were made eunuchs. Some were born fasting, and some learn to fast as a discipline.
We who have this gift of being born fasting have two needs that this blog will address: 1) To celebrate the spiritual richness that comes with limited diets. 2) To find ways to participate in the fellowship of the Church in a way that does not harm us.
Follow this blog for modified recipes and reflections on life when it is Always Lent.