Thursday, March 08, 2007

From the "Mailbag": Which Fast is "Easier," Western or Eastern Rite?

This is actually a compilation of a number of e-mails asking me to compare the Eastern and Western fasting practices and a direct question someone broached in person; hence, "mailbag" is in quotation marks above. The question I am continually asked is which rite's fast is "easier" (as though such a thing could be judged, or would be spiritually edifying if it could).

My studious answer is: It all depends. According to the Antiochian usage (more about ROCOR WRITE later):

In the Western Rite, one could, perhaps oversimply, summarize the fasting and abstinence rules (which should be read in full here) by saying the emphasis is put on the amount of food eaten and the times of abstinence required. The simple version is those physically capable should eat one (or one-and-a-quarter) meal a day, not before the afternoon, even on fasting days outside penitential seasons. The variety of food permitted is also more closely regulated during Lent and Advent than during the rest of the year, but the outstanding feature (to my humble reading) is abstinence and moderation: that one literally deprive himself of food.

In the Byzantine Rite, again perhaps oversimply, one can say the emphasis is placed on the kinds of foods eaten. Sometimes the guidelines do not mention restricting the amount of food eaten, sometimes they do (during Lent). [1] In practice, the emphasis in most Orthodox churches of any jurisdiction seems to be that one may not eat meat, dairy, fish, wine, or oil, though one may eat shellfish or vegan fare, with little mention made of amount.

So, which is more difficult: giving up certain foods or limiting the times and amounts of food?

At the risk of wearing out one of my favorite phrases: The Church's two rites are just different ways of doing the same thing. Think of them as two sides of one coin. Both are forms of purgation — and sensible adjustments to both amount and variety of food should be combined in an ascetic fast. Coptic Pope Shenouda III has written an important statement to those who emphasize the kinds of food permitted:
A period of abstinence is essential, since we would simply be vegetarians if we ate without observing it from the beginning of the day. The word fasting means abstinence or cessation. It is therefore necessary to refrain from eating for a certain period of time.
Similarly, it's important not to indulge our favorite foods, even if they are permissible, as the fast is meant to starve our appetite for pleasure and restore our food's proper role as a building block of life, not life's end.

Both concepts are important — but not as important as what gets lost by those who obsess over the legalistic, physical requirements about how a true Christian should never eat before afternoon (but deprives himself none of his favorite foods) or how a true Christian never eats meat during Lent (but helps himself to seven plates of spaghetti a day). Adherence to the letter of the law allows indulgences of another kind. Some Orthodox churches even host "all you can eat" seafood buffets during Lent. [2] Worse, though, are the indulgences of pride and self-satisfaction we find in condemning those we deem less "rigorous" than ourselves (and of course, our fasting is always the most rigorous). What is this but Publicanism: "God, I thank Thee that I am not like other men"?

The Antiochian Archdiocese adds the vital part of fasting is not pharisaically peering into various rules and regulations (and ajudging others insufficiently attentive or overly harsh). Fasting is a tool that must lead to our metanoia and metamorphosis:
Fasting is more than not eating food. Saint John Chrysostom teaches that it is more important to fast from sin. For example, besides controlling what goes into our mouths, we must control what comes out of our mouths as well. Are our words pleasing to God, or do we curse God or our brother?

The other members of the body also need to fast: our eyes from seeing evil, our ears from hearing evil, our limbs from participating in anything that is not of God. Most important of all, we need to control our thoughts, for thoughts are the source of our actions, whether good or evil.

Fasting is not an end in itself. Our goal is an inner change of heart. The Lenten Fast is called “ascetic.” This refers to actions of self-denial and spiritual training which are central to fasting.
As some of the saints note, the demons never eat nor sleep, yet they are helped not one whit by it. By becoming free of our dependence on food, particularly as a form of entertainment (!), we are freer to act in accordance with our own nature. We lessen the grip the flesh has over us and gain the freedom to respond in the spirit, "For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other; so that ye cannot do the things that ye would" (Gal. 5:17). Strengthened in the inner man, we can respond more readily and completely to Christ's ceaseless overtures of love.

The Orthodox Church's different approved fasting regulations should not become a cause of strife or condemnation of our brethren. (In the stirring words of the great St. Ephrem the Syrian, which the Byzantines pray during Lent, "Grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother.") They should inspire us to follow our own approved discipline, with the principles of true fasting undergirding both halves of our Church. Thus, we will live a balanced and transformative fast, maturing from glory to glory in Christ, which is His wish for us (Eph. 3:14-21).

The Antiochian Archdiocese adds some emphasis on the amount of food to be consumed, recommending total fasting during certain periods of Lent. "According to what was done in the monasteries, one meal a day is eaten on weekdays and two meals on weekends of Great Lent." However, "No restriction is placed on the amount of food during the meal."
2. I decided against adding a link to such a parish, because I didn't want to single any church out...but I've seen a number; do a Google search if you want proof of this phenomenon.

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Blogger William Weedon said...

Dear Ben,

A blessed Fast to you! Thank you for that helpful post. What the Western fast really does bring home each day is how I overrate the importance of eating itself. You nailed that with "eating as entertainment." I have to face the fact that I'd rather spend money on food than almost anything else! And one thing my wife and I have discovered is that we are too weak to keep the spirit of the fast at BUFFETS of any sort. When it is the one meal, the tendency is to way overdo. So, if others have any sort of struggle like that, a good suggestion during Lent (aw, heck, alright - and also at all times) is to avoid buffets!!! Yesterday we went out for Mexican at lunch and we both felt that we violated the whole spirit of the fast.

6:48 AM  

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