Post-Apostolic Asceticism

I think the Peter and Paul fast starts tomorrow. I don’t know. I lose track. My menalogion software is on the computer that’s not working so well.

If there is one thing the Orthodox Church likes to do, it is fast. I’m not sure why there is so much fasting. Apparently following fasting rules suited to an ancient Mediterranean culture makes us more spiritual.

The only truly Apostolic fasting is the Wednesday/Friday fast days. Great Lent started as a recommended discipline for catechumens who would be baptised at Pascha, though the very early Church may have fasted for 40 hours in preparation. The Christmas fast could not have preceded the origins of the Christmas feast. The Dormition fast and the Apostles Fast are more recent.

The number of fasting days varies from year to year, depending on the date of Pascha. And early Pascha cuts short the normal time after Theophany and extends the Apostles’ Fast. In 2010, by my rough calculation, there are 195 fasting days. By fasting days, I mean days when meat is not allowed, so I’m including Cheesefare week. For a carnivore such as me, any day without meat is a day of severe asceticism.

This leaves 170 normal, regular, meat and potatoes days. Fasting seems to lose it value if it is actually more of the norm than normal eating. And when a fast and a feast conflict, the fast wins. The feast of the Annunciation is an example of this. This is the true feast of Incarnation, but it is trumped by Great Lent.

Observed more strictly than I am able, Orthodoxy seems like a vegetarian religion with occasional omnivorous moments. If our sacramental theology says that all of creation is sacramental and that everything we eat is sacramental, because we bless it and it is a gift from God, why do we spend so much time not eating it?

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3 Responses to “Post-Apostolic Asceticism”

  1. Margi Says:

    Well, I suppose first there’s the you appreciate it more when you do eventually have it reason, but there’s also the Fathers’ teaching on the stomach as the gate of the passions and the idea, perhaps more modern, that by eating only the very simplest things one helps the earth to replenish itself and for the sacrament to continue. Another reason, that one doesn’t hear too much nowadays is that not everyone has access to the blessings of food. When I was little fasting food could get direly simple, cute vegan cookbooks by imaginative ladies’ guilds were few and far between and observant families ate stuff that only weirdos paid for at Kranks. I can remember we had a tin in the kitchen that served the same purpose as a Jewish ‘tzedakah’ at havdalah (and so did a lot of people in our Church) and into that went all the money that was saved on not eating meat and cheese and puddings and my mother used to remind us that the world is full of people whose normal diet isn’t even as good as our fasting one (and I am talking about the days of endless lentil casserole and every dreadful thing a Russian ever did with cabbage… my mother had a particularly nasty habit of cooking cabbage and caraway seeds in flour and water pastry) and so by giving the money away they too might enjoy at least some of the things we took for granted. I was always told that almsgiving means more to God when you deny yourself first, and, yes, I know you can deny yourself at any time but even saying it sounds kind of protestant.

    Another thing I think of quite often is that although in a sense the fast is designed for mediterranean islands that life on Rhodes or Kefalonia in the sixth century couldn’t have been easy. For men earning a living would have meant long days in the fields or on fishing boats and for women with no domestic gadgets and big families it would have been akin to hard labour by our standards. I think with imports, freezers, food processors and canning we have it far easier than they ever did.

  2. sol Says:

    It seems to me (always a dangerously heretical thing to say, I admit) that the fasting rules were part of a more vegetarian society, where meat was not the norm, nor did most foods contain dairy products of some sort. Were the fast rules meant to create a wholesale change in diet, or just remove some of the nicer bits?

    I remember when I worked at an Orthodox coffeehouse, if it was a fasting seasons, the spray whipped cream was non-dairy, though I’m thinking it probably isn’t as good for you. I’m sure there are Orthodox that have their tea or coffee black in fasting seasons, but many that I know just use soy milk. So instead of having extra money for alms, it costs more.

    A priest once mentioned to me that he thought it strange lobster is permitted on Holy Saturday.

    I don’t think it is does much good to deny ourselves certain types of food, because someone in the world someone doesn’t have much too eat, just to express some sort of solidarity with them. I do think it is nice that if Lent is saving money, that money can be given to the poor – and I would think it would be particularly nice to be given to food charities.

  3. Margi Says:

    Expressing solidarity always leads to a coloured rubber bangle and there are enough of those already.

    Shellfish as luxury is a relatively new thing. As late as the 70s Scottish fishermen would through langoustine back in the water as they couldn’t sell it and in 18th century Boston there were rules about how many times a week people could feed their servants on it. It was that cheap. I think, despite all the calls for cheap eggs and tinned tuna to be permitted in the fast, that it’s good that it never changes because it’s never really been ideally suited to anyone’s society at any time and if it was it would become pointless. The RCs are an example of this, everyone decides what they will give up whether chocolate or cigarettes or not bother at all, it’s pointless. If we changed it to suit the UK and the US then what about Russia and Japan? And if we change it to suit 2008 will we change it again in 2038? We’d have to if the price of tuna went up insanely or all the battery chickens died.

    I think the soy milk, etc, destroys the spirit of the fast and is another example of what the Fathers said about the difficulty of taming the stomach. If one can’t drink black tea then tea should be pretty easy to give up. If life is unbearable without tea then someone needs to get a grip of themselves because they are being dictated to by physical expectation.

    And, yes, ‘traditionally’ all the money saved in Lent was given to food charities.


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