I admit I've always been kind of fascinated by rules and systems, so the fasting regulations of the Orthodox Church have given me much food for thought (apologies for the pun). Of course, typically what concerns me most are the 'gray' areas (how many meals a day, what is precisely covered by the ban on wine & oil etc).
However, as Bishop Kallistos says in the introduction to the Lenten Triodion, we are under grace, not the law, so we have to work out with our spiritual fathers what the right system is for us. The rules provide necessary discipline, but they are meant to serve us, not we them.
It seems that what's most important is to have a regular system that reflects the seasons of fasting and feasting in the calendar, but modified according to individual strengths and weaknesses. A severe ascetic may live on bread, vegetables and water once a day for most of the year; during Lent he or she may keep a total fast, and Pascha will be celebrated by one hard-boiled egg. Obviously, that kind of asceticism is beyond most people, but the point is that it's a system which respects the different seasons.
Alternatively, someone new to fasting may need a very relaxed regime, perhaps abstaining only from meat during Lent. As the body gets used to this, a stricter regime can be adopted next year.
Those are my thoughts on general principles.
As to the particulars of the various rules, again it seems a coherent system is required, whatever the actual parameters of that system.
So the bans on fish, wine and oil make a lot of sense in terms of the Greek diet, but less so in the Russian diet, and this is reflected in the actual practices of the two traditions. I know someone in my church who was at Jordanville, and he says that there fish was typically eaten on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, even if the Typicon prohibited fish on those days. In Russia, there are no good protein sources apart from meat, dairy and fish, so if the fast already excludes meat and dairy you are left with little else. In Greece, there are also shellfish and legumes. Hence in the Greek tradition, shellfish are only eaten on wine & oil days (according to my source, who happens to be a Greek monk!).
As for oil, the Russians don't observe that restriction at all, according to my Jordanville friend. Again, this must have something to do with the more impoverished Russian diet. In Greece, olive oil is a fairly basic part of the cuisine, but it is still dispensable in a healthy diet: boiled legumes and grains are quite nourishing in themselves. It is also important to remember (see the handbook by Fr Cownie) that olive oil has a special symbolism in the Bible: it is associated with joy. Other oils do not have that symbolism.
The same goes for wine. Wine, and the grapes from which it is made, is symbolic of happiness, so its use is restricted during fasts. Obviously, the inebriating effect of alcohol must also have something to do with this, but given that drunkenness is a sin in any case, the ban on wine cannot be merely a prohibition on intoxication. On certain days, moderate use of wine is permitted, and for a reason: they are days when the joy of a feast mitigates the severity of the fast.
It makes sense that a ban on wine should also cover spirits, but not necessarily on beer. Russians traditionally consume beer throughout fasts. The ban on wine has no relevance in a culture that doesn't normally use wine, anyway. Moreover, both wine and beer are in fact beneficial to health when consumed moderately, but the poverty of the Russian diet would make it harder to dispense with beer than the Greek diet would with wine. Finally, beer doesn't have the symbolism of wine cf. my comments on oil.
Then there's the matter of how much to eat. My impression is that the two- versus one-meal days do not in fact directly correspond to the strictness of the abstinence rules. Basically, if it's a 'God is the Lord' day (when that is sung at Matins), and there's a Liturgy according to the Typicon, then two meals are allowed, one after Liturgy, the other after Vespers. If it's an 'Alleluia' day, then one meal is allowed after Vespers. This must be because in monasteries, or wherever the Typicon is observed strictly, the noonday meal must happen, at least in theory, between the sixth and ninth hours, and the evening meal between Vespers and Compline. On Alleluia days, there's no break between the sixth and ninth hours. From this we can deduce that whenever the Typicon prescribes a Liturgy for that day, after the sixth hour (if you follow the Russian use), then two meals are allowed. But if Typica is prescribed, and any Liturgy that occurs happens after Vespers (e.g. Presanctified, or Vesperal Liturgy on Christmas Eve), then one meal is allowed. Hence, a two-meal day may have strict abstinence, while a one-meal day may have wine & oil or even fish.
What if you normally eat three meals a day? This bothered me, since the rules seemed designed for monasteries where only two meals, at most, are eaten. The solution is to work out a personal system that respects the seasons as well as your own needs. For instance, on one-meal days, you might eat breakfast and dinner but skip lunch.
The only way to resolve all this satisfactorily is by negotiating, together with your spiritual father, your strengths and weaknesses, and coming up with a regular system. A lot of my struggles have had to do with working out a coherent system, whether of prayer, fasting or whatever else goes into Orthodox living. But the most important factor, I'm coming to appreciate more and more, is absolute consistency and regularity in whatever you do. If you can only cope with ten minutes of prayer in the morning and evening, and have to eat dairy during Lent, so be it, as long as you are consistent and _always_ pray ten minutes each morning and evening, and don't touch meat during Lent, whatever else you do.
Sorry, these are way more than two cents worth. I'd appreciate any feedback!
Edited by M.C. Steenberg, 13 April 2008 - 05:50 PM.
Added blank lines between paragraphs