Can We Talk About Fasting?

Some thoughts on the Western and Eastern approaches to food and fasting during the Lenten season.

Lent, or the Great Fast, is now upon us, and this year both Eastern and Western Christians will celebrate the Lord’s Passover from death to life on the same Sunday: April 20. And this raises the question—or rather several questions—about Lenten fasting. Perhaps both East and West together might consider some of these questions and come to a common mind about the value of fasting in a way that is theologically coherent, pastorally defensible, and practically livable.

On paper, Eastern fasting discipline—about which I have published several articles over the last dozen years—seems very strict indeed (though in practice not everyone follows it); and on paper Western fasting discipline seems rather minimal—though in practice nothing prevents Western Christians from undertaking a more rigorous fast. But both disciplines currently have some rather strange logic behind them, which I wish to challenge here by means of a “scholastic” method. I shall consider the question in two articles.

I: It Would Seem Meat is Forbidden when Fasting:

During fasting periods, both East and West have, historically at least, forbidden the consumption of any and all meat derived from animals. Today such prohibition usually only applies on Fridays in the West but in the East it applies on all the days of Lent—which practice the West used to follow generations ago. Thus the universal and undivided Church generally proscribes the consumption of meat on fasting days for reasons which presumably include the following:

i) Meat costs more to produce, cook, and consume, and such monies saved from not eating meat should be donated to the poor as part of one’s Lenten almsgiving;

ii) Meat tends in some people (as the Fathers used to say) to “excite the blood” and stir up passionate thoughts, so its avoidance will enable one to pursue virtue in tranquility;

iii) Meat tends in other people to create such drowsiness and sluggishness that they will avoid their prayers and spiritual practices, so avoiding meat generates a lightness of spirit in the pursuit of holiness;

iv) Meat, according to an increasing number of medical studies, especially red meat, is thought to be unhealthy if consumed in large quantities on a regular basis, and Christians have an obligation to take care of the body, so avoiding meat is good somatic stewardship;

v) Meat tends to create a fuller feeling in the stomach and a higher level of satiety the avoidance of which during Lent will remind penitents to hunger more deeply for Christ and His Kingdom. It would seem therefore for these reasons that all meat is equally to be avoided as a form of both penance and good stewardship of resources.

II: It Would Seem Seafood is Permitted in Place of Meat:

In place of meat, both East and West allow alternatives. Eating all seafood (in the West) or some seafood (as long as it has no backbone, according to most Eastern traditions) is permitted while eating beef, pork, or poultry is thus forbidden. But is it rational to permit seafood while forbidding meat?

Sed Contra:

i) Certain types of meat, such as beef, may indeed cost more to produce, cook, and consume, but not all types of meat are so expensive. Chicken, for example, is far less costly than beef tenderloin; ground turkey costs far less than ground lamb. But if expense is a major consideration, then one must rule out many if not all of the seafood substitutes. The price of swordfish or lobster (especially in the landlocked regions such as the Midwest) is considerably more than chicken, pork, or even most steaks. Indeed, the price of any seafood far from the ocean—shrimp, scallops, salmon—is almost invariably much higher than most meat and poultry. Surely, then, mere cost alone cannot be an argument against meat and in favor of seafood.  The penitent who eats nothing but swordfish and lobster during Lent will have less money to give to the poor than he who dines nightly on chicken, pork, or most other meat. 

ii) The apparent passion-stirring effect of meat is also popularly believed to be accomplished by some forms of seafood—e.g., oysters are claimed by some to have an “aphrodisiac” effect, exciting sensual passion in people who consume them. And yet oysters are not forbidden during fasting periods.

iii) Sluggishness and sloth can be created by many things—too little sleep, too much stress, too little coffee, too many of one’s children puking at 3:00 in the morning. And yet none of these things is prescribed or proscribed during fasting periods.

iv) Other studies indicate that certain forms of seafood may be unhealthy in their own way. Some fish (e.g., tuna) are thought to have unacceptably high levels of mercury. Other forms of seafood may have been “farm-raised” and fed antibiotics and other chemicals whose long-term health consequences in humans are not yet clear. Seafood, therefore, cannot be made permissible, nor meat impermissible, on grounds of “health” alone not least because many animals on land are also given antibiotics in their feed.

v) One can achieve a massive feeling of satiety by overindulging on permissible foods during a fasting period. If one is forbidden from having a single burger, fries, and cola to fill one up one’s stomach, why is one permitted instead crab-stuffed salmon filets and caviar-topped blini with a quinoa and truffle salad on the side, all quaffed with a pinot noir? Where would be the penance in this? 

Now Therefore I Suggest That:

Christians need to re-think current disciplines to avoid the aforementioned inconsistencies. Several possibilities suggest themselves, all noteworthy by their simplicity and affordability, freeing up resources for the poor and for prayer:

i) Vegetarian Wednesdays and Fridays: Rather than a dramatic overhaul of one’s entire diet during Lent, it might be as simple as not eating meat or seafood on Wednesday and Fridays, which remains, even through the rest of the year, the common discipline in the East (Wednesday being the day Christ was betrayed, and Friday the day He died).

ii) Vegan Wednesdays and Fridays: For those wishing greater penance, a vegan diet (no meat, seafood, or dairy) could be adopted on these two days, and perhaps for Holy Week itself, as that has historically been marked with extraordinary rigor. Surely eating only vegetables (and legumes and nuts, inter alia) two days of the week is not impossible for us today?

iii) Simple Soups: Part of what Lent is supposed to do is free up time and money to give to others. Eating a simple soup, with a few basic ingredients prepared simply and quickly (and perhaps put into a Crock Pot or slow cooker in the morning, so that time in the evening could be given over to more prayer) would aid in this regard.

The merits of any of these suggestions include simplicity as well as a greater stewardship of time and money. My point is to encourage a more coherent rationale for fasting and abstinence in light of the drastically changed circumstances of today, long past the time when many fasting rules were first developed. For my brethren in the East who wish to keep to the “traditional” discipline (which is usually defined as one meal a day, completely vegan, with no animal products or alcohol whatsoever during all of Lent) there is nothing preventing them from doing so.

But today those endowed with such zeal seem few, and many of us are otherwise bound by practical considerations (e.g., sick family members or young children) that make the “traditional” rule rather impractical (which is why it has for decades been on the agenda for the forthcoming “great and holy synod” of the Orthodox Churches). My three suggestions above may help us find something we can manage to do regularly and easily without a lot of fuss, freeing up time for prayer and service of others.

For, as Christ made clear, that is the whole point of any fasting discipline—to get on with life: “And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites…but anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt. 6:16-19).

About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 40 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is Associate Professor and Chairman of the Department of Theology-Philosophy, University of Saint Francis (Fort Wayne, IN) and author of Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).