When do we fast, and when do we feast?
From the Monastic Typikon:
The Byzantine tradition is that monks are to abstain always from meat. We regard this as a monastic ideal. However, in the interest of economy, our Abbot may permit the consumption of meat especially with regard to food donated by our benefactors which we accept in the spirit of monastic poverty. Monks in the Great Habit, however, must observe a perpetual fast from meat.
The monks observe the rules of fasting laid down in the Eparchy of St. George in Canton and, in addition, the traditional canonical fasts of the Byzantine year:
* The meat fast from Vespers of the Sunday of the Last Judgment (“Meatfare” Sunday) to Forgiveness (or “Cheesefare”) Sunday;
* Great Lent (from Forgiveness Vespers to Lazarus Saturday) and Great and Holy Week from Vespers of Palm Sunday to Holy Pascha);
* The Apostles’ Fast (Vespers on the evening of All Saints Sunday through to the Feast of Ss Peter and Paul);
* The Fast of the Mother of God (from the Procession of the Life-Giving Cross on August 1st to the Dormition of the Mother of God on August 15th);
* The “Philip’s Fast” which we observe from the traditional date (November 16, the day following the feast of St. Philip the Apostle) to the feast of the Nativity of the Lord on December 25th);
* All Wednesdays and Fridays in the year, except in fast-free periods
* The eves of the Holy Nativity and Holy Theophany;
* The feasts of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist (August 29th) and of the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross (September 14th).
The periods during which fasting is not permitted are:
* The week following the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee;
* Cheesefare Week (all foods except meat are permitted);
* Bright Week and the Leavetaking of Pascha;
* The week following the Sunday of Pentecost;
* The Afterfeast of the Nativity of the Lord (December 25th to January 4th);
In addition, oil and wine are permitted throughout the Pentecost Season.
All these fasts carry with them rules concerning both the kinds of food to be taken, and the amount of food permitted. In the Byzantine tradition, fish (excluding shell fish) is forbidden when other animal products (meat, dairy, eggs) are proscribed, except on certain days specified in the liturgical books.
There is mitigation of the rules of fasting on days that coincide with feasts of Master, of the Mother of God and of certain notable saints. When the matter appears doubtful, the Abbot determines the proper course having due regard to the general practice of the various Byzantine Churches in America.
When traveling outside the Monastery, the monks are to do their best to comply with the spirit of the fasts. Discretion should be used, however, so as not to embarrass hosts who offer food in good faith. By tradition, oil and wine may usually be taken when engaged on an arduous journey.
In addition to this, the monks are to fast strictly before receiving the Divine Mysteries. No meal is ever to be served in the Monastery on days on which the Divine Liturgy or Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is to be celebrated until after the Liturgy is completed. The Eucharistic fast is never relaxed, even during the “fast-free” periods.
Notwithstanding any of the above, the Abbot always has power to relax or intensify the rules of fasting for the Monastery or for individual monks.
No monk may take it upon himself to fast more or less than the rest of the community without the permission of his spiritual father and the consent of the Hegumen.
Why do we fast?
Fasting is one of the pillars of our monastic life. We are taught its value by our Savior Himself who prepared for His confrontation with the Devil in the wilderness by a fast of forty days (Matt. 4:22).
St. John Climacus writes: “Fasting ends lust, roots out bad thoughts, frees one from evil dreams. Fasting makes for purity of prayer, an enlightened soul, a watchful mind, a deliverance from blindness. Fasting is the door of compunction, humble sighing, joyful contrition, an end to chatter, an occasion for silence, a custodian of obedience, a lightening of sleep, health of the body, an agent of dispassion, a remission of sins, the gate, indeed, the delight of Paradise.” (Ladder of Divine Ascent, step 14.)
As in all ascetic endeavors, fasting is not an end in itself. If it is not undertaken in the spirit of humility and for the sake of the Gospel it is useless, even harmful. Again, it is our Lord Who teaches us: “When you fast put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt. 16:17-18).
Our fasting must always be joined to prayer. This is why we are careful to maintain the link between the time of our fasts and the Church’ liturgical cycles. It is also for this reason that hospitality is more important than the strict observance of outward rules of fasting, as the fathers often teach us.