Lessons I Learned about Fasting during and after my recent trip to Greece, by Bethany A. Whisenhunt

by Bethany A. Whisenhunt

Even though the service was entirely in Greek and I understood only a few words (such as “Kyrie eleison,” “Theotokos,” and “Mary and Martha”), because of the tones of chanting and the movements of the clergy, I knew what was happening during those three hours; all Orthodox services are essentially the same no matter where in the world they are performed. Similarly, in my independent study, I found the same to be true of Orthodox fasting. Despite small cultural and regional variations, the theme and practices of fasting are the same whether in Greece or the United States.

The Origins and Purpose of Fasting

The exact time when fasting began is unknown. What is known is that pre-Christian times included fasting or fasting-like practices. The spiritual exercise of Orthodox Christian fasting as we know it today traces its origin primarily to pre-Christian Judaic observances. The Old Testament Israelites fasted on Mondays and Thursdays on a regular basis. Additionally, fasts were carried out by Israel, Hannah, David, Jonathan, Ahab, Jehoshaphat, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther for various reasons, such as in mourning over the dead or sick, or when they were seeking help from God.

In the New Testament, the Jewish Monday and Thursday fasts are referred to as the “fasting of hypocrites.” It should be noted that the “hypocrisy” of the Monday and Thursday fast did not lie in the days on which the Israelites fasted, but rather in the manner in which they fasted. The Pharisees in particular had adopted an outward exhibitionism in their fasting by contorting their faces, wearing sackcloth, and not bathing (see Matthew 6:16–18). In following Jesus’ warning to avoid this type of hypocritical fasting, early Christian practice included advice to bathe and anoint the head, letting no one know one was fasting. Very early on, Christians also moved the days of fasting to Wednesdays and Fridays. While the Wednesday and Friday fast remained important, the spirit of fasting continues to rely on an attitude of inner struggle not cloaked by an outward appearance of fasting.

Special periods of fasting were developed by early Christians as a means of spiritual and bodily exercise but also to serve as reminders of certain events. The forty days of Lent are most often linked to Christ’s forty-day fast in the desert. However, they are also linked to Moses’ and Elijah’s forty-day fasts and to the forty-day flood in Genesis. This last event, as St. John Chrysostom wrote in Exposition of the Gospel, links the cleansing of the earth by forty days of rain to an unbroken forty-day fast that cleanses the body and spirit, preparing it for the feast of feasts.

Fasting in the Orthodox Church focuses first and foremost on abstaining from sin. St. John Chrysostom and St. Athanasius spoke of refraining from sin as the chief objective in any fast. From this perspective, abstaining from food is not the object or goal of a fast. Our war is not against food; rather, fasting from food is the weapon by which our enemies (Satan and other demonic powers) are defeated. Speaking of a demon-possessed person whom His disciples were unsuccessful in exorcising, Christ said, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29). The Apostle Paul wrote, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Jesus Christ and the Holy Fathers of the Orthodox Church taught that abstaining from food can be used as a spiritual weapon to fend off spiritual foes.

The Church Fathers and desert dwellers never spoke about fasting in isolation. Rather, they spoke about fasting in conjunction with prayer and a right relationship with God, almsgiving, and charitable works. Being an Orthodox Christian, they reasoned, is no small job, and just as most big jobs require a toolbox of various tools and instruments, so Orthodox Christians have a spiritual “toolbox” given to them by God, handed down by the Fathers, and preserved by the Church.

One of the great spiritual tools for Orthodox is the calendar year. Living a life according to the Orthodox calendar, the life of Jesus Christ is commemorated and emulated by each person. In Greece, events such as the Nativity, Resurrection, Ascension, and Transfiguration of the Lord are celebrated jubilantly with the joyous ringing of bells, the abundance of rich foods, and with firecrackers. Days commemorating the Theotokos and other saints similarly evoke joyous festivities. Many of these joyous feasts, however, are preceded by a fast. In this way a Greek Orthodox lives a life in and with Christ—in the struggle of Christ by fasting, and in the triumph of Christ with feast days. 

Monastic Development of Orthodox Fasting Rules

The specific customs for fasting for the Orthodox developed mainly from monastic practice. The earliest monastics usually lived solitary lives in the desert or in caves, following strict rules of prayer and fasting. These desert and cave dwellers kept writings of spiritual practices, which were later found and compiled into a volume called the Typikon. The Typikon, established primarily as a guide to following the liturgical calendar and observing all the divine services of the church year, is used to this day by priests as a guide in advising the laity on how to keep the fasts and how to prepare for the feast days.

While I was visiting St. Isaac of Syria Skete, a monastery in Boscobel, Wisconsin, an individual affiliated with the monastery referenced the early desert dwellers who, she said, “literally lived on weeds.” This may seem alarming initially but, as the lady said, “it must be realized they were being nourished by another ‘food’, a spiritual food.” As we hear in the Gospel, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). There is a certain type of monastic who is graced by God to achieve such bodily discipline. They are sometimes referred to as the athletes of Christ.

The Practice of Fasting for Lay People

This is not to say that Orthodox Christians believe that Christ is standing with a fasting rulebook and giving the monastic athletes A’s, and the rest of us B’s, C’s, and so on. Just as Orthodoxy realizes that while all believers are called to witness to Christ, they are not all graced to be missionaries, so all believers are called to fast, yet they are not all graced to subsist on weeds.

This is why fasting is undertaken with the aid of a spiritual father (a priest or priest-monk) and with others of the same parish. Spiritual fathers are viewed as spiritual physicians representing the Great Physician, Christ, and therefore have been designated as helpers in undertaking fasting exercises. Additionally, there are instances in which individuals are specifically told not to fast. Those who suffer from diseases, women who are pregnant or nursing, small children, the elderly and infirm are exempt from fasting for two reasons. The most obvious reason is that it is not healthful or safe for them to fast rigorously. But also, each of these conditions (except that of being a small child) is an ascesis in and of itself, and therefore, such people do not require additional ascetic efforts on top of those they already face.

Furthermore, while the rule of fasting has been established and is held by all strict Orthodox Christians, and they all strive towards fulfilling the full rule as the ideal, each individual person is called to do what he or she is able. Those who are able to observe the fast as the Church prescribes it ought to do so. Those who are able to observe it partially do the best they can.

Over the course of two thousand years, variations in Orthodox fasting practices have occurred in Greece and other Orthodox countries, and these variations have continued with the immigration of Orthodox to the United States in the twentieth century. Nevertheless, the spirit of the fasts, properly observed by those who keep to Holy Tradition, has remained unchanged despite alterations in the particulars. The primary emphasis has been and will always be on an ascetic struggle—whether one is a monastic or a lay person—in which a person undertakes the fast according to his or her ability, in an attempt to establish a relationship with the Savior.

The Calendar of Fasting Yesterday and Today

Fasting in Orthodoxy has evolved into a complex calendar. There are four major fasting periods in the Orthodox calendar: Great Lent, which precedes Pascha, and the periods preceding the Nativity, the Dormition of the Theotokos, and the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. Additionally, almost every Wednesday and Friday are fast days, bringing the total number of fast days to between 180 and 200 days out of each year.

There are two different terms for fasting in Greek. The first term is xerophagia, which is a diet of only dry food. The second term is nesteia, denoting a complete fast with no food or water. Furthermore, there is a distinction made between a “regular fast day” and a “strict fast day.”

What does this mean on a practical level today? Each Wednesday and Friday (with a few exceptions) that falls during non-fasting periods is a “regular fast,” in which eating meat and dairy products is prohibited. Wednesdays and Fridays falling within one of the four fasting periods are considered “strict fasts,” when meat, dairy, eggs, olive oil, and wine are excluded from the diet. Lastly, prior to every eucharistic celebration (most commonly, on Sundays), a complete abstention from all food and liquid (nesteia) allows the Orthodox to have the first food of the day be that received in Holy Communion.

The Significance of the Fasting Rules

The basic principle is that rich foods are to be consumed less frequently, as they have the ability to excite the senses but dull the mind, and food eaten during fasting periods should be simple and humble. My trip to Greece provided some insight into how the specific rules developed.

The ordinary diet of the ancient citizens of the Mediterranean lands had an impact on the development of Orthodox fasting practices. During the time of the Odyssey, about 700 BC, the inhabitants of small villages derived most of their food from the sea and from local crops. Items such as shrimp, octopus, and squid—considered “scut food” or “poor man’s food”—provided regular protein sources. Bread (or at times boiled wheat berries, later to be called koliva and used for memorial services) was a staple on almost every table. While these items also appeared on the tables of the rich and powerful, for the wealthy, they were appetizers for the more luxurious items to follow. Main courses consisted of spiced meats, roasted lamb, and fresh fish. Dessert included fine wines, fruit, and cheeses.

As fasting rules developed, it was primarily these main course and dessert items that were restricted during fasting periods. Perhaps we can glean two reasons for this development. First, the cost of these “rich foods” exceeded that of their appetizer “poor man’s food” counterparts, which just as easily satisfied the protein and other nutritive requirements for a sustaining diet. Second, the entertainment and activities that accompanied lavish dinner parties were of the sort denoted as the “excitement of the flesh” thought to be brought about by the richer foods. Since fasting seeks to deny the flesh, subsisting on simpler fare would assist in denying other pleasures of the flesh.

Abstaining from consuming animals that have a backbone or spinal column (in some regions, abstaining from animals with red blood) and instead consuming shellfish (cephalopods) during fasting periods was adopted in Orthodox Byzantium partly due to the geographical and regional availability of these foods. Shellfish are abundant along the Mediterranean shores and are therefore considered “poor man’s food.” Meat products such as beef, chicken, pork, and lamb are not eaten on fast days, as they are considered richer and more luxurious.

Strict fast days—those observed on Wednesdays and Fridays during a fasting period—of course have the strictest rules of fasting. During these times, the Typikon prohibits consumption of olive oil or wine. As a side note, olive oil happens to be the primary oil used in the Mediterranean, so the fact that olive oil was particularly singled out on the list of foods from which to abstain is important. However, regional variations regarding how to follow this rule about wine and oil abound. In some areas people use alternative oils to olive oil, use margarine instead of butter, and consume beer instead of wine. Other areas consider the prohibition of olive oil to include all oils, and refrain from using any oil on strict fast days.

The method of breadmaking also varies regionally. Some areas use egg substitutes and canola oil, margarine, or shortening to make breads and pastries; other areas make only the most basic of breads, without using these substitutes. Some parish priests allow their people to use the oil and egg alternatives, provided they keep to a rule of simplicity: do not give too much attention to searching for alternatives, avoid spending more money on the alternatives than you normally would spend, and do not forget the meaning of the fast.

Changes in Fasting Practices on Coming to America

In America, Greek Orthodox still keep the Dormition Fast along with Great Lent and the Nativity Fast, while quite often disregarding the fast of the Holy Apostles. As an overgeneralization, Greek Orthodox living in America keep relatively strictly to the three fasts they do observe, refraining from meat and cheese on all days, and on Wednesdays and Fridays from eggs, oil, and wine as well.

In speaking with George Xioufarides, a Greek who immigrated to Chicago in 1977, I gained insight into the lifestyle of a man and family beginning anew in the United States after losing their ancestral home to the Turks. Mr. Xioufarides reflected, “The times [of the fast in America] are the same but the foods were more difficult to find. When we could once buy octopus, squid . . . now we could not find it or if we did we had to consider the price.” His experience of the beginning of the fast was different once he came to America as well. “On Clean Monday we’d go out into the fields and have a picnic. The main dish consisted of northern or garbanzo beans. We’d sing and dance in the fields that were already blooming. Here in the United States it is too cold still to do this and we don’t get the day off anyway.”

Mr. Xioufarides also talked about changes in habits regarding eating meat. “We ate meat once a week in Greece, not [just for] religious purpose but because we did not need to eat it more often. In ancient times, we had no refrigerators. There was no way to keep meat. So, if there was meat it all had to be eaten in one day. We later are finding out that this is healthy for our stomachs but also healthy for our will, preparing for Pascha.” Mr. Xioufarides also reflected on the rules of fasting. “No meat, no cheese, no oil, no eggs for Lent. It is the same here as in Greece and everyone has to obey, children too. [Only] special needs circumstances are excused.”

With Greek immigration to the United States, some concessions to the Orthodox fasting rules have become relatively common. Especially for those living inland, fresh seafood is a much rarer commodity than it was in Greece. In the United States, shellfish such as shrimp, squid, cuttlefish, octopus, lobsters, crabs, and snails are considered an extravagance and are pricier to purchase. For this reason, some Greek priests in the States allow fish with a backbone (and, in some instances, chicken) during fasting periods because of the economic infeasibility of purchasing shellfish. Allowing chicken is far more rare than allowing fish, but the rationale for both is that neither is red meat.

Fasting practices in the Orthodox Church are fairly consistent throughout the world. Although some regional variation exists, the people predominantly observe the same fasting periods according to the Orthodox calendar. Whether people fast strictly as the Typikon advises or abstain in more moderation according to their parish priest’s recommendations, the point is to refrain from certain foods while embarking on a deeper spiritual journey of prayer and charitable works.

Bethany is a senior studying Human Nutrition and Dietetics at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and is currently finishing her last semester via correspondence in order to complete an independent study course on Greek Orthodox fasting and to continue her research in obesity and type II diabetes at Purdue University. Bethany plans to continue her education with a master’s degree in nutritional science with an emphasis in obesity-related type II diabetes factors. While at home, she attends Protection of the Virgin Mary Orthodox Church in Royalton, Illinois, but is currently attending St. Alexis Orthodox Church in Lafayette, Indiana, and is active in the OCF at Purdue. She is very close to her family and loves to spend time with her parents Sam and Kathy, brother Rob, and niece Rory.

This article was originally printed in the Vol. 12 No. 4 issue of The Handmaiden, published by Conciliar Press, Fall, 2008.