Fasting for Non-Monastics
Father Sergei Sveshnikov
ST. HERMAN’S ORTHODOX YOUTH CONFERENCE
MULINO, OREGON, 22-26 DECEMBER 2013
A curious phenomenon can be observed in the interactions between pastors and their parishioners at the beginning of each major fast of the Church. Pastors attempt to call their parishioners’ pious attention to the spiritual heights of fasting: the fighting against sin, the conquering of passions, the taming of the tongue, the cultivation of virtues. In turn, parishioners pester their pastors with purely dietary questions: when fish is allowed, whether soy milk or soy hotdogs are fasting, whether adding milk to coffee is breaking the fast, or whether there is some dispensation that can be given to the young, the elderly, those who study, those who work, women, men, travelers, the sick, or those who simply do not feel well. In response to the overwhelming preoccupation with dietary rules to the detriment of the spiritual significance of fasting, some pastors, seemingly out of frustration, began to propose in sermons and internet articles that dietary rules are not important at all: if you want yogurt during Lent, just have some as long as you do not gossip; if you want a hamburger, then eat one, as long as you do not devour a fellow human being by judging and backstabbing. Unfortunately, such advice rarely helps eradicate gossip, judging or backstabbing. Rather, it seems to confuse people into thinking that since they have not yet conquered these and many other vices in their hearts, they do not have to fast from hamburger either. Thus, I would like us to discuss the very topic which fascinates so many lay people: what the fasting rules are and how they are to be followed by those of you who have not taken the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience.
The Rules, the Rules, Let Us Attend
So, what are the fasting rules? Most of us refer to a calendar we buy at a church kiosk to tell us what to eat and what not to eat on any given day. But where do the people who print the calendar get their information? Where does it really say how to fast? Well, you may have heard the Russian saying about not going to someone else’s monastery with your own rules. The fact is that fasting as we have come to know it nowadays is a monastic discipline, and fasting rules come from monasteries. The rules we use in the Russian Orthodox Church today, for example, largely come from the Monastery of Saint Sabbas near Jerusalem. There are several paragraphs in chapters 32 and 33 of the Typicon which outline the rules of fasting. There are also some local variations—usually relaxing the fast—that have to do with either memories of saints or life in northern climates. The Solovki Monastery, for example, is quite a bit north of the Monastery of Saint Sabbas; not too many vegetables grow there year round, but fish is plentiful. But most of us do not live in Solovki or Alaska.
There are several fasting periods in the Church, and we will not discuss all of them in detail, but let us look at the rules for Great Lent, for example, as the fast of all fasts. According to the Typicon, on Monday and Tuesday of the first week, no food is allowed at all. On Wednesday of the first week, warm bread and warm (or cooked) vegetable dishes are served once—and that is the only meal on that day. And those who cannot keep such a strict fast, such as the elderly, may eat some bread after vespers on Tuesday. The rest of Great Lent is less strict: some bread and vegetables are allowed once a day every day after vespers. And “if any monk destroys the holy Lent through his gluttony by eating fish on days other than the Feast of the Annunciation and Palm Sunday, may he not partake of Communion on Pascha.” That is the rule.
Does anyone actually follow these rules? I presume some do—probably some monastics and a small number of lay people. But if you see a monk having lunch on any weekday during Great Lent, you may assume that the said monk is modifying the rules somewhat to suit his particular needs or wants. In fact, most lay people and many monastics follow some modified version of the rule which is almost never a stricter version of the fast, but rather a relaxation of it—whether increasing the number of meals, or the amount of food, of the type of food, or all of the above. For example, at the Moscow Theological Academy and Seminary, located on the premises of the Holy-Trinity Sergius Lavra near Moscow, students and staff eat fish throughout Great Lent—not only on the two feast days mentioned in the Typicon. In recent years, fish is served twice a week on most weeks, but in the not-so-distant past, it was served as many as four times per week. Likewise, those who read the diary of Tsar-martyr Nicholas II will note that fish was served to the Royal Family throughout Great Lent. And this is not something that somehow started in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Patriarchal “Feeding Chronicle” of the 17th century, for example, recorded an abundance of fish dishes served to the Patriarch and his guests on every Saturday and Sunday during Great Lent.1
Is It a Sin to Break the Fast?
So, is it a sin to break the fast? The answer to this question depends on what is meant by breaking the fast. As we have discussed, it turns out that most people—monastic and lay alike—deviate from the rule in some way. If this deviation is meaningful and its purpose is to accommodate a real physiological need, then, it seems to me it is well within the spirit of fasting, even if it is not exactly according to monastic rules. If, however, the deviation is due to our gluttony, laziness, lack of discipline, or some other weakness, then we have something that should be corrected. Perhaps, the best way to think about sin in relation to fasting is not in legal terms—law, crime, and punishment, but in terms of preparation or exercise. Fasting is an ascetic discipline. The word “ascetic” comes from the Greek ἄσκησις which means “exercise” or “training.” In other words, imagine that you are a soldier preparing for a difficult and dangerous mission. It is not so much a crime to be lazy in your training or to cut corners as much as it means that you may not be well-prepared for your task and thus will not be able to complete it or even perish in the process. So, if you choose not to exercise the discipline of fasting, you are cheating yourself out of the training necessary to fight against the enemy—sins and passions—and will be unprepared to face the snares of the devil.
THE CONCEPT OF FASTING
The Discipline of the Body
There are two aspects to the exercise of fasting that I would like to discuss. The first one is the discipline of the body. Any time something is limited in its freedoms, it becomes subject to whatever force is limiting it. So, when I make my body do what I need instead of what it wants, I become its master. In other words, if I tell my feet to walk and where to go, or if I tell my hands to work and what to do, or if I tell my brain to solve a problem and which one—I gain control over this incredible gift of God called my body. On the other hand, if my body forces me to do what it wants, then it becomes my master. And it would not, perhaps, be so bad if the body wanted what is best for me. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Each one of us has his or her own vices yielding to our fallen nature, but in general, we know that given a choice, our body does not always choose wisely: it wants to be lazy rather than productive; it wants to eat junk food rather than healthy food; and our brain just wants to party or get into mischief—often to the detriment of the body.
All of this may sound simple enough, but what are we talking about? What is the body, and who is it that is supposed to be in charge? The dichotomy of body and soul is not within the scope of our talk, but for simplicity’s sake, let us agree that when we say “body,” we mean the whole of our nature: flesh, including brain, emotions, desires, will, intellect, etc. And the “you” is the hypostatic you, that which tells your brain to solve a math problem and the brain obediently solves it, it is the “I” in “I love you,” and it is the “my” in “my name is…” But it so happens that in English, when we say “body” we often refer to the physical body. This is not, however, the biblical use of this word.
Thus, the discipline of the body is exercised for the purpose of keeping you in charge of your body. In our fallen state, the natural order of our being has been perverted: the flesh with its passions and desires is the ruler of our being; our mind is a slave of the flesh and is preoccupied with figuring out how to fulfill the desires of the flesh; the soul feeds on the passions of the flesh, looking for pleasure and never finding satisfaction; and the spirit—the direction in which our entire being moves—is not that of God, but rather of corruption, waste, and destruction. In other words, the human spirit, the vector, is missing its true mark, which is God. In Christianity, this is known as “sin,” or ἁμαρτία in Greek, which translates as “missing the mark” or “mistake.”
Fasting, then, helps us restore divinely ordained order to our being: the spirit or vector must always point to God, the soul must find its fulfillment in communion with God, and the body, in all of its complexity, must serve the soul in its service to God. We may, and will, talk about meat, fish, shrimp and the like, but the main point is: if you cannot be in control of your stomach, if this simple sack of flesh is the ruler your life, how can you hope to be in control of more complex physiology, or your mind, or your soul?! This is not even a purely religious matter but a matter of being a human being. I have heard some teenagers bragging about breaking a fast as if it is some accomplishment to eat a hotdog or bacon on a fasting day. In reality, it is simply the mark of an individual who lacks self-control and is ruled by his gut—nothing at all to brag about. If I were that person, I would not advertise this embarrassing infantile quality and try to work on developing more self-discipline.
Unity with the Church
The second aspect of fasting that I would like to mention is the unity of the Church which is the Body of Christ. Fasts and feasts of the Church create a certain kind of unity among its members. Think of your family: relatives have meals together, celebrate important events together, and stick together during sad times. This helps maintain cohesion and unity within the family, and if anyone decides to abstain from family life, then he or she is essentially cutting themselves off from the family. It is the same in the Church: we keep fasts together and we celebrate feasts together as a family of God. And if anyone decides not to fast together with the Church or not to join the Church family in festal celebrations, then they are separating themselves from our family, cutting themselves off from the Body. And if you do not want to join your brothers and sisters in this short temporal life, how do you plan to spend eternity with them? Our faith is not individualistic; it is not about one single person being saved in some solitary way. Salvation is possible only in the Body of Christ, and only as a member of that Body. A branch which is cut off from the vine no longer inherits life but is thrown into a burn pile.
FASTING AND PHYSIOLOGY
But enough theory and theology! This conference is supposed to be about practical things. Let us assume that everyone here believes in and tries to follow the spiritual path which is offered to us by Orthodox Christianity, and that we all know that this path necessarily includes the discipline of the body, a small part of which is the discipline of that sack of flesh called the stomach. So, what do we know about this organ? All too often people come to me and say that they cannot fast because they need protein. When I ask them questions and try to figure out why they think that they need more protein that most other Orthodox Christians who observe the fast, it turns out that these people rarely have a good idea of how much protein their body really needs, or which foods contain protein and how much, or what else they may need besides protein. In most cases, these people simply want that hotdog, they want that hamburger, and they want that cheese sandwich, and that is the only reason they say that they need protein. So let us take a closer look at our bodies’ real needs.
This is not a college course on human physiology, so we will keep things very simple. When it comes to food, your body basically needs three things: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Also vitamins and minerals, of course, but people usually do not complain that they do not get enough vitamins during a fast—even if they really do not get enough—but that is for a different reason, which has nothing to do with fasting. The amount of carbohydrates, protein, and fat that a person needs depends on the person’s age, gender and lifestyle. But before we get into the exact amounts, let us first discuss what these nutrients do for us.
Our body is a marvelous and complex organism created by God. It is usually a mistake to think of our body as a mechanism or a machine, but to simplify our discussion, let us use some mechanical language when talking about nutrition. In the simplest terms, in order to operate, our body needs fuel. If we do not have enough fuel in our body, then the body slows its metabolism—the rate at which it burns fuel—and begins to shut down non-essential work, making one feel tired and sluggish. Carbohydrates or carbs, such as oatmeal, buckwheat, or rice, serve as a good source of this fuel. But people who are following a fast do not typically have a problem with getting enough oatmeal or buckwheat. Some people, of course, do have a problem with eating too much highly processed and refined starch, such as white bread, white pasta, etc., and not enough of the good complex carbs like oatmeal or buckwheat; but, just as with vitamins, this is not related to the fasting rules, as such people may have a poor diet whether or not they are fasting. In fact, some people have complained to me that they gain weight during Lent. And by looking at their diet, which contains huge amounts of pasta, white bread with slabs of margarine, and salads drowning in fatty dressing—it is easy to see why they do. Add to this a regular helping of “fasting” desserts overloaded with sugar, and your Lent becomes a dangerous experiment in trying to see how much junk your body can endure before it breaks down.
While we are on this topic, how much fat do people need? Depending on the total number of calories you need per day (this number is calculated based on your age, gender, and level of physical activity), you may be able to safely consume up to 100 grams of high-quality fats (although, for many of us, half of that amount should be more than sufficient). High-quality fats are, for example, good (non-refined and not heated) olive oil, coconut oil, nuts, or fish, but not lard, butter, or margarine. Good fats serve many functions in the body—from protecting your cardio-vascular system, to helping your brain, to making sure that your joints work well.
Finally, we get to the main concern of many people who are looking for an excuse not to fast—protein. According to the National Academy of Sciences, adult females need an average of 46 grams of protein per day, and adult males –52. These numbers may vary depending on your size, but not necessarily your current weight. For example, if you weigh 200 pounds, but you really should weigh only 150, then your protein intake is calculated based on your ideal weight and not the extra weight you carry. The amount of protein intake also depends on your level of activity: if you exercise every day, you probably need a little more; if you spend your days playing computer games or texting, then you probably need a little less. We will discuss some of these situations in due course, but for now, let us just average the number to 50 grams per day and see how we can get that much protein on a fasting diet.
On days when fish is allowed, you can actually get good animal protein without too much trouble. 2 oz of cold-smoked salmon (lox) has approximately 13 grams of protein. A serving of canned fish—salmon or tuna—has the same. And for those who choose to follow the Greek custom of eating shrimp, it also contains approximately the same amount of protein—12 grams of protein per 50 grams of shrimp. Remember that a serving—2 oz. or approximately 60 grams—is a pretty small amount. In America, we are used to eating a lot more than one serving of anything. Two small servings of fish or shrimp contain half the daily amount of protein for an adult male.
Among other common fasting foods, peanut butter has 7 grams of protein per 2 tablespoons, rice, buckwheat, and oatmeal—approximately 6 grams per one cup of cooked product, good bread (not the white fluffy chemical kind)—6 grams per slice, a cup of cooked beans or lentils—15 grams (that’s more protein than a serving of fish), 20 almonds (a handful)—5 grams. In other words, if you have a cup of oatmeal and a peanut-butter sandwich for breakfast, a cup of buckwheat and 100 grams of fish for lunch, and a cup of rice and bean mix for supper, you get 62 grams of protein—a bit more that an average adult male needs. I understand that many people do not like math and find these calculations confusing and incredibly boring, but just think about it: this is simple addition of small numbers—the stuff you should have learned in grade school.
What about complete and incomplete protein? In order to understand this difference, we must understand how our body processes protein. When we eat a piece of meat, for example, our body does not take that meat and strap it directly to the biceps (even though that would be nice). Instead, it disassembles the protein contained in meat into small building blocks called amino acids and then reassembles those amino acids into protein for the human body. In addition, our body can create many of the amino acids from all sorts of building blocks found in many foods, but there are eight amino acids that our body is not able to create. Foods that contain these eight essential amino acids are said to have complete protein; foods that do not contain all eight are said to have incomplete protein. Meat, to be sure, does contain all eight, but so does fish, a mixture of beans and grains (such as rice), or quinoa. Quinoa is a grain that contains all eight essential amino acids—and that is 6 grams of complete protein per cup of cooked product.
As you can see, it is very much possible to get more than enough protein on a simple fasting diet. Nutritionally, there is absolutely no reason why you cannot abstain from meat, or eggs, or milk for a period of time. People have practiced fasting for thousands of years—since well-before the incarnation of Christ. Psychologically, you may be craving a hotdog or ice-cream, but this craving has nothing to do with your body’s nutritional needs.
Let us now take a look at some special circumstances in our lives, and how we can observe the fasts of the Church while studying, working, exercising, travelling, etc.
FASTING FOR NON-MONASTICS
Fasting and Life’s Seasons
Our life is not one uniform and monotonous continuum. Rather, it is a variety of seasons. Some easily come to mind—childhood, adulthood, old age—but there are others: pregnancy, for example, or preparing for an exam, or training for a competition, or travelling. We will touch on all of these, but let us begin with the natural seasons of our life: childhood, adulthood, and old age.
Most of you probably know that infants, with the exception of Saint Serguis of Radonezh, do not fast. It is said that the baby Serguis (whose name was Bartholomew before he became a monk) refused his mother’s milk on Wednesdays and Fridays, but even in this miraculous account we do not read that he abstained from milk during longer fasts, of which there would have been four in his first year of life. There is a limit to how long a baby can go without milk.
At about the age of three, it is customary to begin teaching a young child the basics of self-control. At that age, there is still no need for a child to follow a monastic fasting rule, but even a three-year-old can be taught to give up a cookie on Friday.
From approximately seven years of age, children should be mostly eating what the parents eat, with perhaps some adjustments. And, of course, it is assumed that the family follows the fasts of the Church. A parent, for example, may experiment with eating only once a day after vespers, but a child probably should not—at least, not for forty-nine days straight. Even if a child wishes to try some stricter asceticism, a parent will naturally want to guide the child in ways that are age-appropriate.
Many of you are teenagers or young adults. This is a season of many stresses in your life: school, sports, romantic relationships for which you stay up half the night and then feel lousy for most of the next day. All of this makes it very difficult to add yet one more stressor. Fasting is a stressor. When you fast, you have to exercise will power; you have to control yourself, limit your appetite, and think ahead. But this season in life is also when you really need to practice the skill of self-control and self-discipline. You are no longer a child, and your parents are not always there to be your backbone. By now, you had better have your own backbone. This is why it is so important to begin fasting in some way and learning self-discipline when you are still a young child.
Following the turmoil of your young adult years, roughly half of you will get pregnant. The guys may think that this does not apply to them, but the new Affordable Care Act does cover pregnancy benefits for young men. So, fear not! Jokes aside, however, pregnancy had better not be a young woman’s experience, but that of the couple. Care, love, support, understanding, and—yes!—cooking is what guys get out of this experience. There is absolutely no good reason for a pregnant woman to follow the monastic diet, and I am certainly not aware of any Church rules that say otherwise. One thing that I always say to pregnant women is that they still have to fast. We all do! But their fast is eating as healthily as they can, which is a discipline in and of itself. If it is healthy—eat it; if it is not—do not eat it, even if it does not contain meat or dairy. This does not mean that a pregnant woman should stuff herself on meat at every meal. This would not be healthy, especially if we are talking about processed meats full of sodium and nitrates. But the season of pregnancy is not the time for only bread and water after vespers. To be sure, there are plenty of vegetarians who never eat meat—not even during pregnancy—and deliver healthy babies who also grow up not eating meat. You do not have to eat meat just because you are pregnant. But neither do you have to follow a monastic fast.
Finally, most of us will grow old—40-or-so, or even older. This is a good season for a renewed focus on your spiritual life. An older person may have more time for prayer, more opportunity for strict fasting. Certainly, the older people get, the more ailments they may have. But they will have those ailments whether or not they pray and fast. Watching television instead of praying, or eating hotdogs instead of fasting will not cure those ailments. In fact, it may add to them. Prayer and fasting, on the other hand, rejuvenate the soul and the body. In a recent study (2012), researchers at the National Institute of Aging in Baltimore discovered that strict fasting twice a week helps lower the risk of developing many brain diseases, such Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, and delays aging in general. While this is not why we fast, it is still nice to know that fasting is really good for our physical body. Lack of self-control and self-discipline, on the other hand, is really bad at any age.
All of this, of course, is a long way away for most of you, or, at least, it may seem like it is a long way away. There is beauty and a tremendous spiritual benefit in living in the moment, in making today the day that counts, as if there were no tomorrow. But it is also important to “keep an eye on the ball” of our life, and to realize that what we sow today will have to be reaped tomorrow. But today you are young, and so let us discuss some life circumstances in which young people find themselves.
Fasting and Study
The most common thing that young people do in Western societies is study. In America, you may study for twelve, sixteen, eighteen, twenty, or even more years—at this point, that is virtually all of your life. Is study compatible with fasting? Absolutely! But some adjustments to the fasting rule may be made, both due to age and also to the task of studying. It is well-researched and documented2 for example, that breakfast is important for school performance. There is a simple explanation: if you eat supper at seven or eight o’clock in the evening, then by seven or eight in the morning you will have been fasting for twelve hours. If you do not break fast, then by lunch time, you will have been fasting for sixteen hours. When your body does not receive fuel in the form of good complex carbs, it begins to slow its metabolism and shut down non-essential functions—you feel tired, sleepy, sluggish, and cannot think well or fast, because your brain actually consumes approximately 20% of your total calorie intake. In other words, school children should not follow the monastic rule of eating once a day after vespers—at least, not for any length of time.
Also, as I mentioned before, some prominent seminaries and theological academies serve fish during Great Lent. If future priests and their instructors, many of whom are monastics, feel that they need fish because they study or teach, I believe that other students may benefit from the same. It certainly does not have to be a fancy lobster dinner, but if you or your parents feel that you may need a can of tuna on a “non-fish” day, this may be an acceptable practice.
It may also be the case that you are served lunch at school. It is difficult to observe all of the fasting rules when you have no control over what goes into your food. For example, you may be given a salad with some cheese or dressing that has dairy. It is better to thank God and to eat this salad than to go hungry or eat a bag of potato chips, which may be perfectly fasting from a legalistic point of view, but are certainly not good for you if you always choose chips over salad. You can still abstain from meat even in school, and you can observe as strict a fast as you wish when you eat breakfast and supper at home. But it is normal to make some allowances for school lunches and even better to pack your own lunch.
Fasting and Work
Most of you either have a job or will have a job soon. And yes, just like studying, all jobs are perfectly compatible with fasting. If your job is not very physically demanding, you can and should observe a stricter fast. If you lift a lot of heavy things for your job, or work outside in cold weather, perform some other physically demanding task, you should probably increase you calorie intake and relax some of the “no-oil” days. There is no “one-size-fits-all” advice, and you should push yourself to fast as strictly as you can. But if you see that your job performance is suffering, then you should consider making some allowances and relax your fasting rule just enough to do your job well. In any case, I personally believe that everyone who has any important obligations in the morning—students, parents, workers—should not skip breakfast. Priests, of course, do not have breakfast before serving the Liturgy, and maybe that is why some of our sermons are not as good as they could be. Lay people should also observe the Liturgical fast whether they are preparing for Communion or not. But this is a special case, and a special time. In most other cases, in my opinion, a good, whole grain breakfast is the most important meal of the day and can solve many problems with “not feeling well” while observing a fast.
Fasting and Sports
Perhaps, the most difficult topic is fasting for serious athletes. It is important to emphasize that we are talking about serious athletes. A walk in the park or high-school P.E. do not constitute a serious athletic pursuit and do not require any relaxation of fasting rules. Likewise, we will not discuss Olympic-level athletes—their training is so strenuous that they often require a special strict diet and are not likely to be able to follow a monastic fasting rule. But what if you are seriously involved in high school or college athletics?
People who engage in physical exercise need two basic nutrients: carbs and proteins. Carbs are what fuel your muscles. During any physical activity, your muscles burn the carbs that are stored in them, and then during the period of recovery, the carbs in the muscles are replaced. If exercise is hard enough—and that is the only way to increase performance—your muscles actually get damaged (that is why you feel sore) and it takes protein to repair them. As your damaged muscles are repaired, they get a little stronger and bigger than they were before a workout.
In other words, it is nearly impossible to observe a monastic rule of bread and water after vespers and have regular hard workouts. To be sure, you can do it for a day or two, but not for forty or forty-nine days—your performance will suffer. So, in order to maintain athletic performance, you probably need at least three good meals a day with plenty of complex carbs and 30% more protein compared to those people who lead a less active lifestyle. But you can still keep the fast. For example, you do not have to eat meat. There are many successful athletes who are vegans and vegetarians. If you think that you absolutely have to have animal protein in your diet, fish is a much more Lenten choice than beef. You can get a lot of protein from many plant sources—the most strong and muscular animals on planet Earth are all herbivores. (Of course, the digestive system of those animals is very different from the human digestive system, but the Church is not calling us to only eat grass.)
Many athletes also feel that they need to take various supplements. Here, we will not discuss the wide variety of products that supplement companies are trying to sell to anyone who will listen to their advertising pitch, but people often ask about protein supplements, such as protein shakes or powders. In my opinion, such things as supplements, herbs, vitamins, etc., are not food and there is no good reason to worry too much about whether a capsule is made from gelatin or whether protein isolate was derived from whey. If you absolutely have to take protein powder, it may be healthier for your body to take whey protein than soy protein. You can still be very strict with your food: no ice cream or hotdogs (and if you are a serious athlete, you probably do not eat junk food anyway). But if you think you must take extra protein (and this is a big “if”), choose the healthiest option, which is probably not soy isolate.
However, the very idea of drinking a whey protein shake during Lent may bother you, and it probably should. There are plenty of people who live healthy, productive lives on a purely vegan diet. There are also many successful vegan athletes, including marathon runners, bodybuilders, Olympic sprinters, MMA fighters, cyclists, boxers, basketball players, football players and many others who never eat any animal protein. They win championships and tournaments on a completely Lenten diet, and so can you. It will take some research and forethought, but you can absolutely be an athlete and observe the fast. The health benefits you get from exercise are very important, but only for a few years or a few decades. The spiritual benefits you get from fasting last for eternity. Everything should be put in its proper place: eternal things first, temporal—second.
Fasting and Travel
It is a common belief that people who travel are somehow exempt from fasting or that their fasting rules are relaxed. So, let us explore this issue a little further. In the past, people often travelled by foot, walking twenty or more miles each day and carrying their bags. They sometimes had to endure rain, sometimes snow, and sometimes heat. They even had to camp and sleep in the field or in the forest. Finally, they were unable to cook for themselves during their journey and had to be satisfied with whatever they could find along the way. Because of these hardships, fasting rules for travelers were relaxed—they needed more energy and could not be picky about their food.
Nowadays, travel is quite a bit different. We no longer walk very much, but usually travel in a comfortable, air-conditioned car, or in an airplane with reclining seats, with an iPod, iPad, or some other device which keeps us entertained. We do not walk for hours, we sit for hours, and we complain a lot. When it is time to make a stop, we no longer camp under an open sky or sleep on the hard, cold ground. Instead, we sleep in a hotel room with a comfortable bed, a shower, and a television set. And then we complain some more. This is not to say that travelling cannot be exhausting or uncomfortable. But it simply is not as exhausting or uncomfortable as it used to be.
One thing, however, remains pretty much the same—we cannot cook for ourselves very well while we travel and must be satisfied with the food that we can find along the way. In many cases, the solution is very simple: if you are taking a two-hour-long flight, eat a good meal before you leave home in order to avoid having to look for food at an airport. If you have a long flight or a long drive, you should try to pack Lenten food for the trip. If you end up needing to buy food, choose the healthiest, most Lenten option you can reasonably find. French-fries, while Lenten, are not necessarily the healthiest option. Often, you can find a salad, fruit, or a fish sandwich, or good bread with some vegetables. Whatever you choose may have dairy in the salad dressing or mayonnaise in the fish—and there is not much you can do about it, although, particularly here on the west coast of America, most establishments offer vegan options. Thank God, enjoy your food, and continue with a stricter fast when your trip is over. But there is certainly no good reason to seek out opportunities to break your fast just because you find yourself sitting at an airport waiting for an airplane. A relaxed fasting rule during travel is not a dispensation, it is an accommodation.
When you are a young child, your parents tell you to do what is good for you. They give you rules to follow, and you follow them, but not because you realize what is good for you, but because those rules are imposed on you. When you grow older, you begin to understand what is good for you, and follow in that way freely. It is the same with the rules of the Church. When we are babies in the faith, we follow rules and canons often without a good idea why. But when we advance in spiritual age, we begin to understand that these are not some meaningless arbitrary rules, but a path to spiritual health and communion with God. With age come freedom and responsibility, and we find ourselves having to decide how rules apply in our lives and whether we are able to break them. But just as it is the mark of a child to obey rules without understanding what they do, it is also childish and immature to want to break rules just because you can.
Imagine that your parents tell you not to stick metal objects into an electric outlet; they may even slap your hand if you try. At a certain age, you will find that there is no one to stop you—you are old enough to do what you wish. And then you will discover that it is still a good rule not to stick metal objects into an electric outlet. Maybe your parents made you brush your teeth. When you are in college, your parents are not there to tell you to brush your teeth, but if you have any sense in you, you will do that on your own without being told to. And if you choose not to brush your teeth, you will not only offend others by the foul smell from your mouth, but will also allow your own teeth to rot.
Our loving mother Church gives us rules to follow. If we do not follow these rules, the result will be foul smell and decay in our soul. And thus, the task should not be to find as many excuses for breaking the fast as possible. Whether you are young or getting older, whether you work or study, whether you exercise or travel—Christians at all times in the history of the Church were both young and old, worked and studied, exercised and travelled, and kept the fast. The task should be to keep your faith, to discipline your body, and to grow in the Spirit in every situation and under all circumstances.
Fasting is only one aspect of our spiritual practice, but it is an important one. It is one of the two wings which help us rise to heaven. A bird with only one wing cannot fly; and a Christian who cannot control his belly does not have spiritual freedom.
Undoubtedly, you have heard these theoretical musings before. But I hope to show you that as a practical matter, fasting is very much possible in most, if not all situations. Decide that you will stop looking for reasons to break the fast and instead start looking for ways to keep it; learn a new recipe or two, and resolve to exercise your will-power and self-discipline. You reap what you sow. Sow the good seeds of asceticism in your life, and you will reap freedom from slavery to your belly, freedom from the passions of the flesh, and a blessing of following in the footsteps of the greatest saints and our Lord Himself.
- Father Sergei Sveshnikov (M.Div., M.A.A.Th.) is the rector of the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia Orthodox Church in Mulino, Oregon (Western American Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church)
- The original article may be found here: http://frsergei.wordpress.com/2013/12/27/fasting-for-non-monastics/
- Permission to republish this article was granted by the author