During the course of a year, Orthodox Christians fast between 180-200 days. Diligently following the fasting guidelines of the Church can be quite an undertaking. Especially if you are new to the Faith. Many people are not aware that the Orthodox Church institutes several levels, or degrees, of fasting, depending on one’s spiritual progress on the journey toward communion with the One True God.
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Remember that the Church does not impose the rules of fasting in a legalistic manner. Nor do the faithful follow these rules blindly out of some misconception that they “earn” us salvation in some way. Rather, fasting is a spiritual tool meant to teach us discipline and restraint. It is a tool that teaches us not to allow this material existence to become an idol that replaces God.
We must approach fasting with the proper attitude and understand its true meaning if we hope to benefit spiritually from it. That means following the guidance of our spiritual father at all times and refraining from becoming prideful in our achievements. This is not a contest, but a step on our journey toward theosis. Pride and vainglory undermine that journey and set us farther away from God.
Different degrees and levels of fasting in the Orthodox Church
To make things a bit more digestible, we divided the guidelines for the Church into certain degrees, based on the intensity of the fast. Each of these degrees then contains within it different levels. These degrees and levels of fasting all remain in alignment with the Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church.
After a few years at one degree or level, challenge yourself with the next. We highly recommend discussing all of this with your spiritual father to help determine where you should start your fasting journey.
This degree is the “easiest” to follow, and is a great introduction for those who are new to the Faith. Orthodox Christians who have not fasted lately may also benefit spiritually from starting at this level to build themselves back up to the fullness of the fast. Keep in mind, these rules are not rigid. You can adjust them, depending on your particular circumstances; as always, ask your priest!
When engaging in a basic fast, you should:
- Consume less food at each meal
- Fast from meat and then fish, beginning with just Wednesdays and Fridays of the fast
- Abstain from hard liquor, and only drink modest amounts of beer/wine on Saturdays and Sundays
- Try to keep as strict a fast as possible during Holy Week (the week between Palm Sunday and the Resurrection)
Within this degree, the different levels of basic fasting might look something like this:
|Basic Fast Level 1||Fast from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays (and during Holy Week)|
|Basic Fast Level 2||Fast from meat and fish on Wednesdays and Fridays (and during Holy Week)|
|Basic Fast Level 3||Fast from meat the entirety of the fast|
|Basic Fast Level 4||Fast from meat and fish the entirety of the fast|
The next degree of fasting in the Orthodox Church integrates abstaining from dairy products, in addition to fasting from animals with a backbone.
When engaging in an intermediate fast, you should:
- Continue to uphold the guidelines for basic fasts (listed above)
- Fast from all dairy products, starting with Wednesdays and Fridays during the fast and build up from there
- If you cannot fast from all dairy at the outset, choose one or two products (ex. eggs and cheese) as a starting point
Within the intermediate fasting degree, the levels might look something like this:
|Intermediate Fast Level 1||Basic Fast Level 4, plus fasting from dairy products on Wednesdays and Fridays (and during Holy Week)|
|Intermediate Fast Level 2||Basic Fast Level 4, plus fasting from dairy products the entirety of the fast|
Standard parish fasting
This third degree of fasting is a recommendation of the Pan-Orthodox Preparatory Committee, and is considered standard practice for Orthodox parishes. At this degree, the fast gets a bit more intensive.
When engaging in a standard parish fast, you should:
- Continue to observe the rules of basic fasts (listed above)
- Refrain from eating a full meal before noon on weekdays throughout the fast
- Abstain from meat, fish, and dairy* throughout the course of the fast
- Abstain from wine and olive oil throughout the fast
*Note: In the history of the Church, special dispensation has often been given for either dairy or eggs to those who “work in the field”, particularly on Saturdays and Sundays.
There really are no levels in this degree; however, you can adjust the time of day after which it is acceptable to consume a full meal to deepen your fast. For example, you can begin with abstaining from a full meal until 10:00 a.m., then build that up to noon, and then up to mid-afternoon, and so on. Keep in mind, this does not mean abstaining from all food; instead, it means only eating collations, or small portions of food for your health to get you through the day.
Strict ascetic fasting
As the highest degree, ascetic fasting is the most demanding. If you have never fasted before, the Church counsels against starting here, as the intensity can quickly exhaust and discourage you.
When engaging in a strict ascetic fast, you should:
- Refrain from eating a full meal until evening/sunset
- Reserve shellfish for Saturdays and Sundays of the fast
- Continue to observe the rules of basic fasts (listed above)
- Xerophagy (literally, “dry-eating”) is typically prescribed for meals eaten on weekdays during the course of a fast. Includes vegetables (raw or cooked only with water and salt), fruits, nuts, bread, and honey.
- Read this post for more specific instructions on following the strict ascetic rule specifically during the Great Lenten Fast
Strict ascetic fasting requires incredible spiritual strength, and should not be undertaken lightly. As always, consult with your spiritual father if you feel led to attempt a strict ascetic fast during one of the prescribed fasting periods of the ecclesiastical year.
Fasting outside of the four fasting periods
During the course of the year, the Church observes four longer fasting periods: the Nativity fast, Great Lent, Sts. Peter and Paul fast, and the Dormition fast. However, these are not the only times the Church prescribes fasting for the faithful.
We also should fast from meat, dairy, fish, olive oil, and wine every Wednesday (in memory of Christ’s betrayal) and Friday (in memory of His crucifixion). In many cases, this is the best place to begin. Keeping up with this fasting rule can reinforce your prayer life and bring you to repentance. It also helps you prepare spiritually for the Eucharist, the Mystery of Mysteries that is at the center of the life of the Church.
There are other fasting days sprinkled throughout the year as well. Not sure which days? Many jurisdictions of the Church publish a calendar that has the traditional fasting guidelines for each day of the year. In the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America (of which we are a part), you can find these fasting guidelines on the homepage of the archdiocese website. You can also find them on our website, on the Daily Scripture Readings page.
Fasting beyond food
While abstaining from foods is certainly a key part of the discipline of fasting, there is more to fasting than that. We must also fast from behaviors and habits that are spiritually destructive, along with things that tend to take our time away from God, from prayer, and from spiritual growth. Here are just a few examples of things we should attempt to fast from as often as possible:
- Watching too much television
- Playing too many video games
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Wasting time / being lazy
- Using foul language
- Being rude/condescending/hateful toward others
- Devoting more time to extra curricular activities than to church, Scripture reading, and prayer
- Making a show of our fasting
- Passing judgment on those who might not fast to the degree you are fasting
This last one is particularly important. Saint Paul reminds us in Romans 14:3-4: “Let not him who eats despise him who abstains, and let not him who abstains pass judgment on him who eats; for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own Master that he stands or falls.” As Christ tells us, our fasting is seen by our “Father who is in secret,” and He will reward us for our efforts.
Remember: the purpose of a fasting journey is repentance, making small, permanent changes to our lives that bring us closer to God that last long after the fast ends.
Circumstances that exempt someone from fasting
The Church, in Her wisdom, also provides flexibility in adhering to the rules of fasting in particular circumstances. First and foremost, as Orthodox Christians, we must always fast in ways that do not harm our bodies. Therefore, if you are ill or have particular health needs (ex. diabetes), the Church expects you to care for your body by feeding it what it needs. If you suffer from a condition that would require fasting modifications, speak with your priest. He can help you develop a plan that works for you, one that can help you continue to grow spiritually.
There are other circumstances in which the Church also would “excuse” you for breaking the fast. Perhaps the most common is if someone invites you to a meal. You should receive that meal with thanksgiving and humility, even if the food you receive technically breaks the fast. Additionally, the Church exempts pregnant and nursing mothers from fasting, as their focus should be on providing proper nutrition to themselves and their unborn child. Lastly, for those who may live in a household where not everyone is Orthodox, modifications to the fast are not only acceptable, but often necessary.
Regardless of your personal circumstances, make it a point to consult your priest. Together you can come up with a fasting plan that works for your situation. In summary, the Orthodox Church allows for plenty of flexibility when it comes to fasting, instituting several levels of engagement for the faithful depending on their unique situations.
Keep Reading: The Ultimate Guide To Fasting In The Orthodox Church