St. Seraphim of Sarov Orthodox Church
Fasting for Non-Monastics


(Excerpts from a talk given to the clergy of the Western American Diocese by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov)

Is It a Sin to Break the Fast?

So, is it a sin to break the fast? The answer to this question depends on what is meant by breaking the fast. As we have discussed, it turns out that most people—monastic and lay alike—deviate from the rule in some way. If this deviation is meaningful and its purpose is to accommodate a real physiological need, then, it seems to me to be well within the spirit of fasting, even if it is not exactly according to monastic rules. If, however, the deviation is due to our gluttony, laziness, lack of discipline, or some other weakness, then we have something that should be corrected. Perhaps, the best way to think about sin in relation to fasting is not in legal terms—law, crime, and punishment, but in terms of preparation or exercise. Fasting is an ascetic discipline. The word “ascetic” comes from the Greek ἄσκησις which means “exercise” or “training.” In other words, imagine that you are a soldier preparing for a difficult and dangerous mission. It is not so much a crime to be lazy in your training or to cut corners as much as it means that you may not be well-prepared for your task and thus will not be able to complete it or even perish in the process. So, if people choose not to exercise the discipline of fasting, they are cheating themselves out of the training necessary to fight against the enemy—sins and passions—and will be unprepared to face the snares of the devil.

The Discipline of the Body

Any time something is limited in its freedoms, it becomes subject to whatever force is limiting it. So, when I make my body do what I need instead of what it wants, I become its master. In other words, if I tell my feet to walk and where to go, or if I tell my hands to work and what to do, or if I tell my brain to solve a problem and which one—I gain control over this incredible gift of God called my body. On the other hand, if my body forces me to do what it wants, then it becomes my master. And it would not, perhaps, be so bad if the body wanted what was best for me. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Each person has his or her own vices yielding to our fallen nature, but in general, we know that given a choice, our body does not always choose wisely: it wants to be lazy rather than productive; it wants to eat junk food rather than healthy food; and our brain just wants to party or get into mischief—often to the detriment of the body.

The discipline of the body is exercised for the purpose of keeping one in charge of his body. In our fallen state, the natural order of our being has been perverted: the flesh with its passions and desires is the ruler of our being; our mind is a slave of the flesh and is preoccupied with figuring out how to fulfill the desires of the flesh; the soul feeds on the passions of the flesh, looking for pleasure and never finding satisfaction; and the spirit—the direction in which our entire being moves—is not that of God, but rather of corruption, waste, and destruction. In other words, the human spirit, the vector, is missing its true mark, which is God. In Christianity, this is known as “sin,” which is understood as “missing the mark” or “mistake.”

Fasting, then, helps us restore the divinely ordained order to our being: the spirit or vector must always point to God, the soul must find its fulfillment in communion with God, and the body, in all of its complexity, must serve the soul in its service to God. We may, and will, talk about meat, fish, shrimp and the like, but the main point is: if you cannot be in control of your stomach, if this simple sack of flesh is the ruler your life, how can you hope to be in control of more complex physiology, or your mind, or your soul?!

The Spirit Of The Typicon  

Many people seem to think that the Typicon forbids certain foods during Lent. They may, for example, assume that the Typicon forbids all animal products. This view is further advanced by clergy when we explain to our parishioners the basics of fasting. As shorthand, we may say that animal foods are not allowed during Lent, but all plant foods are allowed. This creates a Kosher-style approach to fasting, in which the fanciest vegan cakes and exquisite dark chocolates somehow become “Lenten.” Our pious Orthodox parishioners—much like pious Orthodox Jews—can be observed debating whether some ingredient is derived from an animal product and whether it is “kosher”—that is to say, Lenten. The focus shifts from the discipline of the body to the avoidance of certain ingredients for the sake of ritual purity. Fasting degrades into a religious vegan diet, in which some products become religiously unclean, while others are “kosher.”

Of course, we all understand that the Typicon breathes very different air, an entirely different spirit. Not the spirit of slavery to the law, but a spirit of freedom from the desires of the flesh. The Typicon treats Lent not as a religious diet, in which some foods are “kosher” while others are not, but as an exercise in asceticism. Thus, the Typicon allows certain things at certain times to offer us sustenance. So, on Tuesday of the first week of Lent, the Typicon allows those who are weak to have some bread and water after vespers. On all other days until Passion Week, the Typicon allows bread, water, and warm vegetables once a day. On Saturdays and Sundays oil and wine are allowed. In other words, the Typicon thinks better of us than we think of ourselves—it does not address gluttons with prohibitions, rather it addresses strict ascetics with allowances. The Typicon assumes that we want to better ourselves in the freedom of the New Testament, rather than enslave ourselves to the dead stone tablets of the old Law.

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