“How is it possible for one fasting not to fast? When he keeps away from food but does not keep away from sin. How is it possible for one who is not fasting to fast? When he enjoys food but does not taste of sin.” (St. John Chrysostom)
The fast of Lent is considered an ascetical fast (as versus a total fast) and is a discipline for Christians in community to follow. All of the rules were made by monks for their monasteries and in general were aimed at preventing zealous monks from overdoing the fast. The basic notion was discipline – be a disciple and follow the rules of another rather than what you think is good and right. You may be able to do more than the discipline, but the point is to follow the discipline and not be self willed like Eve and Adam who followed their own thoughts rather than the discipline laid down by God for His guests in His garden of delight.
The Great Fast has had different rules through the centuries. St. John Chrysostom (4th Century) and St. Photios (9th Century) both make reference to the fact that the Lenten fast is not followed on weekends. Egeria who traveled through Jerusalem in the 4th Century also says at one point that “absolutely no one follows any sort of fast on Saturdays and Sundays.” At some point but at least by the 15th Century the monks thought it more pious to continue the fast through the weekends though they modified the severity a little. Early Christian canons forbid fasting on Sundays. In recent centuries that canon has been reinterpreted to mean we don’t totally fast on Sundays but we can ascetically fast.
Does “wine” include all kinds of alcoholic beverages, or does it just mean wine? I’ve heard that shell fish of all kinds are allowed during Lent – is this true? The rules specify no olive oil, what about other vegetable oils?
Here you get into the technicalities of how the fast gets kept, and these points get debated. Those who love to parse the details of the law are divided on this point. Some say strict adherence to the discipline of Lent forbids exactly wine and olive oil and does not cover other similar products. They argue that to follow the discipline strictly means not to stretch the fast to cover other products. Exactly what the Lenten discipline was supposed to do was to stop each monk from interpreting the rules and trying to be stricter than the next monk. So these folk argue that follow the rules to the T and exclude wine and olive oil but not other beverages or oils. To do more would be to violate the very thing the rules were trying to prevent.
On the other hand some argue to allow other alcoholic beverages and vegetable oils violates the spirit of the Lenten discipline because the rules were meant to exclude all alcoholic beverages and oils (the monks of the desert it is claimed only knew of olive oil so they wouldn’t have thought of listing other oils as well).
So if you want to keep Lent strictly, you have to decide which version of strictness you think meets the rules, or you follow the direction of your spiritual father.
Regarding shell fish – I certainly have known people who keep Lent strictly who eat shell fish all of Lent. I heard the explanation being that when the rules were adapted, shell fish were considered to be the food of peasants and the fast was not trying to curtail the eating habits of the poor. I am guessing that different ethnic groups and different monasteries probably have different rules about shell fish.
Fasting was meant to be done “in the closet” where only God sees what you are doing. It was not meant to be a means to compare yourself with others or to judge them. Fasting was a tool, not the goal of the Christian life. It was a school to learn discipline, to learn self denial so that you stopped listening to your self – your appetites, your wants and needs – in order to listen for God’s voice and in order to become attuned to the neighbor. It was to help us move away from self- love to love for God and neighbor.
The rules of fasting though pretty much the same throughout the Orthodox monastic world, did vary somewhat in unique cultural situations. In Alaska for example because of the absolute lack of any vegetation all winter it was not thought wise to try to follow the ascetical rules. In these cases reducing the quantity one ate was considered normative.
Fasting was also supposed to be accompanied by increased acts of charity, time of prayer, spiritual reading and mediation. The thought was as in Matt 12:43-45, we clean out our house but then don’t fill it with anything good, and so the demons come back in force and take over the house. So we fast to purify our hearts, to practice charity, and turn more fervently to the Lord in repentance seeking His mercy for ourselves (but also then realizing our need to practice mercy towards others – we are to do for others as Christ does for us).
The goal is not to think more about food, but less. Some would say the goal is to realize how much we really love this world more than we love the Lord and to change our hearts in this regard! (ie, “I would do anything for Christ, except give up McDonalds for 40 days”). The goal is to change one’s heart (see Mark 7:21-23) which is the center for sin in humans. By denying the desires of the flesh (for food, sex, pleasure, self centeredness), one denies the heart opportunity to fulfill its sinful inclination.