Re-Thinking Fasting in the Eastern Orthodox Church

Dormition of Mary (via Wikimedia Commons)
Dormition of Mary (via Wikimedia Commons)

We are coming to the end of the Dormition Fast (I talk about this in a Religion Moment). It is a fast, that I must confess, I have not kept well. This is partly due to circumstance, and partly due to my own neglectfulness. Yet I also wonder if fasting itself is not something that the Orthodox Church needs to rethink for the modern, American context. There is something about the “rules” of fasting that do not mesh well with the modern world. Some traditionalists might say that’s exactly the point, and I get it. But I must also point out that strict adherence to the letter of the fasting guidelines may violate its spirit.


Consider what is not “allowed” during a typical fast: meat products (including dairy, eggs, and cheese), olive oil, and wine.

But what is allowed during the fast? Lobster!

The purpose of the fast is threefold. First, we are to hedge back our appetites, to allow ourselves to be a little hungry as a spiritual discipline, so that by denying the urge to eat we might learn to deny the urge to sin. (See my Huff Post piece on fasting.) Second, we are to give ourselves more time. Preparing simple fare means we spend less time in the kitchen so that we can focus on prayer and attend extra services as we are able. Finally, because we are, in theory, spending less money on food, we are to give the extra to the poor. In the Shepherd of Hermas, which some early Christian churches considered Scripture, the angel says that the money we do not spend on fasting must be given in alms. This is consistent with what the prophet Isaiah writes:

Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;
When you see the naked, that you cover him,
And not hide yourself from your own flesh?
(Isaiah 58:6-7 NKJV)

Fasting was on my mind on Sunday, when I ran by the store to grab some grocery items for this week. I was thinking to myself how difficult it is to get foods that fit the guidelines offered by the church and my own budget. Later that afternoon, I read the following words in Fr. Michael Plekon’s book, Hidden Holiness

Fr.Lev Gillet…noted that fasting might better take the form of eating simple, cheap food rather than that allowed by ancient Eastern Church fasting rules such as lobster, shrimp, scallops, caviar, which are now quite expensive. (A Greek friend tells me that such seafood was considered to be fit only for the poor or fasting, even in the mid-twentieth century.There are other, less convincing theological explanations too.)

Not Orthodox-Kosher
Not Orthodox-Kosher

Plekon goes on to write that maybe the best way we can fast is to do whatever we can to slow down, to give others the gift of our time. I agree. So often, periods of fasting feel like more busy-ness. Part-time veganism takes significantly more energy than a frozen pizza.

Of course, I am not in a position to change the rules of my church. I suppose I could add that a fourth purpose of the fast is to learn to fight self-will. So eating soy burgers instead of the cow kind may be useful, even if it is expensive. I might also add that going meatless forces me to change other eating habits. I tend to buy more vegetables, especially during the Apostles Fast in the early summer. If fasting encourages spending time outside in the garden or in the kitchen experimenting with new fare, then that’s good too. It was during Nativity Fast several years ago that I discovered that the lentil soup I make is both cheap and nutritious. I have also learned how to make it into lentil burgers, and usually I end up splitting the batch with friends and neighbors.

20130811-162221.jpg
Lentil Soup + Breadcrumbs = Lentil Burgers!

Still sometimes I think the fasting rules make the purpose of the fast too difficult to fulfill in 21st century America. Let me be clear that I am not wanting to do away with the fast; I am only suggesting that perhaps my venerable hierarchs should ask themselves if Lobster should be an acceptable food for those of us who live about 12 hours away from the ocean. Maybe instead we should be required to eat only what the poor eat: hot dogs or bologna with a side of dry, off-brand Rice Krispies.

But I am not in a position to change the rules, nor do I have the pastoral expertise or wisdom to know if they should be changed. I do think that Fr. Lev Gillet’s advice makes more sense, especially if the alternative to cow is lobster, leaving the poor to go hungry. So…could someone from SCOBA get on this please?

The fact is that life does get in the way of the fast, through no fault of my own. Most evenings, I get home by 6:00, and I have very little time to spend making lentil patties or chopping up peppers for my vegetarian chili (another winning recipe that I would not have discovered without the fast). I think sometimes I might make it to vespers more often if I could just swing by Chic-fil-a on the way to church, skipping the fries and drink for myself, so that I can give my change to the guy selling the Homeless Paper on the curb. That seems more practical and, frankly, more Orthodox

 

25 thoughts on “Re-Thinking Fasting in the Eastern Orthodox Church”

  1. maybe you should not try to replace meat so much, and instead just simply eat fruits and vegetables or have some granola. If you have the idea skipping a fast so you can spend money on protestant chicken is more Orthodox than holding to your fast I fear you are misguided.

  2. I can not really comment on whether or not the "rules" should be changed. However, if one gets away from the rules and out of one's head it makes it about simple obedience it becomes a lot easier. Part of fasting is not babying yourself and over thinking about ways to make everything appealing. You are not supposed to feel normal during a fasting period. Fasting cookbooks are completely against the spirit of fasting. The American idea that we need a lot of protean in our diet is also a problem. For the most part I do not eat that seafood, fake meat or peanut butter yet when I decide to keep the fast, I keep the fast. Another modern fallacy is that fasting will make you fat "too many carbs". Portion control. Want a quick fasting meal try a salad, they even come in bags these days. I think at this point any modifications of fasting would simply be to accommodate the exact thing that fasting seeks to remedy, our own self-obsession with ease and comfort. Finally, just in case you are wondering, I am not a great faster either.

  3. Jon Duttweiler My wife (who is Chinese) cooks with several different kinds of tofu. The cottage cheese texture variety that most people are familiar with is my least favorite kind. My personal favorite is spicy dry tofu, which she usually stir fries with various other vegetables, and you can either eat it with rice or noodles. By varying the ingredients, she keeps it interesting. The only stores that sell the kind of tofu we usually use are Asian grocery stores. One of these days I am going to talk my wife into writing a lenten cook book. :)

  4. I like Thai and Vietnamese as opposed to Chinese to eat out. Way lighter and fresher. We have a Vietnamese restaurant close to us that has a Lemon Grass tofu that is unbelievably good!

  5. There are a number of reasons for why we fast as we do, but one of them is simply because the physical effect of shell fish is not as strong as the effect of eating beef or cheese. Anyone who has kept the fasts for several years notices that when they fast they feel more energetic, and when they get off the fast, they feel more sluggish. That is because some foods cause that sluggish feel, and that feeling is not as conducive to prayer as the more energetic feeling you have when you eat a lighter diet.

    Adjusting to fasting is difficult for more Americans because we have meat and/or dairy in almost everything we eat. But you can eat a healthy lenten diet without spending more money, you just have to learn a good approach to cooking lenten. Chinese food works very well with the fasts… and I mean home cooked Chinese food, not so much the kind most people eat in the restaurants… though if you find an authentic Chinese restaurant, you will find that kind of food on the menu. But obviously the Greeks and the Arabs have this down pretty well too.

  6. Richard, I have tried several times to write a follow-up response, but on the face of things, my life compared to East Africa would just make me look like a whiney, middle-class white guy. There is more to me than that. For a sense of who I am, your friend should read my bio and my post "My Childhood Experience of Poverty." (Fr? Dn?) James Hargrave depicted Doctor David Dunn as – what? – an aloof academic with a cushy life. I object to that caricature.

  7. It's all in my head, Valerie. But it's something like this:
    1 pound lentils.
    About 3-4 carrots, chopped.
    About 3-4 sticks of celery, chopped.
    About 2-3 tomatoes, chopped.
    Add a jar of spaghetti sauce (the magic ingredient)
    Simmer with garlic, parsely, basil, and oregano (a.k.a. "Italian Seasoning).
    That's it. One bowl is a very filling meal.

    It's a very filling meal, and it's pretty cheap. To turn it into lentil burgers, add breadcrumbs, form patties, then throw the suckers in a little canola oil (I know I'm fudging on the oil a bit). You can cook them on a grill, but I don't recommend it.

    Happy to oblige! However, you cannot have my much-coveted black bean chili recipe. That one goes with me to the grave. ;-)

  8. David J Dunn Just so you're aware, James Hargrave is a full-time missionary in East Africa, so he's not posturing or trying to be mean, he just has a perspective that puts these things into very sharp relief for him — he does indeed know Orthodox Christians who are malnourished and can't afford rice and beans.

  9. David J Dunn I don't know — that may be. The priest who chrismated me certainly believed (and stated publicly) that the fasting traditions needed to be revisited for the realities of a non-Mediterranean diet, and he was no raving modernist. Still, it seems to me that framing the discussion so that the poles are lentil patties, lobster, and Chick-Fil-A ultimately gives a false sense of what the issue actually is.

  10. Richard, it's a bit of a balancing act, isn't it? On the one hand, the church should not scramble to be "relevant" to culture for its own sake. The church's job is to be faithful to the gospel. On the other hand, Orthodoxy is not sectarian. Culture is not a land of Godforsakenness. The Spirit happens there, too. Thus there is a certain degree to which the church has always adapted itself to every culture it finds itself it (it is part of the reason the canons state the liturgy should be sung in the language of the people). The Orthodox Church is not a museum. Its rules about fasting have shifted, albeit slowly, over the centuries, in different times and places, so that the church might most faithfully fulfill its mission to be salt and light in the world. All I am wondering (and I really am just wondering) if this needs to be something those with expertise on these issues (spiritual directors) have an open and frank conversation about.

  11. James Hargrave , I was not blaming the church for the fasting regimen. The suggestion about cheaper fare did not originate with me, did it? It just struck a chord, and I started the conversation. Normally, I am pretty thick-skinned when it comes to online comments, but your tone was just mean-spirited. Might I add, that cruel words are inappropriate to any fast. Period. That's all.

  12. Today I'm making a vegetarian French onion soup and adding some lentils to it. We've cut back to the rice or noodles or potatoes and beans and veggie diet with some shrimp and scallops thrown in very occasionally. And the herb bread that Mark Naftel makes is totally fasting friendly! :)

  13. Please give me your lentil recipes! Thanks for the article; I've thought the same thing myself. It seems wrong to spend more $ on food in order to keep the fasts by buying Amy's instead of Kroger brand soups, etc., in order to be strictly vegan. I'd love to hear more about this from the Church.

  14. " I was thinking to myself how difficult it is to get foods that fit the guidelines offered by the church and my own budget."

    Doctor David J. Dunn *really* can't afford rice, dry beans, and fresh vegetables? Really? He can't afford a stove or a pot to cook them with? He doesn't have access to electricity to refrigerate leftovers or re-heat them in a microwave? He's too time-strapped to re-heat leftovers, or even to eat them cold out of the fridge? The only thing he has time and money to do is drive to a fast-food restaurant and buy a chicken sandwich? Really? Really?

    Really?

    Look, I do know Orthodox Christians who are too poor or remote to have access to rice, beans and other vegetables. These Orthodox Christians are generally malnourished. Their bishop is sympathetic, and does not impose upon them laws that they cannot follow. Not one of these people is named Doctor David J Dunn.

    As for people like him and like me, when we fail in our fasting, it's not because the mean old Orthodox Church is forcing us to buy lobsters we can't afford. No, the responsibility is actually ours.

  15. " I was thinking to myself how difficult it is to get foods that fit the guidelines offered by the church and my own budget."

    Doctor David J. Dunn *really* can't afford rice, dry beans, and fresh vegetables? Really? He can't afford a stove or a pot to cook them with? He doesn't have access to electricity to refrigerate leftovers or re-heat them in a microwave? He's too time-strapped to re-heat leftovers, or even to eat them cold out of the fridge? The only thing he has time and money to do is drive to a fast-food restaurant and buy a chicken sandwich? Really? Really?

    Really?

    Look, I do know Orthodox Christians who are too poor or remote to have access to rice, beans and other vegetables. These Orthodox Christians are generally malnourished. Their bishop is sympathetic, and does not impose upon them laws that they cannot follow. Not one of these people is named Doctor David J Dunn.

    As for people like him and like me, when we fail in our fasting, it's not because the mean old Orthodox Church is forcing us to buy lobsters we can't afford. No, the responsibility is actually ours.

  16. " I was thinking to myself how difficult it is to get foods that fit the guidelines offered by the church and my own budget."

    Doctor David J. Dunn *really* can't afford rice, dry beans, and fresh vegetables? Really? He can't afford a stove or a pot to cook them with? He doesn't have access to electricity to refrigerate leftovers or re-heat them in a microwave? He's too time-strapped to re-heat leftovers, or even to eat them cold out of the fridge? The only thing he has time and money to do is drive to a fast-food restaurant and buy a chicken sandwich? Really? Really?

    Really?

    Look, I do know Orthodox Christians who are too poor or remote to have access to rice, beans and other vegetables. These Orthodox Christians are generally malnourished. Their bishop is sympathetic, and does not impose upon them laws that they cannot follow. Not one of these people is named Doctor David J Dunn.

    As for people like him and like me, when we fail in our fasting, it's not because the mean old Orthodox Church is forcing us to buy lobsters we can't afford. No, the responsibility is actually ours.

  17. There's a physical change I notice in myself when I eat simple, vegetable-based foods. For health reasons I don't eat much soy, wheat, or fake meats. I do a lot of rice, beans, veggies, and occasionally shrimp. And it's difficult. In a whole different way than skipping the soda and fries–it is deeply, physically difficult for me to go about my normal routine without the same ease of cooking, the foods, I crave, etc. And after a few days or a week of eating simpler, vegan foods, I notice I think and act and feel just a little differently. A big ol' steak with cheddar potatoes puts me in a very different frame of mine than broccoli and rice with lemon or a simple veggie soup.

    And part of the point of fasting is to experience that difficulty, to recognize my weakness. Part of the point is also to take it out of my hands–this isn't something I get to make up as I go along, or change to suit me. This is a discipline, and I fail a lot, and it's humbling.

    When I asked my priest, the recommendation about oil had to do with its deepening and adding flavor–cooking with oil makes it easy to make fancier food, whether meatless or no. But the "ideal" fasting meal was always implied to be a very monastic boiled _____ with a touch of salt. I struggle to eat moderate portions, much less to check every ingredient or avoid cooking anything in oil. But it's a GOOD struggle. It's an important struggle.

    P.S. Lobster without butter…meh. I'll wait til after the fast, thanks.

  18. "Yet I also wonder if fasting itself is not something that the Orthodox Church needs to rethink for the modern, American context."

    Why would the Orthodox Church rethink its practices for a place that has a statistically irrelevant number of its practitioners?

    The issue with so much of Orthodox Christianity is that so much of what it means in its own cultural context means something very different in the modern West. That is not a problem that is going to be easily solved in a way that keeps "American" Orthodoxy (whatever we actually mean by that) mutually intelligible with "Old Country" Orthodoxy.

    As far as fasting goes — lobster may well be "allowed" according to fasting tradition (I hate the word "rule" in this context because as soon as something becomes a rule then somebody else refers to it as a "rule" with audible scare quotes), but that doesn't mean that you're obligated to eat lobster, or gourmet vegan dishes for that matter, to keep the fast. Fasting is supposed to be a reduction of attention given to food, going along with an increase in prayer and almsgiving; it's not supposed to turn into an ecclesiastical cooking show on the Food Network. It's complicated, I suppose, if one's entire household is not Orthodox, in which case, it's between you and your priest what you do (and, really, that should be the deal across the board — we shouldn't be checking each other's refrigerators during fasting periods to begin with).

  19. I was under the impression that the question of the fasting rules and the modern world was one of the items being discussed as part of the preparations for a future council.

    Having said that, while there are things that don't make sense to me about the fasting rules, one of their values, for me, is precisely that they ask me to lay aside my own judgement and adapt myself to the broader discipline of the Church, with all the historical baggage and quirkiness that that entails. One of the things that I have valued most about Orthodox fasting discipline is precisely that it is not about my judgement and my choice, however much I might be tempted to think that my judgement might be better suited to certain situations.

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