When I first heard about the Orthodox fasting rules, I thought that nobody in their right mind would consider taking them seriously and that they were definitely not for me. I could hardly believe them but decided not to comment. I would observe and talk delicately to cradle Orthodox Christians about how they viewed and interpreted them.
Over time, I learnt that the rules are given as an ideal and no doubt they are followed quite strictly in monasteries. No meat is allowed after Meatfare Sunday and neither eggs nor dairy products after Cheesefare Sunday. This is probably out of reach for many of us in this busy world, so how do we manage? The answer is that we should try to do our best.
I think that one of the things to mention is that the rules are not too difficult to follow if the whole family is Orthodox, if you live in a warm country and near the sea. Even if fish is not permitted, you can catch a lobster or maybe enjoy a sun-dried tentacle of an octopus together with a wide variety of salads with pasta or bread. The climate makes an enormous difference and it must be much harder to fast in the heart of Russia, but I believe that in Russia the rules are often modified to allow fish.
The next question is: why fast at all? My view is that as well as being exhorted to pray and fast, there is a certain amount of self-discipline required. There is a tightening up of nuts and bolts and a general taking stock, and possibly a different attitude to food will follow. Think of the number of obese people around, where food seems to have taken complete control of them and some so much so that they are obliged to resort to stomach stapling.
The next thing to mention is that fasting does not apply only to food. St John Chrysostom (345-407) taught many times that fasting is not only the abstention from certain foods but also an abstention from evil doings. During the first week of Great Lent we sing ‘While fasting from food, let us also fast from our passions.’ In Lenten Vespers we sing ‘Let us fast with a fast pleasing to the Lord’. Hypocritical fasting is abstaining from certain foods but allowing ourselves all the worldly vices.
There is both a physical and a spiritual fast. In the physical fast the body abstains from food and drink. In the spiritual fast, the faster abstains from evil intentions, words and deeds. One who truly fasts abstains from anger, rage, malice, and vengeance. One who truly fasts abstains from idle and foul talk, empty rhetoric, slander, condemnation, flattery, lying and all manner of spiteful talk. In a word, a real faster is one who withdraws from all evil. As much as you subtract from the body, so much will you add to the strength of the soul.
St Basil the Great
If thou, O man, dost not forgive everyone who has sinned against thee, then do not trouble thyself with fasting. If thou dost not forgive the debt of thy brother, with whom thou art angry for some reason, then thou dost fast in vain God will not accept thee. Fasting will not help thee, until thou become accomplished in love and in the hope of faith. Whoever fasts and becomes angry, and harbours enmity in his heart, such a one hates God and salvation is far from him.
St Ephraim the Syrian
An excellent faster is he who restrains himself from every impurity, who imposes abstinence on his tongue and restrains it from idle talk, foul language, slander, condemnation, flattery and all manner of evilspeaking, who abstains from anger, rage, malice and vengeance and withdraws from every evil.
St Tikhon of Zadonsk
The implication in all these extracts is that food fasting is less important than other forms of self-control. That does not mean that we abandon food fasting but it should be put in perspective. In a family situation it can be very difficult if one member wants or needs different food from the rest and it causes more difficulties for the cook than for the consumer.
Medical conditions apart, if there is goodwill on both sides a compromise can be reached and in an Orthodox family where everyone wants to fast, these times can be enriching experiences. Fasting is something you get used to, and preparing Lenten dishes becomes easier as your repertoire of acceptable recipes grows. Perhaps too, we can afford to laugh at some of the eccentricities of traditional fasting. It is for example strange and charming that olives are allowed, but not olive oil!
Finally, as Bishop Kallistos observes (The Lenten Triodion p.37) “the rules of fasting, while they need to be taken seriously are not to be interpreted with dour and pedantic legalism; ‘for the kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ (Rom.14;17).”