Three Helpful Principles of Fasting

From Three Helpful Principles of Fasting: A Letter to a New Convert:

One quickly finds in Orthodoxy today that, when it comes to the more minor or secondary rules for practicing any given fast, there are a lot of different opinions as to what is proper practice. This can be quite confusing for the zealous convert. As in all things Orthodox, one must endeavor to walk the Royal Way of moderation, neither rigidly adhering to the law—and judging those who do not—nor modifying it to suit one’s taste (all in the name of “oikonomia”). But this is not all that easy, as I have intimated to you in our past correspondence, because the “rules” for fasting seem to be different depending on which authority one consults. In other words, the fundamental basics are easy to discern and to follow—abstain from all animal products (with the exception of shell fish), olive oil, and wine (unless permitted on a specific day), etc.; but then comes the problem of the number of meals per day (one, two, or three?), the preparedness of it (cooked? “tasty”?, etc.), and whether canola oil or margarine should be disqualified on non-oil days, whether beer is considered a form of “wine,” etc. Fretting over these details can really become a trap. Do not fall into it. As you know, what Fr. _____ advises is what is right for you, for he knows your soul and your weaknesses. It is best when the sanctifying practices of the Church are applied by an experienced guide, i.e., your Father-Confessor. . . .

What is one of the things Jesus said about the Law? It can be summed up in two phrases: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. In this vein, I would like to suggest that all of the ostensibly confusing rules about fasting, above and beyond the foundational “no animal products, olive oil, or wine” rule—as helpful, though as hard to obtain consensus on today, as they are—can be summed up in two phrases: Eat simply, and stop before satiety. What do I mean by this? First, eating simply means that one’s food preparation should not be of the normal, non-fasting type: sumptuous, fattened, and designed to excite the palate. This only reinforces one’s love for food. This does not mean that the preparation should result in food that is repugnant. Rather, it means that it should not inflame one’s desire for more, nor incite one (e.g., overly spicy or rich-tasting recipes). It should be such that it is simple, meager, and life-sustaining. It is still permissible for the food to be interesting and pleasant to eat (after all, it is not a sin to enjoy food in moderation). . . .

This leads to the matter of something to which I have already alluded: quantity. This is relative for each person. One man’s buffet is another man’s morsel. There are, however, general rules discernible from the Holy Fathers. Especially during a Fast or on the Wednesday and Friday regular fasts, one should simply eat to sustain life (which is a far smaller quantity of food than we think—one of the reasons for the three days of total abstinence to start off Lent: shrinking the stomach), which means stopping short of satiety at each meal. For you this may mean three small meals a day. For others it may mean one. It depends upon one’s physical makeup, job, etc. It is a matter for one’s Father-Confessor, as is all of this. . . .

I mentioned a third principle. This is really more of a litmus question you can ask to help determine whether you are walking on the Royal Way. It is, “Do I regularly feel ‘light’ and at peace in body, frequently a little hungry (i.e., a “humility in flesh,” or a measure of bodily weakness)—but not overly distracted or continually troubled by hunger—and disposed towards prayer?” (Another similar question: “Is the food I am about to eat something I need for strength of body—that my soul might not be overly burdened with bodily needs—or am I eating out of mere pleasure or boredom?”) On this matter St. Dorotheos of Gaza writes in his Discourses and Sayings:

Everyone who wants to purify himself of the sins of the whole year during these days must first of all restrain himself from the pleasure of eating. For the pleasure of eating, as the Fathers say, caused all man’s evil. Likewise he must take care not to break the fast without great necessity or to look for pleasurable things to eat, or weigh himself down by eating and drinking until he is full.

There are two kinds of gluttony. There is the kind which concerns taste: a man does not want to eat a lot but he wants it to be appetizing. It follows that such a person eats the food that pleases him and is defeated by the pleasure of it. He keeps the food in his mouth, rolling it round and round, and has not the heart to swallow it because he enjoys the taste. This is called fastidiousness (lairmagia). Another man is concerned about satisfying himself. He doesn’t ask for fancy food nor does he care especially about whether the taste is nice or not, he only wants to eat and fill his stomach. This is gluttony. I will tell you how it gets this name: margainein means to rage furiously, to be mad; according to the profane, margos is the name given to the man who rages furiously or is mad. When this disease or mania for packing his belly full of food comes upon a man, therefore, it is called gastromargia, the madness of the stomach, whereas lairmargia is the madness of the palate. These must be guarded against and abandoned seriously by the man who desires to be cleansed of his sins. They accord not with the needs of the body, but with its vicious inclinations, and if they are tolerated, they lead a man into sin. As is the case with legitimate marital union and fornication, the practice is the same but the object is different. In the one case, there is copulation in order to raise a family, in the other, to satisfy a desire for pleasure. The same is true with feeding: in one case it is a question of the body’s needs and in the other of eating for pleasure. The intention is what makes it a sin. A man eats to satisfy a need when he lays down how much he will take each day and, if what he has determined on overloads him, takes a little less, or if he is not overloaded and his body is weakened, adds a little. And so he estimates exactly his need, and he bases his conclusion not on pleasure but on preserving the strength of his body. And what he takes he receives with prayer, deeming himself unworthy of that comfort and he is not on the look out to see if others, as is likely, because of special need or necessity are given special attention, lest he himself hankers for that comfort or think it a trivial thing for the soul to be at rest.

If you can answer “yes” to this litmus question, you are on the right path. If “no”—if instead, you feel like most people feel much of the time: fuzzy-minded (especially in prayer), “heavy,” not disposed towards moderation in food intake, lustful, irritable, etc.—, then you need to course-correct. It is as simple as that. Of course, this is not a question to ask yourself every hour. It is, rather, something to take stock of relatively frequently. It is helpful to keep a journal, especially if food is something that is a passion for you. The Holy Fathers have taught, as if with one voice, that the stomach is the gateway to the passions. Watchfulness in this area is, therefore, absolutely essential to spiritual progress. As St. Gregory Palamas once wrote, “[E]ven satiety with cheap foods prevents the cathartic mourning and the godly sorrow in the soul and the compunction which shapes firm repentance for salvation; for without a broken heart it is not possible to enter truly into repentance” (St. Gregory Palamas as a Hagiorite, by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos).

I hope this helps. Just remember the “two S’s”: simplicity and satiety. These “buzzwords,” recalled whenever an opportunity to eat presents itself, will keep you in remembrance of the spirit of the Fast and guide you through the gray areas. It will help you to know whether you are keeping the Royal Way or living as a Pharisee in disguise. Your aim is to try at all times, even out of fasting periods, to divorce yourself from an attachment to, and love of, food. As St. Nicodemos once wrote, “the root of virtually all of life’s faults lies in one’s inordinate preoccupation with food” (A Handbook).

In closing I should add that proper fasting will likely take years of practice. I myself have a long way to go in this area. We will fall numerous times from the ideal that I have attempted to sketch out here. The important thing is not to focus on the success or failure of your efforts. This is a tactic of the devil. What God wants from us is the struggle. He wants us to “prepare a way for the Lord” in our hearts. And then what we sow, He waters. The increase of Grace that accompanies such plowing up of our heart’s fallow ground (using the spade of fasting) is a gift from God and comes when He chooses to send it. This gift should not be our focus, lest we even rise up in anger that God has not given what is “owed to us.” All we need do is be faithful in our struggle, endeavor to keep to the path as much as possible, and God will honor it all richly. He will meet us where we are. Do the best you can, confess weekly, and ask yourself often whether you are on the path. In this way your fasting struggles will bear much fruit.

3 thoughts on “Three Helpful Principles of Fasting

  1. I suppose you thought I was in jest with my comment: I was not. No matter. As it is possible that my comment was not in accord with your intentions for this post, which thing necessitated removal, I understand. Nonetheless, I believe it necessary to inform you that I was in earnest.


  2. Forgive me, Carl, but since your comment was a) extremely brief, and b) the entire context of the article cited was emphasizing the often difficult challenge of adhering to the Church’s discipline of fasting, I took your comment as to be utterly facetious.

    I’m sorry that I misunderstood what you meant by your comment. Such things happen online there is no context or personal acquaintance with various posters. But it was on the basis of my (mis)understanding–that yours was a sarcastic comment–that I deleted it. I intended no offense.

  3. Mr. Healy,

    When I noticed that my comment was removed, and that you had not replied, I was certain that it seemed I was merely joking.

    Trusting, however, to your graciousness–for I have read your site on many an occasion–I wanted to clarify my position, viz, that I was not mocking, and so I posted a second comment.

    You have certainly given no offense to me. Therefore, I hope you shall accept my apologies for appearing sarcastic; albeit such an appearance was not my intention.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s