If You’re not a Monastic, don’t Fast Like One

We’re deep in the Great Fast and there is PreSanctified Liturgy this evening in most places, so I wanted to address fasting. I mentioned last week that you shouldn’t choose your own fast, and today I want to expand upon that. It can be difficult to navigate the Great Fast, especially if you are new to Orthodoxy or newly invigorated to practice the faith you inherited from your parents. The most important thing you should discuss with your spiritual father is how to fast as it relates to your way of life. Just looking at the calendar where it reads “Strict Fast - No meat, dairy, fish, wine or oil,” isn’t enough. Here’s what I mean.

The benchmark you normally find when researching how to fast in the Orthodox Church is just that, a benchmark. It is a goal toward which we should all be striving, but not in isolation from our environment. It just might be that a strict fast would be dangerous to our health or the health of others. We’ve grown more comfortable with the idea that we can ease the fast if we are sick and need our energy for recovery, or for pregnant and nursing mothers who need to increase healthy energy for an infant. Although we all know those yiayias (grandmothers) out there who will refuse to eat even a slice of toast for their blood pressure medicine and end up in the hospital Sunday afternoon, truth be told, most of us are more health conscious when it comes to fasting and sickness.

There is an entire other aspect of our health that many of us ignore during the Great Fast as we try to keep the strict fast. We forget that we are not monastics, and that we work in the world which requires a certain level of productivity and awareness for us to be functional. Many professions require a high level of physical energy and agility that could be in jeopardy if we are fasting to strictly for our bodies to cope. Other professions may not be physically demanding, but require a high intensity of mental focus which could be jeopardized if we are strictly fasting. Do you want a heart surgeon performing open heart surgery with low blood sugar because he plans to receive Holy Communion tonight? I don’t either.

In monasteries during Great Lent, life changes at the monastery to accommodate increased fasting. They perform less physical work than other times during the year. Monastics still go to Church, still work the garden, still mend torn fabrics, etc. The just do less of it because their bodies are not as energized as at other times since they are fasting more strictly. They also attend more services in the Church to supplement their day. Less work means more prayer in the monastery. But we don’t live in a monastery.

Out in the world, work schedules don’t change, work intensity doesn’t change, and (as we say) life goes on. That cannot be ignored in the way we fast. So if you plan to receive Holy Communion this evening, contact your spiritual father and ask for fasting guidance. Make sure he knows the reality of your life so he doesn’t give you a fasting rule that will endanger you or others around you. If you are a heart surgeon, fast like a heart surgeon. If you are an airline pilot or air traffic control, then fast like other’s lives are in your hands. In any fashion, if you’re not a monastic, don’t fast like one.