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:
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:
- Great Lent, which comprises the 50 days before Easter Sunday (from Clean Monday to Holy Saturday).
- 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.
- The Fast of the Mother of God, from 1 August to 14 August inclusive, terminating on the Feast of the Dormition.
- 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.