While today many Orthodox assume there is only one way to keep the fast of Great Lent, we know from the writings of the saints that they did not insist on a one-size-fits-all approach to fasting. St. John Cassian (d. 435AD) was a disciple of St. John Chrysostom and one of the great spiritual writers of his time who helped spread Christian ascetical spirituality throughout the Roman Empire in the 5th Century . He is an early witness to an ancient Orthodox tradition that recognizes a monastic rule cannot artificially be imposed on everyone, not even on all monks. He did not have a monolithic view of all monks or Christians, nor did he teach that all Christians could walk in lockstep with absolute obedience to one fasting rule. St. John Cassian writes:
“And so a uniform rule concerning the manner of fasting cannot easily be kept because not all bodies have the same strength, nor is it, like the other virtues, achieved by firmness of mind alone. And therefore, since it does not consist in strength of mind alone, inasmuch as it depends on what the body is capable of, we have accepted the following understanding of it that was passed onto us: There are different times, manners, and qualities with respect to eating that are in accordance with the varied conditions, ages, and sexes of bodies, but there is one rule of discipline for everyone with regard to an abstinent and virtuous mind. For not everyone is able to prolong a fast for weeks, or to put off eating food for three or even two days. Many people who are worn out by sickness and especially old age cannot endure a fast even until sunset without considerable hardship.
A starveling meal of moistened beans does not suit everyone, nor is the frugality of plain vegetables adequate for all, nor is an austere diet of dry bread appropriate for all. One person does not feel full with two pounds, while another is surfeited with a meal of one pound or six ounces. Nonetheless there is one end of abstinence in all these instances – that no one, according to the measure of his own capacity, be burdened by voracious satiety. For it is not only the quality of food but also its quantity that dulls the heart’s keenness, and when both the mind and the flesh have been sated the glowing kindling of the wicked vices is set ablaze.” (The Institutes, pps.119-120)
St. John Cassian’s rule which he claims is THE Tradition which he received (“we have accepted the following understanding of it that was passed onto us”) is simply not to eat to the point of satiety. Leave the table feeling some hunger – how much each person eats or what they eat is less important then that they learn self control: one says ‘no’ to oneself at the table even when still a bit hungry. In some ways, for a culture such as ours which is used to consuming everything to the point of satiety and beyond, this is a harder rule to learn and follow. It is a fasting rule not focusing on food types (substituting soy for beef, or vegetables for cheese) but considering quantity as well. We can eat to satiety as vegetarians and vegans just as easily as our more carnivorous fellow humans. St. John offers us a different way to approach fasting – a way that is part of the Patristic Tradition – that we approach our meals with a conscious desire to eat less, to not satisfy our wants, to experience hunger spiritually not just physically.
For St. John the real goal here is “an abstinent and virtuous mind.” We are trying to discipline ourselves to learn an attitude or an approach not just to food but to life in the world. It is much more a matter of the heart than of the stomach, or perhaps of helping the heart rule the stomach. Like the apostles on the road to Emmaus, we want our meals to reveal Christ to us.
We are not meant to spend more time in Lent focusing on food, but less than we normally do so that we can focus on spiritual issues: issues of the heart, the soul and the mind by saying “no” to the body whose voracious appetite (including lusts, cravings, hungers and passions) often drives us through life, causing us to veer off of the the way to the Kingdom of Heaven.
We are not endeavoring to starve ourselves for 40-50 days and then to gorge ourselves at Pascha. We are supposed to be teaching ourselves an approach to life in the world of the fall which will not distract us from the Kingdom of God but will keep us ever moving toward living in love for God and love for our neighbor.
See also my blog: Perfect Image of Fasting