Thursday, 30 December 2010

Fasting in the Orthodox Church

After our post on meat-eating in the Orthodox Church, we received a comment from ‘Melissa’:
Great post! I would like more information on the role of meat in the Orthodox Church. I know that abstaining from meat is a part of many fasts. Where does this come from historically?
This got us to thinking.  And we thought and thought.  Which is why this post is so delayed.  Those of our readers who are already celebrating the twelve days of Christmas will wonder; those who are still in Advent will understand.  However, just because we have thought about this post doesn’t mean it’s any good.
If one goes to Melissa’s profile page one finds links to a couple of blogs that Melissa runs.  It seems that Melissa follows a diet called ‘Paleo’.  This is new to us.  Briefly, without our having investigated it very much, ‘Paleo’ is a diet that orients its follower to eating the way the Palaeolithic natives ate in the region where the person lives.  Presumably, a person living on the Great Plains would eat much the same foods that a Plains Indian would have eaten before Cortez came.  This got us to thinking about discussing why the Orthodox fast, and how.
First of all, at the risk of irritating ‘Paleos’ with our ignorance of their diet, we want to make one remark.  It is all well and good within reason to eat the way a Plains Indian ate if you live on the Great Plains, but only if you live in the same conditions that the Plains Indian lived.  The energy consumption of a pre-Cortez Plains Indian in winter was completely different from the energy consumption of someone living in Indianapolis with central heating and an automobile.  (By ‘energy consumption’ we here mean the number of calories burned to keep alive, and the dietary source of those calories, not any issue with carbon footprints.)  Similarly, there was an adage on the tundra that you had to drink fresh reindeer blood to stay alive.  But who living in a centrally heated home in a town on the tundra would think that today the thing to do was to drink fresh reindeer blood?  What we are saying is that a ‘Paleo’ diet has to be adapted to the actual conditions of life today of the person who wishes to make use of the insights of the Palaeolithic natives of his region.
However, and now we are turning to the actual purpose of this post, we would like to discuss why the Orthodox fast, and how.  The origins of fasting in the Orthodox Church are to be found in the Old Testament.  There, fasting is a sign to God of, and also a means of, our repentance.  It is a sign to God of our repentance because it is a visible act that ‘God can see’ that I am sorry for what I did: I am denying myself because I am sorry.  That is why Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, is a strict fast.  Even Jews who are otherwise unobservant might find themselves keeping that fast.  The key to understanding this is to see that what is refused in this sort of fasting is what we normally are entitled to: normally there is nothing wrong with eating the sheep in my flock.  Indeed, as Abraham demonstrated, it is good to slaughter the sheep in your flock to feed the stranger who has come to you.  However, by denying ourselves that to which we are entitled we are showing to God we are sorry.
Similarly, fasting was historically tied to sexual abstinence.  During a fast a man was not to touch a woman.  We imagine that this is still true among more Orthodox Jews.  This is also true in the Orthodox Church today.  It is also true in Islam, for example during Ramadan.
Fasting is a means of repentance because it takes us away from the flesh to the spiritual.  The flesh withers, as it were, but in our bodily weakness, our spirit is made more pure and more able to turn to God in prayer.  In this regard, one should consider the references to fasting in the New Testament.  Jesus is clear that while the Bridegroom is with them, the disciples cannot fast, but they will fast when the Bridegroom is taken from them.  Moreover, there is the case of the demon that the disciples could not cast out, which type the Lord said could only be cast out with fasting and prayer (following the textus receptus version of the passage).
So now we can understand the role of the great fast periods in the Church, particularly Great Lent.  It is a period of repentance in preparation for the joy of Easter.  Similarly with the 40-day Advent fast before Christmas.  Similarly with the 15-day strict fast before the Dormition of the Mother of God in August, and the milder fast that extends from the Monday after All Saints (the Sunday after Pentecost) to the Feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul.
Moreover, in the New Testament the Pharisee fasts twice a week.  The Orthodox Church has kept those two days of fasts—Wednesday and Friday.  Monks also fast on Mondays.
So we can see that the Holy Spirit has woven an intricate web of fasts that extend throughout the whole year.
Now how do the Orthodox fast?  This is a little difficult for us to explain theoretically but easy to explain practically.  Let us start with the practical issues.
There is a list of types of foods, as follows, from the richest foods to the poorest foods. :
1.      animal meats;
2.      dairy products (milk, cheese, eggs, butter, yogurt etc.);
3.      fish;
4.      wine and olive oil;
5.      cooked food;
6.      raw nuts, fruits and vegetables.
The principle is that if on a certain day you can eat an item on the list, you can eat all the items below it on the list but none of the items above it on the list.  If you can eat animal meat on a certain day, say Christmas, you can eat anything.  Hence the way 5 is to be interpreted is that it is food cooked over the fire without wine or oil or anything else above it on the list.  A thin vegetable soup.  But at least it’s cooked; if you’ve reached 6, you’re left with raw nuts, fruits and vegetables.
Now we have to define what an animal is for the purposes of the above list.  An animal is a land creature that has blood.  A goat is an animal.  A snail is not an animal.
Next, what is a fish?  A fish is a sea creature with blood in it.  A tuna is a fish.  An octopus or a clam is not a fish.
What happens to snails, clams and octopus?  They can be eaten on days that animal meats and fish are forbidden, for example during Lent.  However, they have to be prepared with things permitted for the day in question.  For example we do not eat meat or dairy products during Lent, so while we could eat clams, we wouldn’t be able to eat a New England clam chowder soup—it has milk, butter and pork in it.  However, we could, if we wanted to, eat a clam chowder soup on Easter.  Obviously these fast rules were not designed with Howard Johnson’s in view.
Now what we can’t tell you is why the list is structured the way it is.  First of all, it does seem to make intuitive sense: animal meat is more energizing than cheese or yoghurt, which is more energizing than fish (some people might dispute the second assertion).
The list also clearly derives from the experience of the Mediterranean Basin.  It indeed has much in common with what is known as the Mediterranean Diet.  If you follow the fast rules of the Orthodox Church, you will be eating a Mediterranean Diet.
Of course, this presents issues if you’re an Orthodox in Northern Alaska or Northern Russia.  In very different climates there is the matter of the climate itself.  Different climates have different demands in terms of the foods that a person needs.  Someone living in Egypt has different bodily demands than someone living in Siberia.  This is where ‘Paleo’ comes in again.  But while the climate plays a role for anyone living in a region, there is also an issue with how you’re living.  A reindeer herder in Lapland has different metabolic demands from the sedentary doctor living in a centrally-heated house in Lapland and driving a car to the reindeer herder’s tent.
There is also the matter of the foods which are locally available.  Olive oil is very important to the Orthodox fast regime, but olives do not grow above Romania because of the climate.  Compared to the Greek, the Russian or the Finn is going to eat more animal fat than he is going to eat vegetable oil.  But part of the problem with urbanization is that people in the city continue to eat just as their parents ate on the farm before mechanization.  Then they die early.
Moreover, the Orthodox fast regime is an issue even in the Far East, since dairy products are an important component of the Orthodox fast rules and many Far Easterners have a genetically-based intolerance to milk products.
We are not promoting one or another solution to these issues; we are merely pointing out that the issues exist.
Now how do we know what we can eat when?  This is a matter of the liturgical typikon of the Orthodox Church.  The liturgical typikon is a calendar of all the days in the year and the feasts that fall on each day, including movable feasts such as Easter.  For each day the liturgical typikon prescribes what on the list can be eaten and what can’t.  Now the liturgical typikon is very complex, being about 1000 pages long, and has to deal with such issues as ‘What happens if Good Friday falls on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation?’  This can happen.  It has to analyze what services are performed and what can be eaten.
Now let us turn to a very basic issue.  As we pointed out, the Holy Spirit has woven a very complex web of fast rules for the Orthodox, which fast rules were, we said, designed to help the member of the Orthodox Church repent and turn to God.  But there is nothing really in the theology of the Orthodox fast that discusses the health of the faster.  In other words, fasting in the Orthodox Church is not a matter of adherence to a program of bodily health or psychological well-being based on the foods we eat.  We do not fast in the Orthodox Church to feel good, to reduce our blood pressure or to overcome genetically-based health issues.  We fast to turn to God.
Well, then what about the health issues?  The Orthodox Church respects medicine, so if a medical doctor were to tell someone to stop eating animal fats because of his high blood pressure, the Church would accept that.  But the medical judgement is not the business of the priest.  The priest is telling you how to get to God, not how to lower your blood pressure.
Now, the confusion starts with dietary regimes that are philosophically based.  In ancient times, for example, the Epicureans recommended eating bread and cheese as a healthy balanced diet conducive to the state of mind that Epicureanism wished to promote in its adherents (a sort of equanimity).  The Stoics had another diet that derived from their own philosophy.  Today, there is a diet called ‘Macrobiotic’ that derives from certain Japanese philosophical principles; that diet too is what we might call a spiritual path.  Similarly for the dietary aspects of hatha yoga.  These are really philosophical systems that use diet to achieve certain philosophical goals for the adherent of the philosophical system.
So the first problem is with diets related to philosophical systems that ultimately have a completely different world-view from the Orthodox Church, making quite different claims about Man and God.
The confusion increases when the philosophical system makes scientific claims.  While it is not a diet, acupuncture comes to mind.  It seems to be empirically demonstrable that you can stop pain with acupuncture.  Western science accepts that but no one knows how it works.  The philosophical explanations given in Chinese medicine bear no real connection to Western physiology.  So is acupuncture a scientific medical treatment?  Is it an Eastern philosophical tradition in competition with Orthodoxy?  We are not proposing an answer, but there is room for serious confusion.
There are diets, for example the Macrobiotic, and perhaps even the ‘Paleo’, that occupy a similar grey area between science and philosophical system.  In such diets it is not merely that there is a philosophical system connected to the diet, but that there are also scientific claims made about the results of following the diet.  These claims might or might not make sense in the context of Western Science.  Here the Orthodox, or even the practitioners of the diet looking at Orthodoxy, have to be clear in themselves just what it is they understand to be the teaching of the Orthodox Church and whether that would be in conflict with any aspect of the diet taken as a philosophical system.  That is not to say that you should kill yourself eating things that destroy your body.  It is to say that there might be a conflict between the theology of the Orthodox Church and the philosophical principles of the diet in question.
For those of our readers who are awaiting Christmas, we wish you all a blessed and holy Christmas and Theophany.  For those who are already celebrating the Twelve Days of Christmas, may God bless you.
­–Orthodox Monk


  1. Ha, thanks for responding. I have a very funny story to tell I suppose, which I will blog about later.

    I discovered "paleo" because of serious health problems that left me in pain all the time. I tried veganism and my problems got worse.

    The idea of eating like a primitive human was appealing to me and it worked. I no longer have any illnesses. I also decided to study food anthropology after this.

    But spiritual health is important too. I actually got the courage to explore orthodoxy through a friend I met at a food conference (he has a blog at And then I found a wonderful church at school.

    Now that I'm exploring it, I'm going to try to make some of the basic principles of the diet work with fasting rules. Unfortunately I'm simply gluten intolerant and can't eat the breads that most of the people at church rely on during fasts. But primitive people also relied on tubers, which are something I can eat: yams, taro, cocoyam, cassava. Also coconut and avocado.

    Since I used to be a vegan, some of this is familiar to me, but I think I can do better this time because I won't be 100% vegan all the time and I don't worry about fat consumption anymore. I wish I could consume a more traditional Mediterranean diet, but I don't want to risk a flare up again. I can tolerate a few varieties of beans, particularly if they are fermented. A good cookbook for this is Nourishing Traditions. I've found I can eat some miso, idlis, and sour buckwheat dishes. My doctors suspect my condition was caused by food sensitivities and inflammation, which those apparently don't exacerbate.

    But I am grateful for the fasts I have tried. They are an opportunity to think about God rather than focus on food. I keep it very simple- just steamed roots and vegetables.

    I assume the Inuit, who ate what was similar to a stone-age diet, also had similar challenges when some of them accepted Orthodoxy.

    As for higher-fat diets being inappropriate for modern urbanites, I think it depends on the type of fat. Gary Taubes' book Why We Get Fat is a good primer on that. I think it's a shame that when fasting some Orthodox think that no-olive oil means that they should eat soy oil, which is extremely high in omega-6 fatty acids. A imbalance of these can cause high levels of inflammation. There are also many problems with some meat substitutes.

    I'm not the only gluten-intolerant person at my church. There was a very promising study that involved a controlled fermentation of real leavened bread that removes gluten. Catholics already have a gluten-free host, but this provides a potential for the Orthodox to have one as well.

    Incidentally, modern wheat is very unlike that in the Biblical times. Scientists speculate that the growing number of gluten intolerant may be a consequence of wheat breeding programs that selected for a high-gluten content. It can even cause inflammation in non-gluten intolerant individuals. Dr. Davis at Heart Scan Blog has explored this and also tested some ancient wheat varieties like Einkorn

    I think we could all benefit from thinking about food historically, whether it's going back to Biblical or paleolithic times.

    Thank you for your blog! God bless!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. To Gregory:

    We are confident that the remark quoted by you is well within the mainstream of Orthodox ascetical and monastic theology. There is a more Platonic cast to anthropology in the Orthodox Church than in the post-Thomist Roman Catholic Church, especially with regard to the relation between soul and body. Perhaps you have been influenced by Western streams of thought. As for Gnosticism, there is a lot of breathing space between Gnosticism and the remark you quoted. You might find it useful to read some of the earlier fathers on fasting, for example St. Basil the Great.

    With best wishes,

    Orthodox Monk

    Truly he is born.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. We are not going to respond to this. Nor are we going to post more comments from Gregory.

  6. Just to be clear, the two previous comments by Gregory, were removed by Gregory, not by us, after we did not post a third comment by Gregory even though he had submitted it 5 times as a comment and once by email.