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The Fasting Rule of the Orthodox Church
The Church's traditional teaching on fasting is not widely known or followed in our day. For those Orthodox Christians who are seeking to keep a more disciplined fast, the following information may be helpful.
Though the rules may appear quite strict to those who have not seen them before, they were developed with all of the faithful, not only monks, in mind. (Monks do not eat meat, so rules regarding the eating of meat cannot have been written with them in mind. Similarly rules regarding marital abstinence apply only to the laity and married clergy.) Though few laymen are able to keep the rule in its fullness, it seems best to present it mostly without judgement of what level is "appropriate" for the laity, since this is a matter best worked out in each Christian's own setting, under the guidance of his spiritual fathers.
There are many exceptions to the broad rules given here, such as when a major feast day, or the patronal feast of a parish, falls during a fasting period. Consult your priest and your parish calendar for details.
The Lenten Fast
Week before Lent ("Cheesefare Week"): Meat and other animal products are prohibited, but eggs and dairy products are permitted, even on Wednesday and Friday.
First Week of Lent: Only two full meals are eaten during the first five days, on Wednesday and Friday after the Presanctified Liturgy. Nothing is eaten from Monday morning until Wednesday evening, the longest time without food in the Church year. (Few laymen keep these rules in their fullness). For the Wednesday and Friday meals, as for all weekdays in Lent, meat and animal products, fish, dairy products, wine and oil are avoided. On Saturday of the first week, the usual rule for Lenten Saturdays begins (see below).
Weekdays in the Second through Sixth Weeks: The strict fasting rule is kept every day: avoidance of meat, meat products, fish, eggs, dairy, wine and oil.
Saturdays and Sundays in the Second through Sixth Weeks: Wine and oil are permitted; otherwise the strict fasting rule is kept.
Holy Week: The Thursday evening meal is ideally the last meal taken until Pascha. At this meal, wine and oil are permitted. The Fast of Great and Holy Friday is the strictest fast day of the year: even those who have not kept a strict Lenten fast are strongly urged not to eat on this day. After St. Basil's Liturgy on Holy Saturday, a little wine and fruit may be taken for sustenance. The fast is sometimes broken on Saturday night after Resurrection Matins, or, at the latest, after the Divine Liturgy on Pascha.
Wine and oil are permitted on several feast days if they fall on a weekday during Lent. Consult your parish calendar. On Annunciation and Palm Sunday, fish is also permitted.
The Marital Fast
At the Grocery Store. Read the ingredient lists on processed and packaged foods. Butter, milk solids, whey, meat broth and lard are common additives.
If you are baffled by what to cook during the fast, consult any of the many vegetarian cookbooks now available in bookstores or your public library. Several good "Lenten cookbooks" are on the market.
The rules given here are of course only one part, the most external part, of a true fast, which will include increased prayer and other spiritual disciplines, and may include resolutions to set aside other aspects of our day-to-day life (such as caffeine or television), or to take up practices such as visiting the sick.
Obviously, many Orthodox do not keep the traditional rule. If you adopt it, beware of pride, and pay no attention to anyone's fast but your own. As one monastic put it, we must "keep our eyes on our own plates."
Do not substitute the notion of "deciding what to give up for Lent" for the rule that the Church has given us. First, keep the Church's fasting rule as well as you are able, then decide on additional disciplines, in consultation with your priest.
We are always advised to fast according to our strength, and you may find from experience that you need to modify the fasting rule to fit your own strength and situation. But do not assume beforehand that the rule is too difficult for you. The Lord is our strength, and can uphold us in marvelous and unforseen ways.
Those who attempt to keep the Church's traditional fast will find that, though the temptations to pride and legalism are real, the spiritual benefits are great. A return to more diligent fasting could play a large part in the spiritual renewal of our Orthodox churches.
Sayings on Fasting
St Symeon the New Theologian:'Let each
one of us keep in mind the benefit of fasting... For this healer of our
souls is effective, in the case of one to quieten the fevers and impulses of
the flesh, in another to assuage bad temper, in yet another to drive away
sleep, in another to stir up zeal, and in yet another to restore purity of
mind and to set him free from evil thoughts. In one it will control his
unbridled tongue and, as it were by a bit, restrain it by the fear of God
and prevent it from uttering idle and corrupt words. In another it will
invisibly guard his eyes and fix them on high instead of allowing them to
roam hither and thither, and thus cause him to look on himself and teach him
to be mindful of his own faults and shortcomings. Fasting gradually
disperses and drives away spiritual darkness and the veil of sin that lies
on the soul, just as the sun dispels the mist. Fasting enables us
spiritually to see that spiritual air in which Christ, the Sun who knows no
setting, does not rise, but shines without ceasing. Fasting, aided by vigil,
penetrates and softens hardness of heart. where once were the vapors of
drunkenness it causes fountains of compunction to spring forth. I beseech
you, brethren, let each of us strive that this may happen in us! Once this
happens we shall readily, with God's help, cleave through the whole sea of
passions and pass through the waves of the temptations inflicted by the
cruel tyrant, and so come to anchor in the port of impassibility.
Mother Gavrilia of blessed memory spent
much time traveling in the service of Christ to places that separated her
from the daily liturgical life of the Church. Especially during these times,
the advice of her spiritual father Archimandrite Lazarus Moore stood her in
St Seraphim of Sarov on Fasting: 'Once
there came to him a mother who was concerned about how she might arrange the
best possible marriage for her young daughter. When she came to Saint
Seraphim for advice, he said to her: "Before all else, ensure that he, whom
your daughter chooses as her companion for life, keeps the fasts. If he does
not, then he is not a Christian, whatever he may consider himself to be."'
Abba Daniel of Sketis: 'In proportion as the body grows fat, so does the soul wither away.'