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Various Replies to Questions on Fasting


"Modified" and "Optional" Fasts

I wrote your Archbishop about our Antiochian jurisdiction and what we are taught about "modified" fasts and the "optional" fasts of the Apostles and Christmas....We are taught that fanatics and mentally unbalanced people require "classical" fasting and that that kind of fasting is not healthy, including monks not eating meat....Your Archbishop's answer to me (enclosed) was so good that I wish you would print it for other members of my church who read your magazine. (W.S., PA)

His Eminence's comments are, indeed, worthy of note. We quote from his personal correspondence with this questioner:

"The Fathers of the Church were neither 'fanatics' nor 'mentally unbalanced.' They appointed fasts-none of which, except the Monday fast for monastics, is optional-for the spiritual and physical benefit of the Faithful, and the wisdom of their system is verified by modern science. In most instances, we Orthodox fast from all meat, fish, dairy products, and oil on Wednesdays and Fridays and during the fasts assigned to the Nativity period, Great Lent, and the periods preceding the Feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul and the Dormition of the Theotokos, with certain modifications and exceptions appropriate to each fast and specific Holy Days. Monks (and this, of course, includes Bishops) traditionally refrain from meat and meat products throughout their lives, and not just during prescribed fasting periods. Such a dietary regimen is precisely that prescribed by modern medicine for many serious diseases, including heart disease, certain forms of diabetes, and other serious and life-threatening ailments. It is not a dangerous regimen, but a therapeutic one.

"There is, of course, no such thing as 'modified' fasting in the Orthodox Church. The Holy Canons provide for the excommunication of Faithful and the deposition of clergymen who willingly violate the rules of fasting. This is because the discipline of fasting forms our souls, unites us to the spiritual life in a very direct and compelling way, and constitutes, as countless spiritual writings attest, a path to salvation. Indeed, there are many instances in the lives of the Desert Fathers and the Saints in which the souls of Christians have been snatched, at death, from the hands of demons by the 'Angels' of the Wednesday and Friday fast or saved by their particular fidelity to the Church's fasting rules.

"There are, naturally, those who cannot by constitution or because of ill health fulfill with absolute precision the standard established by the Church's fasting rules. These individuals, under the guidance of a mature spiritual Father, can make certain adjustments to their fasting regimen. But this condescension to human weakness and personal differences should be seen as a failure to reach up to the standard set by the Church, not as a 'modified' regimen to be adopted by those who are too lazy to fast or who think that Americans, for example, are incapable of, or exempt from, fasting. A standard which can lead us to salvation, which is established by the Holy Canons, and which has been passed down to us from Apostolic times, should not be treated lightly. Nor should anyone (such as myself, I admit) who cannot for reasons of health always follow the Church's fasting rules meticulously deny this means to spiritual growth to other Christians whom he might be advising. In things spiritual, we must hold others to the standard given to us by the Church, even if we cannot ourselves meet it. In this there is, I would submit, no room for modifications, dispensations, options, and other rationalizations for a lax and unproductive spiritual life. Oikonomia and the recognition of human weakness, however necessary, must always be honest principles and must never be misused to justify violations of the Church's revealed and God-established traditions."

From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XIII, No. 3&4, pp. 45-46.

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Optional Fasts

I've been told that the Church recognizes that one fast Wednesday, Friday, and the Great Fast, but that the Apostles, Dormition, and Christmas Fasts are optional. Canon 69 of the Apostles supports the Wednesday and Friday Fasts and that of Great Fast. Canon 19 of St. Nikiphoros recognizes the Apostles' and Christmas Fasts. However, I have found that only Canon (Question) 3 of Patriarch Nicholas deals with the August 1/14 Fast, but it is not exactly prescriptive. (Hierodeacon S., Jerusalem)

As you have already discovered, prescriptions for most of the fasting days and periods of the year—Wednesdays, Fridays, Great Lent, the Apostles' Fast, the Nativity Fast, and even the additional Monday fast for monastics—are clearly prescribed in the Church's canons. However, these fasts were not instituted by the Holy Canons; they are part of Holy Tradition, which the canons codify and guard. We fast out of fidelity to the living tradition of the Church, not out of commitment to the letter of canon law. With regard to the Dormition Fast, then, it is sufficient to know that it is observed by tradition. Incidentally, in addition to the uncertain reference to the Dormition Fast in the "Third Question" posed to St. Nikephoros the Confessor and the Synod of Constantinople, St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite attaches a note on its antiquity to his "Explanation" or "Interpretation" of the third canon of the Council of Neoceasarea (Pedalion [Thessaloniki, 1982], p. 387).

One might wish, incidentally, that with regard to the general issue of fasting, modernist Orthodox Christians, especially, were more zealous to keep the Church's fasts and less assiduous in their efforts to dismiss them on the basis of fanciful technicalities.

From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. X, No. 1, p. 16.

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Computer Forum Nonsense

I sent to you an exchange on one of the Orthodox lists. It is claimed that one should eat whatever is put before him and that the Lord advised this to his disciples. I also understand that Bishops are freed from fasting, according to one of the authorities who took part in this exchange. I would like your reaction to these ideas. (L.K., MI)

Individuals with no respect for Church Tradition and a lack of knowledge of its genuine ethos might argue that one should eat whatever is put before him, even if this is on a fast day or violates the tradition of vegetarianism which is preserved even by Bishops. They do this at great personal peril, since they thereby defy the witness of the consensus of the Fathers. The witness of the Desert Fathers and various Saints demonstrate to us the ascendency of love over the law. Thus, Fathers who drank no wine would drink a cup put before them by a well-meaning host. Or, indeed, they would eat small amounts of cooked food offered to them on days that xerophagy, or the eating of dry, uncooked foods, was appointed. But this has no relationship to and does not justify monks eating meat "out of love"; nor does one violate the fasting rules set forth by the Church out of what is actually a spirit of gluttony covered by a thin layer of religious posturing.

As for the computer forum nonsense to which you refer, these forums afford a platform for everyone with an opinion and usually demonstrate that contemporary Orthodox, clergy and laity alike, lack even a basic understanding of the Patristic witness and traditional Orthodox life, that is, orthopraxis. The Lord, in telling His disciples to eat what was placed before them, clearly told them that, while He was physically present on earth, they should not fast. After His Resurrection, they began, of course, to fast. It is appalling that someone calling himself Orthodox would not understand this basic principle, which can be found in countless Patristic commentaries on Holy Scripture. We could go on to discuss the complex issue of abstinence from food offered to idols, as opposed to abstinence based on the ascetic practices of Orthodox Christianity, which further complicates the whole subject of fasting and its boundaries and parameters; however, suffice it to say that superficial observations by know-nothing pretenders to spiritual eminence inevitably overlook the complex and always exploit the simple.

When you are asked to eat meat, as a monastic, or when you are offered non-Lenten food during a fasting period, as a layman, you should politely point out that such foods violate your dietary restrictions. Nothing more than this need be said. Anyone who would take offense at such a statement is simply not civilized. And, again, anyone who would use the excuse of "eating out of love" to indulge his hidden gluttony is not only defiling his own Faith, but is also setting a poor example for others. And it is this latter sin which is the greater violation of love. If you wish to study and to understand the complicated "theology of fasting" and the rationale behind the Church's fasting customs, we recommend Archimandrite Akakios' Fasting in the Orthodox Church*, an excellent summary of the subject. (Available from the Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies.)

From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. V, No. 2.