The role played by the discipline of fasting  has figured prominently within the spiritual life of Christianity, and has remained integral to the Orthodox Church. Its purpose and meaning is multifaceted, to which entire treatises have been written on the subject. For this reason, we will not labour the point by providing an exhaustive exposition on the subject, since there are others who have written far more eloquently and precisely on this topic over the course of 2.000 years of Christian witness. Nor do we wish to incessantly repeat their words like trained parrots, rather we wish to provide an appraisal that can help clarify some key points of this discipline of prayer.

Though, it may seem unusual that we do not refer to fasting as a custom, or as a mere formality, practiced by the Church. Furthermore, as we will see in due course, fasting is not as some Western Christians quaintly assert, is about “relinquishing” or “sacrificing” a personal “right” for God due to Lent. It is an integral part of Christian spiritual life and discipline of prayer, whose objectives does not recognise such arbitrary, legalistic or individualist perspectives of why a Christian abstains from certain types of food or activities. Suffice to say it, these objectives are a communal effort, in addition to being a personal undertaking, guided by the liturgical life cycle of the Church year, under the guiding discernment of a spiritual father (lay or ordained, male or female) who has been approved by the local bishop to minister to the faithful.

The Role of the Spiritual Mentor

Invariably, like all other concerns of the spiritual journey from the image of God towards likeness of God, the believer is guided in their steps by the counsel of a spiritual father. This of course mirrors the Apostolic/Patristic tradition and functioning of Christianity, whereby Christ taught His disciples before sending them out on their commission to teach others in the Faith, all the way to our own times. Consequently the rule of fasting within our discipline of prayer, is not something which we decide independently without consultation. Like many other observances of prayer, we need to consult and seek advice to discern what, is the best approach, tailored to our capabilities, that is for our own spiritual benefit.

The standard that is formed as a result of this process must be appropriate and agreed to by both the mentor and the disciple, since it is a means by which “progress” or “failure” can be monitored and the disciple can be held accountable to. Take for example, a person, who due to reasons of health, may be allowed to consume cheese, but is expected to still abstain from meat and margarine. Upon the forthcoming meetings between this disciple and their spiritual father, the spiritual father may enquire as to their disciple’s spiritual progress. If the spiritual child confesses that they have fallen into various sins like anger, and as a result veered from practicing the numerous virtues that a Christian is called to fulfill, then the mentor is well within their duty of care to enquire as to whether the disciple adhered to their disciplines of prayer, such as fasting or charity etc.

Of course this may seem to some as restrictive, but we need to keep in mind that the authority of teacher, spiritual father, mentor, or whatever epithet we ascribe to them, is that of responsibility and care of the disciple’s soul, and how to best assist them in remaining faithful to the goals that they jointly agreed to. For the objective or purpose of the spiritual guide is to cultivate and prepare citizens for Heaven, who can manifest that ultimate goal, in the here and now within the presence of our world, thus providing an alternate but elevated vision of how humanity can be. To use an analogy, it is not too dissimilar to the role of a personal trainer, who assists setting down a programme for their client who seeks to correct their health and lose weight. The trainer naturally establishes an achievable but practical regime of diet, exercise and life-style change, so that their paying client attains their goal of health and fitness.

In effect accountability is integral and essential in both the case of the client who seeks physical well-being and the Christian disciple, who must be confronted with an alternate view to what they perceive reality to be or be reminded of their objective. If what was initially set down in consultation with the spiritual father, prove to be impractical, too difficult or not strict enough, then the mentor and the disciple must work together to make appropriate adjustments. In saying this, we should note that fasting, as opposed to other disciplines of prayer, may be less complicated or easier to deal with, it still remains part of the ongoing relationship, consultation and mentoring friendship of the spiritual father and their spiritual child.

The Origins, Meaning and Purpose of Fasting

Upon careful meditation upon Scripture, it is interesting to note that when God created humanity in the persons of Adam and Eve, God informs them, that He has provided generously for the needs of their sustenance. Yet that sustenance was specifically cited by God when He said: “Behold I have given you every seed-bearing herb that sows seed on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be food” (Gen. 1:29).

That is, humans in their original state of blessedness, were “vegans” consuming only the fruits of the earth and not processed foods or the flesh of another living being, to which God makes reference to by saying: “I also give every green plant for food for all the wild animals of the earth, for all the birds of heaven, and for everything that creeps on the earth in which is the breath of life” (Gen. 1:30). However we should clarify to the reader that the consumption of meat is not wrong, since our Lord said that it is not what we eat that is bad for us, but what our thoughts, actions, and intents are which prompt us to say the things that we say and do. Furthermore, St Peter was confronted with this thought when he was praying the prayers of the Third Hour upon the rooftop in his evangelical journey around Palestine, whereby God rebuked him for asserting that certain foods were unclean and common, to which God responds nothing I have created is unclean or common, (cf. Acts 10:9-23).

Nevertheless, within the writings of Orthodox monastic tradition, the perspective on the rule of diet either during fasting and non-fasting periods, is that it is for the express purpose of the monastic to try and aspire to live according to this original state of blessedness and joy. For in the monastic worldview, their objective is to become like the angels in physical form, and consequently live like the angels which do not need to consume food. As a result, there have been monastics who attempted to manifest this in their daily lives, by adhering to strict fasts that other monastics were incapable of achieving.

We know from the writings of St Gregory the Theologian, and St Gregory of Nyssa, complaints were leveled against St Basil the Great for his strictness of diet, to which either writers cite they were not able to sustain. Particular reference was made to the fact that St Basil would abstain from food altogether for spates of 2-3 even 4 days at various intervals. Of course he was not an isolated example of a strict literalist approach to the monastic aspiration of mimicking the angels, but we should cite that it is not the standard even though it is an ideal which many monastics would like to attain.

The practice of Orthodox monasticism, is that upon entering into vows, the monastic ceases consuming all forms of meat, and in some cases eggs as well. If there is an allowance of some sort of “flesh-based” food to be consumed, it is fish and various seafood invertebrates like octopus and mussels. Yet when the periods of fasting arrive, all forms of dairy, margarines, wine, oil and permissible seafoods, are cut out from the diet. Only vegetables, herbs, pulses, seeds and dried stale bread are prepared and consumed.

This regime of abstinence and fast is of course modelled on the Old Testament examples of the lives and struggles of the Prophets and those penitents seeking God’s forgiveness for their sins. Many of these went out into the wilderness, in deep prayer and contemplation, confronting the temptations posed before them in thought or deed, and adhering to strict fasts, even in some cases from water, as part of the process of their purification and spiritual strengthening. It was within this journey into the Wilderness where man is at his most vulnerable, where the demons played upon his weakness and test his resolve, but it is thus where man is most dependent and receptive to God’s love.

It was from this arena of battle that luminaries like Moses, Elias or Jonah would emerge empowered with God’s commission to perform their set task in His service towards the world. The pious figure of Noah was commanded by God in Gen. 6:21 to store enough food for his own consumption and that of his family and the animals. However within Scripture he was the first to be permitted to “break” the “fast”, and thus became the first person to consume meat (Gen. 9:3-7). It is interesting to note that from his time onwards, the lifespan of humans begins to decrease, while according to Scripture, the consequence of exercising this right had put humanity at risk to the natural world which seeks the lives of humans. Hence we have one of the key impetuses for the “animosity” between humans and the environment, whereby the former seeks to impose their dominion by force and not as a stewardship as God had intended and blessed with Adam; while the latter defends itself. Nevertheless, the same text reinforces once again God’s condemnation of murder as a grave sin and crime.

With this said, this process of purification, self-control of the stomach in the effort to try and live according to humanity’s original state of blessedness, continues into the times of the New Testament with John the Baptist and Christ Himself submitting themselves to fasting. From the descriptions provided in Mt 3:1-4 and Mk 1:4-6 we are told that St John lived in the simplicity of poverty wearing camel hair garments and eating wild honey and locusts. We are told in Mt 4:1-2; Mk 1:12-13 and Lk 4:1-2 that Christ was compelled within Himself to go into the Wilderness, like those Old Testament figures in deep prayer and strict fast, only being ministered (as Mark’s gospel relates) by the angels. It was here where the devil sought to test His resolve, only to be made a mockery of.

In reflecting upon these Scriptural examples, we observe that there are two key thoughts put forward by fasting. Firstly that lack of control of the stomach is a sign of laziness and lack of self-discipline, which translates into lack of control of one’s most basic function, that of our physicality. The point here, is that sound thought, spiritual function, repentance and correction of errant behavior cannot be achieved within a non-alert person who is burdened down by excess food and a body which is always working overtime to process food and drink.

According to Scripture and Church Fathers, this causes one to remain focused entirely upon physical existence, concerns for material things and the pursuit of worldly goals. It is not by chance that St Paul notes that “Foods are for the stomach and the stomach for foods, but God will destroy both it and them” (1 Cor. 6:13), meaning that our preoccupation should be upon self-control since our objective is not purely physical concerns like food, but upon seeking salvation and eternal life. Fasting from foods is just the beginning point and most basic level of self-control, which brings us to our second point.

Fasting in its complete sense does not only focus upon matters of food, but seeks for us to cut away from worldly distractions and sinful passions or compulsions that we labour under. It is a state of existence in which we seek peace and quiet, preferably solitude even, as all those Scriptural examples of people going into the Wilderness attest to. It is the cutting away of music, dancing and talking in order to acquire silence and with prayer attain inner peace and stability of thought. It is there to assist confronting and silencing the excesses of our thought, but fasting is ultimately concerned with bringing us back to simplicity and remembering our dependence upon God’s evmeneia (good will, favour and mercy).

The ascetical example of St John the Baptist’s choice of clothing and food is a very austere expression of fasting, showing a life led in poverty and humility. Of course this is not a compulsory injunction for all people to lead, but it sets before us a paradigm to which we can try to implement within our own lives. Our own wilderness could be a pilgrimage into a monastery for a set time, or disconnecting our televisions, telephones and radios within our own residences during periods of fasting. It is the avoidance of parties, feasts, dances, cinemas and all other sorts of entertainment or celebrations to dedicate ourselves to prayer, the reading and meditation upon Scripture and spiritual literature.

Furthermore, fasting involves abstinence from falling into our sins and negative passions, like learning not to lose one’s temper, avoidance of lying and gossip, abstaining from swearing or cursing others, engaging in carnal pleasures or temptations, quelling one’s own ego and cultivating a mindset of humility or at least modesty. Therefore fasting is all this and much more, for it is not solely the total or partial abstinence from food or drink but an all-encompassing approach seeking to manifest the practice and living of virtue.[1]

The “Practice” of Fasting

As a consequence of its importance, fasting constitutes one third of the Orthodox Christian liturgical year. Within the liturgical calendar we have the:

  • The 40 Day Lenten period in conjunction with the days of Holy Week. In terms of food the fast is relaxed on the feast of the Annunciation and Palm Sunday, whereby fish is permitted to be consumed.
  • The Fast of the Apostles that begins the day after the Feast of All-Saints and concludes on the eve (28th June) of the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul (29th June).
  • The fast of the Dormition of the Theotokos which begins on 1st August till the 14th August.
  • The 40 Day Advent fast prior to the Feast of the Nativity (Christmas), beginning on the 15th November. However in some Orthodox traditions, fish is permitted to be consumed till the 12th of December.
  • The Beheading of St John the Baptist 29th August.
  • The Feast of the Elevation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross on 14th September.
  • The eve (5th January) of the Feast of Epiphany (6th January).
  • Every Wednesday and Friday which recall Christ’s betrayal and Crucifixion. The exception being the week that follows after Pascha (Easter), the 12 Days of the Nativity (25th December – 4 January and 6 January), Pentecost, the week following the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, and the week following Meatfare Sunday, permits the consumption of dairy products, eggs and margarine, but not meat.
  • Fasting Calendar: http://www.australianorthodox.org.au/fasting-calendar
  • Fasting Calendar: http://www.goarch.org/chapel/calendar/

The allowance on certain days of fasting, the consumption of fish, oil or wine, which are symbols of Christ and human sustenance, are permitted for major feasts of the Lord or of the Theotokos which happen to fall in these periods of strict fasting like the feast of the Annunciation (25 March) or the Transfiguration (6 August).

Within the early Church we know that fasting was practiced as cited in the New Testament (Acts 13:2, 14:23 and 2 Cor. 2:27) and early Christian writings like the Didache which refer to the regular Wednesday and Friday fasts. In time Holy Week attained its own fast and in due course by the 4th century the 40 day Lenten fast had been established. It is interesting to note that in many places of Christendom, the one day fasts were a complete abstinence from food altogether, but as the days of fasting grew in number the practice of the Church saw people only consume vegan meals. We should note that the truly authentic Christian tradition of fasting revolved around the consumption of one modest vegan meal a day, and that was at 3pm after any Church services that had celebrated the Divine Liturgy.

The consumption of prawns, crabs, mussels, octopus and calamari during fasting periods was not part of the original Christian practice, but was the willful practice of many Christians who argued that these forms of seafood were invertebrates and not truly meat or flesh products that contained the life-force of blood. The Church though, recognising that for most people, the prolonged periods of fasting could be detrimental to health due to a lack of protein within their diet, permitted these foods to be consumed only on Sundays, since Sunday marks the event of the Resurrection. Because the Church did not want their flock to fall into excess or become slack or complacent in this discipline of fasting, that is why only Sundays were excused and blessed by the Church for the faithful to consume these sea foods.

It is unfortunate though that within many quarters of Orthodoxy that the Church eventually conceded to allowing the consumption of these seafoods at any time during fasting periods, and it can be considered an invalidation of fasting for there are many who abuse this dispensation by consuming these foods for the entire duration of the fasting periods. Yet for many centuries, Christians tried as best they could according to their age and health, to adhere to this practice of fast in conjunction with their dedication to prayer, practice of virtues and abstinence of sin. These of course would be practiced throughout the whole year, but it was during fasting periods that the faithful would be encouraged to make extra effort in these spiritual endeavors in order to move to a higher level of orthopraxia (devotion and practice of the Faith).

In other practical spiritual and physical terms, the process of fasting was to acclimatising the stomach to function better and demand less food.[2] The benefit of purifying the body of toxins from excess food and drink was one of the factors behind many Church Fathers advocating the need for fasting as both a spiritual and physical devotion that ensured health on both accounts. We of course may call it today “diet”, and believe it is a modern phenomenon, but ancient peoples also recognised the benefits of fasting and moderation.

We know for example that in times of military campaign, Roman soldiers would only consume pulses, grains, vegetables, fruit, yoghurt and cheese in order to remain fighting fit. Within Byzantium, only the sick, soldiers on campaign and those engaged in heavy forms of manual labor would be encouraged by the Church to consume two meals a day. Of course we should note that officially the Church never set down a standard rule on fasting, but it did provide guidelines like those mentioned to help the faithful practice this discipline.

Pragmatic Counsels on Fasting

To conclude the Orthodox perspective and practice on fasting, we shall look to two sources that provide sound advice on this discipline:

Christ’s Instruction on the Manner of how one should Fast

Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father in Heaven who sees in secret will reward you openly”. – Matthew 6:16-18

St John Cassian – On Control of the Stomach (Taken from On the 8 Vices)

I shall say nothing on my own account, but only what I have received from the Holy Fathers. They have not given us only a single rule for fasting or a single standard and measure for eating, because not everyone has the same strength; age, illness or delicacy of body which create differences. But they have given us all a single goal: to avoid over-eating and the filling of our bellies.

They also found a day’s fast to be more beneficial and a greater help toward purity than one extending over a period of three, four, or even seven days. Someone who fasts too long, they say, often ends up by eating too much food. The result is that at times the body becomes enervated through undue lack of food and sluggish over its spiritual exercises, while at other times, weighed down by the mass of food it has eaten, it makes the soul listless and slack.

They also found that the eating of greens or pulses did not agree with everyone, and that not everyone could live on dry bread. One man, they said, could eat two pounds of dry bread and still be hungry, while another might eat a pound, or only six ounces, and be satisfied. As I said, the Fathers have handed down a single basic rule of self-control: “do not be deceived by the filling of the belly” (Proverbs 24:15 – LXX[3]), or be led astray by the pleasure of the palate. It is not only the variety of foodstuffs that kindles the fiery darts of unchastity, but also their quantity. Whatever the kind of food with which it is filled, the belly engenders the seed of profligacy. It is not only too much wine that besots our mind: too much water or too much of anything makes it drowsy and stupefied.

Bodily illness is not an obstacle to purity of heart, provided we give the body what its illness requires, not what gratifies our desire for pleasure. Food is to be taken in so far as it supports our life, but not to the extent of enslaving us to the impulses of desire. To eat moderately and reasonably is to keep the body in health, not to deprive it of holiness. A clear rule for self-control handed down by the Fathers is this: stop eating while still hungry and do not continue until you are satisfied. When the Apostle said, “Make no provision to fulfil the desires of the flesh” (Rom 13:14), he was not forbidding us to provide for the needs of life; he was warning us against self-indulgence. Moreover, by itself abstinence from food does not contribute to perfect purity of soul unless the other virtues are active as well.

Freedom from anger, from dejection, self-esteem and pride also contributes to purity of soul in general, while self-control and fasting are especially important for bringing about that specific purity of soul which comes through restraint and moderation. No one whose stomach is full can fight mentally against the demon of unchastity. Our initial struggle therefore must be to gain control of our stomach and to bring our body into subjection not only through fasting but also through vigils, labors and spiritual reading, and through concentrating our heart on fear of Gehenna and on longing for the Kingdom of Heaven.

Dedicated to my brother in Christ, John Giotopoulos, at whose enquiry and request prompted the writing of this article. – V. M.

[1] Naturally, we should be practicing and living virtue at all times and not just during periods of fasting, but it is during these times of solemnity and self-introspection, we strive to go the extra step.

[2] In actual fact, part of the reason the Church allocated fasting periods prior to major feast days, was so that the faithful were able to “acclimatise” the stomach to consume less so that when the time of feasting came they would not fall into the trap of excess and over-indulging in eating and drinking, which may lead to other sinful passions, detrimental to our personal well-being.

[3] LXX means 70, which indicates the Septuagint Old Testament, which is the Old Testament that is used by the Orthodox Church.

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