Friday, January 3, 2014

Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov - "Fasting for Non-Monastics"

Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov's Fasting for Non-Monastics was delivered at the St. Herman's Orthodox Youth Conference last month. He's speaking (as he often does) from the Russian tradition, but the below article is applicable to the wider Church with no alterations that I can detect. As always, the red bits are the author's thought that I found interesting and the blue portions are my editorial wit (term used lightly).

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. Though, when discussing fasting with people, you'd think the existence Alaskan dietary allowances nullified the entire idea of fasting or made it a nebulous area for personal interpretation. Exceptions don't make rules and monastic origins don't invalidate practices. For that matter, relaxing fasting rules so that more people can "handle them" serves to lessen the rigor of fasting for everyone and not just the elderly. Who plays limbo with his friends and strains his back when the bar is at head level? No one.

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...

Complete post here.

No comments:

Post a Comment