Listening to NPR the other day, I heard an apocryphal account of an artist’s death blamed on Holy Orthodoxy. It was said that, under the guidance of a particular priest, he destroyed his health with fasting.
What’s interesting about that are:
- With health conditions, economia is granted, whereby the fast is kept by including any foods deemed medicinal. In other words, the fast is for our salvation, so it’s forbidden to fast from medicine. What is otherwise forbidden becomes prescribed. This is also why nursing mothers and infants keep the fast, but not by omitting foods.
- The fast in Holy Orthodoxy is a vegan fast. Nothing of animals (including alcohol) and no olive oil. It’s also followed by feasting, where fasting is actually *prohibited*, and feasting required. In other words, a ton of the world – even whole cultures (Hindu) keep this fast for life without ill effects. This includes old women who have been doing it all their lives and fall asleep at ripe old ages.
- A priest does not make the fasting rules. There is one fast for the whole Church. There are some greater depths of fasting for monastics, but the artist was not one of those, and their fasting likewise is merely abstension from meats (most monastics eat fish only, even when not fasting). And it is the Bishop, not the priest, who sanctions economia and akkrivia – so the priest is not permitted to unilaterally make broad adjustments.
- Abstinence (from food), unlike fasting (removing certain foods and frequencies of meals), is only prescribed a couple of days out of the year. The rest of the time it is only permitted at any length under the guidance of a monastic or other father, and then only in small steps in keeping with gradual religious advancement, then too only for some among the Orthodox who have the physical stamina, and only in a voluntary manner (i.e. cannot be required in any way).
I find the mythology of the Orthodox fasts being harsh and unreasonable to be a commentary on the gluttony, egotistical wealth, and obsession with death in our culture. The same claims would make no sense at all in many Asian and Near Eastern cultures. Which is it that’s so awful, horrendous, and unthinking – the temporary veganism or the temporary removal of olive oil? The notion that these things are some sort of abusive throwback to a pre-enlightened era, before we knew that lots of hydrogenated corn syrup and processed meat products are all that’s keeping us alive, is retarded.
I’ve met people that throw such a fit at the notion of living for a while on vegetables that they should have to apologize to the rest of the world for their decadence and taking more than their share. People in this part of the West eat several times more meat per day, per sitting, and per portion than even Western Europe, let alone the rest of the world. It’s a violent, passionate culture made high on protein overload, as though you can never get enough – cheese on this, pork belly on that, it’s all got to have meat. To listen to some people at the prospect of going even a day on vegetables, grains, and fruits, you’d think it was a violent moral outrage, torture, or an offense to their “god-ordained” right to endlessly slaughter and consume things. It’s stupid.
Anyway, this is not to say that there exists anything anywhere that can’t be abused. We’ve probably all seen some of everything abused in some way. But abuse is not a commentary on the whole. Now rampant, widespread abuse (like the incessant porking of boys by gay Roman Catholic priests) reflects deep and abiding problems there. Or the constant financial and sexual scandals among televangelists, etc. But come on – how many people do you see dropping dead on a daily basis from veganism, whether for their whole lives, or half the year (the Orthodox requirement)? Pish tosh. NPR can eat me over that one. Maybe that way, we’d spare half of the 8000 pounds of cows one of them eats in a lifetime.
By the way, there are Orthodox who blow off the fasts, or make it up themselves, or even express disdain for the fasts. Most are either lifers who think being born into it is the important thing – that somehow merely belonging to the right institution is the Faith, or else converts from non-fasting traditions who bring their basic assumptions with them, preferring to remain unconverted in that way, and present the Faith as a collection of “beliefs” and a basic moral structure – a Protestantized propositional/ethical/institutional religion. They just don’t know what the hell they’re doing. Orthodoxy is not a belief system, it’s an asceticism. What you believe is best summed up in what you do. Failing is easy – I’m not knocking anyone for failing – I’m knocking the dismissal of reality and reduction of it to a mere religious philosophy which, frankly, if we were going to do that, we might as well shove our heads in our arses and sing alleluias, because they’re a dime a dozen.
Contempt for the core behaviors of our Faith can only come from contempt for God, contempt for man and oneself, and contempt for reality and creation. As St. Seraphim said, “He who doesn’t fast, doesn’t actually believe in God at all.” Until those words are understood, it’s not penance and theosis – it’s philosophical masturbation. I’d be more concerned about dropping dead from that than from eating my vegetables. Try a cucumber. Despite what your pastor tells you, it actually won’t kill you. Remember God’s first discussion with man? “Here, eat all the veggies and fruits you want, they’re good and that’s why I made them. You can live on them, and they have all you need. But fast too – don’t touch the tree that makes you a philosophical fool, because that’ll separate you from your Creator and what we have together, and then you really will die.” You know the rest of the story and what came from the gluttony.