Sunday, 31 July 2011

Fasting in an Orthodox Monastery

We have received a simple email requesting information on how Orthodox Monks fast. Let us call our interlocutor Gianni, not his real name. Here is what the email says, slightly edited since the author is a non-native speaker of English:

Hello Brother:
I’m a boy from Italy interested in asceticism and wanting to know more about Orthodox monks.
I would like to know if you can tell me what Orthodox monks usually eat.
I mean, I already know that they are vegetarian apart from that days when fish-eating is permitted.
I would like to know precisely what do they eat in a normal non-fasting day
I know they eat two times a day but i didn’t find anywhere what do they precisely eat in a single meal and how much.
I hope you have time to answer me, anyway thank you so much for the useful blog!
With kind cheers and regards,
Fasting in the Orthodox Church is very complicated. The particular fast rules are to be found in the liturgical typikon either of the parish or of the monastery and in all cases of doubt the reader must refer either to the parish priest or to the monastic authority for definitive guidance. There are however some basic rules which apply to all, which we will now discuss, for convenience basing our discussion on the rules which apply on Mt Athos.

There are 4 main fast periods in the Orthodox Church:
  1. Great Lent, which comprises the 50 days before Easter Sunday (from Clean Monday to Holy Saturday).
  2. Fast of the Holy Apostles, which is from the Monday after All Saints (the first Sunday after Pentecost) to 28 June, terminating on the Feast of Peter and Paul, 29 June.
  3. The Fast of the Mother of God, from 1 August to 14 August inclusive, terminating on the Feast of the Dormition.
  4. The Christmas Fast, 40 days before Christmas from 15 November to 24 December.
These fasts apply to all Orthodox Christians. The rules are as follows.

Great Lent is a strict fast which forbids everything except vegetables and shellfish. Oil and wine are permitted on Saturdays and Sundays. The Orthodox do not normally fast on Saturdays (in contrast with the Roman Catholics), so oil is permitted on Saturdays every Saturday of the year except the Saturday before Easter Sunday (Holy Saturday), which is a strict fast. Olives are permitted during a strict fast. It should be understood that when oil is permitted or forbidden, olive oil is to be understood. There is some disagreement in practice as to whether non-olive oils such as soy or corn or sunflower oil are permitted when olive oil is forbidden. There is no consistent standard even on Mt Athos on this point: some people there avoid even such oils when oil is forbidden; others use them freely. In addition, there are always variants: even on Mt. Athos, olive oil is permitted during Great Lent at Chilandari Monastery on Tuesdays and Thursdays because of the difficulty of the local climate. In general when olive oil is permitted, so is wine.

Major feasts of the Mother of God and major feasts of the Master always have a dispensation for fish, so during Great Lent fish is served on the feast of the Annunciation, 25 March, or on Palm Sunday, whichever falls first.

There is also a dispensation for fish for the Feast of the Birth of St John the Baptist, 24 June, whatever day of the week it falls on.

A dispensation for fish does not imply a dispensation for dairy products unless there is otherwise a dispensation for dairy products.

There is a complete dispensation from fasting during the 12 days of Christmas (Christmas Day to the Theophany (with the exception that the eve of the Theophany is a strict fast). This is also true for the week after Pentecost.

The Fast of the Holy Apostles is a milder fast with oil and fish permitted Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends. Dairy products are not permitted.

The Fast of the Mother of God follows the same rules as Great Lent.

The Christmas Fast follows the same rules as the Fast of the Holy Apostles except that fish is not permitted from the start of the fast until the Feast of the Entrance to the Temple (21 November), and after that only on weekends until the Feast of St. Spyridon (12 December), when it is permitted whatever day of the week St Spyridon falls on. Then fish is not permitted until Christmas. The eve of Christmas is a strict fast.

We understand that meat is not permitted to the layman during the above fast periods.

In addition to the above fasts, even during a non-fasting period, Wednesdays and Fridays are fast days for all members of the Church. We understand that these days would be treated like Great Lent. In addition, monks also observe Mondays as strict fast days, although this is sometimes ignored.

In general a distinction is made between shellfish such as shrimps (or even land snails) and fish, with shellfish being treated as vegetables.

In addition, various feast days of saints or of the Mother of God or of the Master have dispensations in various degrees, so that on the day which the feast fell wine and oil, or even fish, might be permitted.

As for what monks eat. Much depends on the resources of the monastery. If it has a large garden which can work year-round, that’s different from living in Northern Russia, where there is a short summer growing season. Culture also plays a role. Culturally Greeks and Russians have different diets and don’t take easily to the other’s cultural food norms.

Much also depends on the health and activity of the monk. While monks do not eat meat, meat is usually served to a monk suffering say from cancer.

Normally monks eat twice a day on non-fast days and once a day during fast days, with some adaptations to circumstances.

The reader can see that he needs practical guidance.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Holy Spirit, Feeling Good in Church and the Gospel Morality of the Orthodox Church

Sorry for the delay in posting.

We would like to look at a form of argumentation for innovation in the Orthodox Church’s moral teaching. This argumentation goes something like this:

The understanding by the Church of the Gospel is dynamic. It has never been full. The author arguing this way then provides a series of examples of his choice—perhaps the treatment of slavery, perhaps something else—to show us that historically in the Orthodox Church the Gospel has never been promulgated in its fullness, that there has always been an evolution in the understanding by the Church of the Gospel. They continue that being a member of the Orthodox Church is a matter of process, perhaps a matter of a spiritual dialectic in or evolution of the understanding of the Gospel by the Church. Then the author goes on to suggest that his particular candidate for innovation in the moral or even doctrinal teaching of the Church falls into exactly this category of features of the Gospel previously misunderstood by the Orthodox Church. The argument usually goes on to refer to the dynamic of being taught by the Holy Spirit, referencing Jesus’ saying in the Gospel of John that the disciples cannot bear these things now but the Holy Spirit will lead them into all truth. The idea is that the Holy Spirit has decided that the time has come to lead the Church into the truth of the particular moral innovation of the person making the argument. Perhaps the person goes on to show why the Church has to respond to the particular pastoral needs or needs for human dignity of those who will supposedly be benefited by the change in the moral teaching of the Church. It is necessary to this form of argumentation to deny the absoluteness of the moral teaching of the Old Testament or even of the Epistles of Paul.

How valid is this form of argumentation? It seems to us that the key to understanding this style of argumentation is to look at how the person making the argument construes the Holy Spirit. It seems to us that they treat the Holy Spirit as a more or less subjective or inter-subjective phenomenon, not as an ontologically distinct being, the Third Person of the Holy Trinity.

It seems to us that only a person who had never consciously experienced the Holy Spirit’s presence in power would be able to make this sort of argument. Let us look at the evidence. In the history of the Orthodox Church, we have had a number of great saints with a very dynamic experience of the Holy Spirit: St Diadochos of Photiki, St John of Sinai, St Symeon the New Theologian, St Seraphim of Sarov to name just a few. In recent times there have been a number of Spirit-bearing Fathers on Mt Athos such as Elders Paisios and Porphyrios, to name just two.

In the case of any of these Saints or Elders of the Orthodox Church who had actual conscious experience of the Holy Spirit, has there ever been detected an inclination to change the moral teaching of the Orthodox Church? Is it not rather the contrary?

Surely, if the Holy Spirit were about to lead the Church into all truth, wouldn’t he would use such a great saint or elder, one with prophetic gifts? But it hasn’t happened.

Moreover, St Paul says in 1 Galatians 8 – 12: But if we or an angel from Heaven preach to you something different from what we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we said before, now I say again: If anyone preach to you something different from what you received, let him be accursed. For now do I persuade men or God? Or am I seeking to please men? For if I were yet pleasing men, I would not be a servant of Christ. I make known to you, brothers, that the Gospel that was preached by me is not according to man. For neither did I receive it from man, nor was I taught [it by man] but through the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

So what is going on? We think that the answer is that the people making this sort of argument have a somewhat pietistic liberal Protestant understanding of the nature of the Holy Spirit—that the Holy Spirit is a good feeling ‘created in Community’, that it is that subjective or inter-subjective feeling of piety that they have in Church, that it is something that Rudolf Otto would talk about—the subjective idea of the Holy. In other words, we think that when people have not encountered the Holy Spirit, they tend to believe that the Holy Spirit is a subjective personal feeling. And if they feel holy in Church while outside of Church they are participating in—let us be frank—sin, then they are possibly led to conclude that the historical moral teaching of the Church is wrong, that since they feel good in Church what they’re doing outside of Church is not sin at all.

However, what these people are experiencing in Church is in our opinion for what it’s worth most likely NOT the Holy Spirit. Their subjective good feeling in Church has nothing to do with the acceptability to the Holy Spirit of their practices outside of Church. That much should be evident from the Spirit-bearing Paul’s absoluteness.

Now it is not our place to judge; that is God’s; and it is the place of the hierarchy to judge the meaning of the Gospel (the hierarchy of ALL the Church, not just a few in a small jurisdiction somewhere). Moreover it is also the place of the Church to approach the sinner in humility—without however compromising the true teaching of the Orthodox Church. However, surely these people are destroying themselves.