Archpriest Valerian Krechetov, Rector of the Church of the Protecting Veil in the village of Akulovo, Russia, speaks to the ‘Pravmir’ site about how we should spend the fast.
Fr Valerian, how de we define how strict a fast is?
There are three generally recognised levels of fasting. The least strict fasting day is when meat and dairy produce of animal origin are not allowed, but fish, seafood, vegetables and vegetable oil are. The second level is stricter, no fish is allowed, but vegetables and vegetable oil are allowed. The third level which is even stricter allows vegetables without vegetable oil. Apart from this there are also days, especially in the Great Fast (Lent), when we do not eat anything at all.
The Church calendar indicates how strict the fast is. There is the Great Fast, then the Dormition Fast, then the Nativity Fast, then the Apostles’ Fast.
The strict fasts are the, the fast before Easter and the Dormition Fast. The culmination of the Great Fast is Passion Week (Holy Week), when we recall the Saviour’s sufferings on the Cross. Of course after this we celebrate the Resurrection of Christ, Easter, but this is preceded by those days of sorrow. The Dormition is also the sad parting with the Mother of God. Although we say that ‘in the Dormition thou, O Birthgiver of God, didst not leave the world’, even so the Mother of God did visibly leave us for heaven. Thus, sad events are naturally preceded by a strict fast. On Great Friday in Passion Week we are not supposed to eat anything at all.
How strictly we fast during the week depends on the day: Fridays and Wednesdays stand out in particular and during a fast we can add Mondays to these because Mondays are dedicated to the Bodiless Heavenly Hosts. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the fasts we eat only vegetables without vegetable oil, but on the other days vegetables with oil. On Saturdays and Sundays of the smaller fasts – the Nativity and the Apostles’ Fasts – fish is allowed. On feasts during the fasts we are allowed to drop a level, that is, oil is allowed together with vegetables and if oil was already allowed, then fish is allowed. If one of the Twelve Great Feasts (for example the Transfiguration in the Dormition Fast and the Annunciation in the Great Fast, providing it does not fall in Passion Week) occurs, we are allowed to skip another level – so we can go from great strictness to eating fish.
So it is all very simple. In the Great and Dormition Fasts there are five weekdays without vegetable oil, Saturdays and Sundays have vegetable oil. In the Nativity and Apostles’ Fasts there are three days without oil, Tuesdays and Thursdays are with oil and Saturdays and Sundays are with fish.
But you know when you fast, you get used to everything. It’s not complicated. It’s simply a habit. Sometimes people start asking and criticising: ‘But does what you eat really matter?’ It is precisely because they are against fasting that they say that ‘it doesn’t matter’.
Fasting is the simplest form of training in self-control and in this way it is especially helpful for children. For instance, children see something tasty and they immediately want to put into their mouths. But that’s wrong. Fasting is very important for the way we bring up our children. Myself, I grew up in an Orthodox family and I know the importance of this principle of self-control from my own children.
They say: ‘The Church thought up fasting’. All such ideas simply come from ignorance. The first commandment – given to human beings in paradise – is the commandment of fasting. But the fasting appointed for the first human-beings was so easy! You can eat everything, only do not eat the fruit from one tree (not even from one sort of tree, but from one particular tree!). This was in a way a fast. And what is fasting? It is obedience.
Why do parents stop their children from eating whenever they want? First of all, because it spoils their appetite and secondly because if you want something and you get it at once, it means that you have pandered to your immediate desires. And it is wrong to live like that. You did it because you wanted to? This is the way people start stealing, all sins start with this ‘because I wanted to’.
Sometimes the ‘you mustn’t do this’ does not mean always; perhaps now you mustn’t, but later you can. Wait for dinner and then you will have everything.
Today’s city-dweller, who is used to restaurants and ready-made meals, may reply that it is harder for him to fast because he has not got the time to rush around the shops looking for fasting food and nowadays it is hard to find good, healthy food.
No, that’s just an excuse. It’s all a question of habit. You can adapt if you really want to. It’s a different matter if you have to eat something because those are the circumstances you are in. What can you do? If you’ve eaten it, you’ve eaten it. We should not say anything bad, but we still do. Ask God’s forgiveness. You have to keep it simple.
Sometimes, because they have read it in the Holy Fathers, people who have been invited somewhere do not refuse non-fasting food because they ‘do not want to offend their hosts’, ‘from humility’, because they remember that there was ‘an elder’ who had been invited somewhere and ate something he should not have so that he would not offend his host.
Even when I had just started serving as a priest and I was invited somewhere and was offered non-fasting food, I would simply answer that I would not eat something because I was fasting.
Does this mean that you can tell everyone about your fasting?
Not only you can, but you should. This is because people may simply not know about this. It’s a different matter when people begin to say to themselves: ‘Does it really matter?’ So if it doesn’t really matter, eat fasting food.
One contemporary Greek ascetic says this: ‘Try and do what you have to do. It is not your business if this is a problem for someone else’. You say you are struggling against vanity, but then you go and stuff yourself. So, you’ve been given a piece of meat, you’ve eaten it, but don’t take a second.
Otherwise people will justify themselves: ‘It doesn’t matter, I’ve already broken the fast anyway’.
Yes, it’s true, in my own time, when I was a student, like others, I did not cook and used to eat at the canteen. There, as you can understand, there was a set menu. I would have some vegetables and if a little bit of meat was in with them, I wasn’t too bothered.
The main thing is to want to fast, the desire to do it, and as to how you’ll manage, the Lord will decide. Of course, it’s a different matter if you are ill, although, as you can understand, we often make illness into just another justification.
Apart from abstinence from food during the fast, we should be praying harder. What should we do if there just is not time to read the Psalter or akathists?
There is one remarkable prayer rule which virtually no-one seems to know about, this is the Jesus Prayer. I even had the idea of giving out a piece of paper with this rule on to drivers, so they did not curse in traffic jams, but read the Jesus Prayer instead. 300 prayers, let’s say, instead of Vespers, 500 instead of Matins, 100 instead of an akathist…
Prayer, real prayer, is a state of grace. At least it consoles your feelings. And it helps. You start praying and the situation changes.
Recently I was told of the following case. The traffic police had stopped a car in a town, checked the papers, everything was OK, the driver could go. All of a sudden the car wouldn’t start. No-one could make anything out, there was nothing wrong, the car needed to leave straightaway, it was outside government offices where you weren’t even allowed to stop. What could they do? They began to read the akathist to the Archangel Michael. Soon a man drove up with a breakdown truck on which the word ‘Angel’ was written. The driver was called Michael. He helped the car out. So you see, prayer helps in very concrete ways, let alone the fact that it’s a spiritual comfort and strength.
Usually we read the whole Psalter once a week at Church services. During the Great Fast we read it twice a week. So we pray harder.
During the Great Fast we read the prayer of St Ephraim the Syrian, ‘O Lord and Master of my life…’
We are told to ‘Pray unceasingly’ (I Thess. 5, 17). So it is not only during the fasts that we should pray, but all the time. But during fasts, when we pray harder, you begin to feel a change in the state of your soul. Fasting calms your feelings. This is especially noticeable during the Great Fast. The whole structure of prayer and services clearly shows this, which is why this fast is stronger and more effective.
People often say: ‘The fast has begun, expect temptations’. Arguments start with those close to us and so on.
Yes, this does happen. It is even to be expected. At the start, in the middle and at the end of fasts there are temptations. Are we just to expect them? Well, if they come, they come. But maybe they won’t come.
Usually temptations are a substitute for spiritual life, which is deepened by fasting. If you take the feat of fasting on yourself, then you take that path, if not, then you are given temptations.
The thing is that when you give yourself up to God’s will, you accept this as a natural part of fasting. You are ready. But there is another element to this. The enemy will try and catch you unawares. So you must be careful not to let your guard down and be negligent.
…and expect peace and humility from others.
A wise person once said: ‘We are not asked to demand love from others, but we are asked to love others’.
Father, what advice would you give on how to keep the fast correctly?
During the fast you must try and get close to the Church rules for fasting. If you have not managed today, try and do it the next day. We have to work towards this.
Those who have kept the fast have twice the joy after it: spiritual and physical. Even, the different levels – without oil, with oil, with fish – are such a joy. Even adults are joyful. When you start fasting, your life becomes varied. It is because our life is gray that some go and start taking drugs and go to other extremes in search of some sort of excitement.
Another thing. Why do people so often overdo things? Because they immediately go to extremes and then they get dizzy and so on. You mustn’t do that. Start gradually, find what suits you. You have to approach fasting one step at a time.
When the future Abba Dositheus went to Abba Dorotheus and said that he wanted to be a monk, the latter objected: ‘You won’t be able to do it’. Dositheus began to argue: ‘I will’. They prayed and went to eat. They had just sat down and it was already time to leave. Dositheus asked:
‘Shall we eat?’
‘But we’ve already eaten’.
What do you mean, already eaten? That was just starters!’
I told you already, you won’t be able to. All right, you can eat, but don’t overeat. Divide up your usual amount into eight parts, eat seven parts, but leave the eighth.
After a while when Dositheus had got used to eating 7/8 of his usual amount, Abba Dorotheus told him to take away another 1/8. So, with time, he reduced his food to 1/8 of the usual amount. The story does not tell us how long it took them to reach this point. So in fasting it is very important to go step by step.
Translated from Russian by Fr. Andrew Phillips
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