The draft of the Holy and Great Council’s document, The Importance of Fasting and its Observance Today, affirms the importance of fasting for the spiritual development of the person. The documents provides a Scriptural and Patristic foundation for the spiritual benefits of fasting, noting that there are times when pastoral discernment is needed particularly with regard to physical infirmity, extreme necessity and difficult times. Despite these affirming statements, the document provides little concrete information beyond what the Church has prescribed for centuries; it is a short commentary on fasting and not an in-depth discussion about the value and method of fasting in the modern world, a message that is desperately needed for the world and the Church today.
The document reaffirms the need to fast from a spiritual perspective, and also purports that fasting has become less common for Christians in today’s world (“It is a fact that many faithful today do not observe all the prescriptions of fasting…” in section 8). Unfortunately, the document cites no studies or evidence to support this contention, but even assuming its generalization is accurate, the document fails to engage the question of underlying causes; the only reasons provided for the perceived difficulty in fasting are faint-heartedness and living conditions. Moreover, a commentary on the nature of these limitations was not discussed, nor are any approaches for overcoming the problem provided.
As a result of the general tone of the document, very little concrete, practical, and pastoral guidance is provided to help address challenges to fasting. There is much offered with regard to what the Church has prescribed for centuries, but there is very little attempt to address how fasting may impact, highlight, and even help overcome many of the concerns of the modern world, including isolation, materialism, poverty, inequality, inequity, and general public health concerns.
The document on fasting also omits specific discussion related to the rules of fasting. It mentions the ability to loosen the prescriptions for fasting in particular circumstances, but it does not consider the possibility of refining the discipline as a whole. We understand that discussing changes to the discipline might be challenging, however, because Orthodoxy has reached people living in corners of the world where meat—and even olive oil and wine—are much less important or accessible, such change may be helpful, and even needed. Ignoring the possible need to adapt the fasting regulations, while maintaining the central importance of fasting in the life of the Orthodox Christian, suggests a refusal to accept the fact that these prescriptions were largely designed for people living in a particular region, one where meat, fish, and other foods were readily available and especially valued.
One is left to wonder whether this is so because the Church does not understand how to express in tangible and pastoral ways its universality. The current fasting regulations seem to be limited in a Church that has global reach and that has been called to preach Christ in a multi-cultural world. There was no discussion of these dietary differences from one location to another and how this might influence a pastoral prescription for fasting. While the spiritual dimension of fasting was emphasized, the document fails to acknowledge that the fast (like the Sabbath) was made for humanity, and not humans for fasting (Mark 2:27). In other words, the fast is a means to grow spiritually, but such growth is possible not simply because of the food we eat or abstain from, but rather through the act of abstaining, through (in) obedience, humility and love, all of which are indeed developed through fasting.
At the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, the document in another sense is too exclusive in its focus on the spiritual benefits and neglects corporeal aspects of the fast. The physical aspects to fasting can help fortify the spiritual dynamic of a person and can lead to a calmer and more even-tempered handling of life’s concerns. These physical benefits often enhance the Lenten experience. An acknowledgement of the interplay of the physical and the spiritual could provide further reasons for fasting and express a holistic image of the human person, especially since today, like in antiquity, “spiritual” movements often depict a negative image of the body.
Even from a practical, strategic, and obviously far lower level, discussing the physical benefits to fasting may indeed encourage people to begin fasting. Such incentives to fasting are obviously not the ideal; however, we consider that even Saint Paul acknowledges that there are times when people do not exist “as spiritual men, but as men of the flesh, as babes in Christ” (1 Cor. 3:1). In this light, the Church ought to consider ways to speak about the fast in “bite-size” terms that are “digestible” even for the most carnal person.
Overall, the document on fasting is needed and quite useful because it reaffirms the importance of fasting for the life of the person. It does not, however, address in any significant detail, contemporary cultural challenges to fasting; it omits the interface of the physical and spiritual components of the fast; and it does not offer concrete fasting guidelines for those contexts where the current prescriptions are not applicable.
Dr. Philip Mamalakis is Assistant Professor of Pastoral Care at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.
Fr. Nathanael Symeonides is Director of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical, Interfaith and Church-World Relations for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
Gayle Woloschak is Professor of Radiation Oncology and Radiology at Northwestern University’s Feingold School of Medicine and Adjunct Professor of Religion and Science at the Lutheran School of Theology, Chicago, and at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
This essay was sponsored by the Orthodox Theological Society in America’s Special Project on the Holy and Great Council and published by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University.
Please join us June 23-25 for our “Tradition, Secularization, Fundamentalism” conference.