It has been my very good fortune to regularly travel by air to most destinations throughout Western Australia. Over a five year period 1 have noticed some interesting trends in relation to the meals people are served. To begin with 1 was one of perhaps two people to be served a vegetarian meal on the plane. I could tell because vegetarian meals were covered with different coloured aluminium foil and would carry the name of the passenger who had put in an order for the 'special meal' when booking the flight. to knowing that I could order a special meal for fasting days 1 would often go without or would carry some dry fruit and nuts in my carry bag for the journey.
Now days however it is not that unusual to see people being served vegetarian meals. This is because more and more people are preferring to 'go vegetarian' by resolving not to eat meat. This is often referred to as a lifestyle choice which rarely has any spiritual basis to it at all. So where does this leave the Orthodox Christians in comparison to the dedication to which these people cheerfully apply their restricted diet and supported by so many dietitians and medical practitioners?
Look at the variety of food that is available now compared to ten years ago. Do you like dairy products? Then all is okay, you can cat a soy based alternative of yoghurt, milk, tofu, margarine and frozen non-dairy fruit confection. Do you like meat? No problem you can prepare a synthetic meat meal alternative of textured vegetable protein. Miss those hamburgers? Then try a deep fried chic pea patty topped off with as much watermelon as your stomach can hold so that it wipes out any hint of hunger until your next big fasting effort.
Take note of the recurring theme. The whole fast is focused on food. In the fast the food was meant to be set aside, so that the body would be denied, and whatever it was given it would be much less than what it was prepared to consume.
"I shall say nothing on my own account says St. John Cassian (4th Century) "but only what 1 have received from the Holy Fathers. They have not given us only a single rule for fasting or a single standard and measure for eating, because not everyone has the same strength; age, illness or delicacy of body create differences. But they have given us all a single goal,. to avoid over-eating and the filling of our bellies. It is not only the variety of foodstuffs that kindles the fiery darts of unchastity, but also their quantity." (Philokalia Vol. 1 pp.73-74)
Food choices abound. Has the Orthodox Christian been reduced to a mere vegetarian? Is it a fast or a farce? Medical researchers and dietitians are now strongly advocating foods that were inextricably part of traditional Greek staple diets. The preparation of these foods involved little or no processing at all; vastly different from the composition of the many packaged and fast foods available today. But whereas science is supporting healthier alternatives to the protein rich foods such as red meat, their definition of health is restrictive, it applies primarily to the body.
Fasting in the early Church involved complete abstinence from food and even drinking for the entire day. This strict fasting was practiced at a time when there was not the volume or variety of food that there is available to us today. In conjunction with prayer strict fasting was practiced as a powerful means by which to weaken the passions and exercise self-control over temptations, impatience, sin, and material urges, such as food. But today all of this is much forgotten so that it has become an exercise in searching out
for and discovering food alternatives that negate the value of fasting. This focus on food cannot be fasting because whilst this activity preoccupies us, the inner person remains unchanged.
"A clear rule for self-control handed down by the Fathers is this" says St. John Cassian: "stop eating while still hungry and do not continue until you are satisfied." (Philokalia Vol. 1. pp 74) Meaning that you should stop eating before you are full and could do with a bit more. This requires self-control and inner discipline.
To return to true fasting then we must rediscover the value of spiritual fasting. Spiritual fasting is about self denial. It involves the subjection of our own will so that it is purified by conforming to the Wisdom and Will of God. Spiritual fasting works against the forces of disobedience in us that led Adam and Eve to break the fast imposed on them by God. Whatever the sacrifice, God replenishes us and rewards us many times over, both in this world and in the world to come. For fasting is not to the benefit of God but in acknowledging Him, to the benefit of ourselves and our brothers and.." sisters. "Do you fast" asks St. John Chrysostomos, "Give me proof of it by your works. If you see a poor man, take pity on him. If you see a friend being honoured, do not envy him. Do not let only your mouth fast, but also your eye, and the car, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies. Let the hands fast, by being free of avarice. Let the feet fast, by ceasing to run after sin. Let the eyes fast, by disciplining them not to glare at that which is sinful. A Let the ear fast, by not listening to evil talk and gossip. Let the mouth fast from foul words and unjust criticism. For what good is it if we abstain from birds and fishes, but bite and devour our brothers?" (Daily Readings from the writings of St. John Chrysostomos, The Proof of Fasting pp. 37)
Deacon Emmanuel Stamatiou
from "The Truth" 1998, v. 5(5), Perth, Western Australia