Last June, I was at a conference in the Romanian city of Constan&#355a, the birthplace of monastic founder John Cassian. One day we drove inland from the Black Sea toward the Bulgarian border to visit some new and revived convents and monasteries, communities that have been swelling in size since the fall of Communism. We were on ancient Christian soil evangelized by Saint Andrew—who, the Orthodox love to remind Catholics, was the first of the apostles to acknowledge Jesus and the apostle who brought Peter to Jesus. Turning off the main road, we headed down a long bumpy track, past a desolate lake, until we stopped at a convent that housed about ten sisters, including the mother of our driver.

Foodwise, I am a pescetarian, so things had gone well for me so far—it was the Fast of the Apostles, the post-Pentecost fast that Christ called his disciples to undertake after he was taken from them (Mt 9:15, Mk 21:9–20,and Lk 5:34–35), and for this reason, no red meat or poultry had been served to anyone during our trip, only vegetables, fruits, grains, and, on many days, seafood. And this fasting from red meat and poultry would continue through to the feast of Saints Peter and Paul at the end of the month. As we entered the small refectory, we were told with profuse apologies that this was a poor house which had adopted a fully vegetarian rule. With more notice the sisters might have been able to get us, as guests, some fish, but today all they had was vegetables.

The soup was, of course, delicious, its ingredients supplied from the fields and herb beds just outside. The obligatory tuic&#259, a strong plum brandy, was also delicious. As in ancient Western monasteries, a little wine for the stomach wasn’t frowned on, whereas meat was seen as more problematic. Indeed, the abbot hosting us even had his own wine label, which enabled him to follow Paul in prescribing his disciples something better for the stomach than mere water (1 Tim. 5:23).

It was fortunate for us that Constan&#355a’s most famous son, the monastic founder John Cassian, had, in his advice for monastic constitutions, seen fit to moderate the extreme asceticism he observed on his tour of Egypt and Palestine. At that time, competitions between hermits to see who could survive on the fewest chickpeas per month were not unknown, and two bread rolls a day, taken in the mid-afternoon, was considered a moderate diet.[1] Cassian’s traveler’s tales became the Conferences, compiled at the request of a French bishop to introduce Europeans to monastic practice. In his Institutes, Cassian cautions judiciously that “in our country neither the climate nor our own weakness could tolerate” such discipline.[2]

Yet his spiritual descendants in Constanãa and the wider Orthodox world have remained serious about dietary discipline. The Church requires abstinence from red meat and poultry for forty days before Christmas, two weeks prior to the Dormition, and of course during Lent, as well as for up to six weeks after the week of Pentecost as I mentioned earlier.[3] The rules for Lent are especially severe, with a mix of fasting, one meal a day, and uncooked food prescribed during the first and last weeks, depending on the strictness.[4]

An awareness of these rules, particularly when combined with direct experience of them, makes one see the lie in the common assumption that Orthodoxy is a vague spiritualism of icons, incense, and John Tavener. On the contrary, the fact that it has been able to preserve a level of discipline now almost totally lost in the West shows it to be conservative and moralizing. In this spiritual world, the Orthodox emphasis on mindful eating recognizes that the whole of the created order, including the physical body, is taken up into worship, just as spirituality makes direct material impact on daily life.


* * *


It’s no surprise that Pope Benedict, so well attuned to historical theology and keen to promote Western spiritual renewal, has sought to remind Christians of the historical and spiritual importance of fasting. In his 2009 Lenten message, Benedict wrote the following:

Fasting represents an important ascetical practice, a spiritual arm to do battle against every possible disordered attachment to ourselves. Freely chosen detachment from the pleasure of food and other material goods helps the disciple of Christ to control the appetites of nature, weakened by original sin, whose negative effects impact the entire human person.

Yet today, many Christians do not see fasting or abstinence as spiritually empowering. In his letter, Pope Benedict continued,

In our own day, fasting seems to have lost something of its spiritual meaning, and has taken on, in a culture characterized by the search for material well-being, a therapeutic value for the care of one’s body. Fasting certainly bring benefits to physical well-being, but for believers, it is, in the first place, a “therapy” to heal all that prevents them from conformity to the will of God. In the Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini of 1966,the Servant of God Paul VI saw the need to present fasting within the call of every Christian to “no longer live for himself, but for Him who loves him and gave himself for him . . . he will also have to live for his brethren.” Lent could be a propitious time to present again the norms contained in the Apostolic Constitution, so that the authentic and perennial significance of this long held practice may be rediscovered, and thus assist us to mortify our egoism and open our heart to love of God and neighbor, the first and greatest Commandment of the new Law and compendium of the entire Gospel.[5]

What then are the norms of Paenitemini? Pope Benedict doesn’t recite them, despite urging bishops to present them anew. Presumably they know them by heart, but if you don’t, then here goes. Meat should not be eaten on any Friday, excepting days of obligation, although eggs, milk products, and animal fat are allowed. During Lent, complete fasting is required on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, which means that only one full meal is allowed on each of these days, though a little food is permitted in the morning and evening. In all cases, abstinence from meat is obligatory from age fourteen and fasting is obligatory from age twenty-one, with both obligations continuing until age sixty.[6]

In Western liberal consumer society, no one is used to being told what to eat. But let’s be mindful of the rigors enforced in former times. In Britain, meat-eating during Lent was outlawed by royal decree until the 1660s, well over a century after the Reformation, with infringements punishable by fine or imprisonment.[7] Dairy products and eggs were also prohibited during Lent until the 1530s, which is where the custom of giving eggs as gifts at Easter originates—if you had 200 eggs going spare, what else would you give as a present?

In comparison to these laws, then, Paenitemini is very modern in the low levels of meat abstinence it demands: just Fridays and Ash Wednesday. And the most obvious difference between Paenitemini and religious dietary guidelines of the sixteenth and seventeenth century is the absence of any requirement to restrict one’s diet during Lent. In the background seems to be an outdated assumption that, in order to survive, people must eat meat.

The English Reformation monarchs took dietary discipline far more seriously, enforcing Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, as well as the whole of Lent, as meat-free, yet they were excommunicated for their troubles. Indeed, in medieval and Reformation England more than half the days of the year were days of abstinence from meat: Lent, Advent, Fridays, Wednesdays, Saturdays, and the eves of the major saint days. Days of abstention outnumbered days of unbridled consumption.

We now know that unrestrained consumption does more bad than good for body and society. Christians in the West should seriously consider not only adopting some kind of an abstinence regiment, but also advancing beyond the rules of Paenitemini by reappraising what they eat, where it comes from, its social and economic justice impacts, and its carbon footprint. Furthermore, given current levels of longevity and health care, there is no longer any reason to limit this invitation to people who are under the age of sixty. Disciplined use of natural resources and of our own bodies, as temples of the Spirit, needs to be rebuilt into Christian cultural, social, political, and ethical consciousness.


* * *


In present Western secular society, there is a rapidly growing awareness of the many problems that result from dietary indiscipline. Globally, livestock production generates a higher proportion of the world’s greenhouse gases (18 percent) than motor transport (13 percent). Livestock produce high proportions of the total global volume of noxious gases, including 35 to 40 percent of the methane, which is twenty-three times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, and 64 percent of nitrous oxide, which is 296 times more effective than carbon dioxide. Thirteen million hectares of forest are cleared annually to provide land for grazing or feedcrops, reducing global carbon storage capacity and destroying soil structure, which leads to desertification, thereby perpetuating ecological decline.[8]

Furthermore, poor diet is a leading contributor to many of our most widespread health problems. These include cancer, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and premature death. And whereas the hallmark cause of a poor diet in the United States used to be insufficient food intake, it is now excessive consumption and bad dietary choices. These poor dietary decisions have a massive economic impact, with obesity alone estimated to have costs the US public purse $147 billion in medical expenditures in 2008,[9] this is at a time of public spending cuts, tax increases, and rising health insurance premiums.

Looking further afield, over 900 million people worldwide are malnourished out of a global population of 6.8 billion,[10] yet even in the regions most affected by malnourishment, land is expropriated from local communities to produce foods that are sent to the developed world. Likewise, massive quantities of crops are grown solely for the purpose of feeding animals that are then slaughtered to be eaten as meat by the affluent. These areas of land and crops could easily be used to feed undernourished humans were global levels of meat consumption cut and Western supermarkets stocked more modestly. But, in fact, the opposite is happening. Meat consumption is soaring in East Asia, precisely the part of the world where the majority of malnourished people live. Food cultures there have traditionally not relied on meat, but it is now seen as a status symbol and as a signifier of membership in the developed world. Not much has changed since the eighteenth century, when in England the ability of the yeoman class to put meat on the family table was based on enclosure of common land, economic superiority, and implicit violence. These objectives are now being pursued by ever more people in the world, but they self-evidently cannot be attained by everybody.

Others might be persuaded of the need for renewed dietary discipline by the fact that obesity is now regularly cited as a national security threat—because increasingly weighty numbers of Americans would fail to meet the minimum enrollment standard for military service.[11] After all, not even Winston Churchill was upbeat enough to proclaim, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the burger joint.” Though he didn’t get out much Saturday night.

Because of these reasons and others, the dietary reform movement is currently gaining major impetus from ecologists, health reformers, global justice advocates, and even the homeland security agenda. As ever more people discover that the global meat economy emits more pollution than cars, is killing hundreds of millions of people prematurely, wastes natural resources, and diverts food from far needier fellow humans, we should at the very least be able to agree that meat-eating levels must be reduced urgently and drastically.


* * *


Around us we see little more than scattered shards of past Christian attempts to change dietary choices. Peanut butter and breakfast cereals, including the Kellogg’s and Weetabix brands, were initially developed by Seventh Day Adventists to wean consumers off their pork, beans, and pie breakfasts.[12] Yet most Christians are happy to turn a blind eye to the fact that undisciplined food consumption is at the root of many pressing social and political problems.

One might suppose that the Eucharist provides Christians with all the theological resources needed to take food seriously. From a vegetarian standpoint, because it uses bread and wine, the Eucharist could be viewed as marking a clean break with the practice of animal sacrifice. Moreover, by making a dining ritual central to our collective life, we might be presumed to be promoting dietary discipline as a key spiritual concern. Yet in reality, the Eucharist has made an ambiguous impact on Christian dietary discipline, often transposing discussions about food, dining, and fellowship into a realm of theological symbolism far removed from the concrete realities of everyday food choices. In the liturgical meal, images of feasting, consumption, sharing, hospitality, and justice abound, but they are typically abstracted from their most obvious concrete context, that of real, everyday food consumption.

Perhaps Christians need to look to non-liturgical sources for constructive material to shape a new spiritual understanding of food. In church tradition, food has been a central shaper and signifier of people and communities. In religious experience, fasting has provoked dreams, visions, and prophecies, while feasting has brought Christians together to celebrate Easter and Christmas. Food has helped build the cornerstones of Christian doctrine, with creation, the fall, the Incarnation, salvation, and redemption all occurring through food: the plants and fruit trees given by God to humans and animals for food; the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil eaten by Adam; Christ as second Adam, offering his body as bread to reverse that fault; Christ as lamb of God on the cross, fulfilling the requirements of the Passover sacrifice; the Eucharist of bread and wine, Christ’s body and blood, shared to form the Church.

The most obvious source to revisit, however, would seem to be Scripture. In the Old Testament gluttony is the first sin, committed by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; it is the sin that many early Christian interpreters, including, Cassian and Gregory the Great, believed all other sins, including lust, followed.[13] And there was a lot of fasting and abstinence from meat in Scripture. Israel fasted on manna in the wilderness and later before defeating the Amalekites. Moses fasted on the mountain where he received the commandments. Hannah fasted before giving birth to Samuel. Israel fasted before and after subduing the Philistines. David hid from Saul in the desert, and as Psalm 63 implies, fasted. Elijah was fed by ravens in the desert. Even King Ahab fasted to postpone judgment on his house. King Hezekiah fasted and the Lord struck down the Assyrian army. Daniel and his friends ate vegetables and water in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar with the result that they “looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food,” gaining knowledge and prophetic insight. Jesus himself fasted forty days in the desert, then resisted the temptation to turn stones into bread to ease his desperate hunger. Anna fasted in the Temple, where she saw the child Jesus and prophesied about him. John the Baptist ate locusts and wild honey in the wilderness, or something similar. Jesus ate with his disciples as well as with outcasts, and he cooked and ate fish to prove his bodily resurrection. John the Baptist was killed during a banquet and his head put on a serving dish. Paul fasted several times.[14] Given food’s ubiquity in scripture, it is unsurprising that biblical scholars are currently doing much to put food issues onto the Christian menu.[15] Theologians need to pay attention to their work and allow scripture’s literal concern with food to permeate their own reflection more deeply.

In a society of continual, undifferentiated provision, the material texturing of life fades into the background. But basic needs were formerly met far more precariously; these needs were under constant threat of disruption by weather, war, pestilence, or disease. Changing availability of food was the norm, and this was the backdrop against which theologians and churchmen legislated, exhorted, and interpreted. Maybe we need to work harder today to realize how great a gift our food is, though our imaginations should find much to feed on when contemplating climate change and global poverty.

To take diet seriously, however, Christians need to take a look beyond their own tradition to what is happening in secular society. Historically, food discipline was enforced by both church rules and civil law—people were not simply more pious than we are today—but it would be difficult for the church and state to be so interventionist with regard to our diets today. Is that necessary though? Millions are gaining a new interest in diet as a key to personal spirituality, often without any institutional religious commitment. Today, so much more can be achieved by shaping personal choice than by compulsion. People are discovering the truth of Michel Foucault’s intuition that dietary discipline, far from being a denial of the self and its flourishing, is a way of standing out from the masses, asserting personal identity, and taking control of one’s destiny.[16] Christians need to connect with these new currents of reflective material living that are ever more prominent beyond church walls. We need to recognize with penitence that it is perhaps our own doctrines that have caused us to become disconnected from real, material daily life, and we need to recognize that this renewed interest in reflective material living in secular society in fact manifests an aspect of Christian tradition that we ourselves need to recover, like the Israelites seeking and receiving the treasures of their Egyptian neighbors in order to journey with them out of Egypt (Ex 3:21–22 and 12:35–36).

Christians also need to look at diet as an interfaith issue. I shall end by reflecting on this by way of a fabulous painting, Diego Velázquez’s Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, which was chosen for the cover of my recent book, Theology on the Menu: Asceticism, Meat, and Christian Diet. In the painting, Velázquez portrays with great realism a woman standing at a kitchen table preparing a meal. On the table are garlic, a red chilli, an egg, and a fish. It looks like she’s making aioli. Her creased puffy cheeks betray that she’s upset. Slaving away to make the supper as her strong arms have done so many times before, she looks resigned to her work, continued faithfully while others gain public recognition or enjoy spiritual contemplation. In the background sits Christ with the pious Mary seated lovingly at his feet gazing up into his face and feasting on his words, while Martha approaches from behind protesting Mary’s failure to do her share of the household chores. We may suppose that the woman in the kitchen is Martha herself, suggestive of other maids who labor to support and feed households.

Velázquez was of Jewish converso lineage—in other words, he was from a Spanish Jewish family who had converted to Catholicism under strong pressure and the threat of expulsion if they refused. This religious heritage helps explain his interest in food and spirituality. Yet the dish being prepared is not distinctively Jewish. The painting, produced during Velázquez’s Seville period, would undoubtedly have gotten him in trouble with the authorities of the aggressively Catholic kingdom of Castile had it represented some element of the Passover meal. So Velázquez’s Jewish heritage is veiled—the simple fact of his portraying a kitchen, food, and meal preparation, topics standardly viewed as spiritually significant in the Jewish tradition but less so in Christianity, makes his heritage somewhat apparent.[17] But because of this, he puts food into a Christian context.

In Western societies, food rules have often been associated with “other” religions. In our current pluralist age this perception has, if anything, grown. The Muslim who avoids pork or the vegetarian Hindu might once have been viewed as representing exotic foreign lands, with their food habits heightening the mystique projected onto such places. But members of “other” religions are now certainly people with whom Christians live in close proximity and people with whom we might well share hospitality. These interactions present Christians with opportunities to learn how elements of material life might be central to religious identity and to thereby recover aspects of their own faith tradition.

More specifically, an awareness of the importance attached to food in other religions, such as shown by Velázquez, as well as in Paenitemini and daily Orthodox practice, makes us recognize that a proper appraisal of the place of food in Christian spirituality is a pressing matter. It reminds us of one of the implications of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation: that, in taking physical human form, God in Christ brought the whole of material reality into his presence. This makes the whole of the material world, including food and diet, deeply relevant to corporate Christian living and personal spirituality.

[1] John Cassian, Conferences 2.19, trans. Colm Lubheid (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1985), 77.

[2] Ibid., Institutes 4.11, trans. Boniface Ramsey (Mahwah, NJ: Newman, 2000), 46.

[3] Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (London, UK: Penguin, new edition, 1997), 300–1.

[4] Kallistos Ware, “The Rules of Fasting,” in introduction to The Lenten Triodion (London, UK: Faber & Faber, 1978), 35–37.

[5] Benedictus PP. XVI, “Message of His Holiness Benedict XVI for Lent 2009,” Libreria Editrice Vaticana,

[6] Paul VI, “Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini of the Supreme Pontiff Paul VI on Fast and Abstinence,” Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Note that these requirements may be modified by regional bishops’ conferences.

[7] David Grumett and Rachel Muers, Theology on the Menu: Asceticism, Meat and Christian Diet (London, UK: Routledge, 2010), 28. Remarkably, no previous systematic study has been completed of dietary legislation and its enforcement despite extensive source material.

[8] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options (Rome, Italy: Food and Agriculture Organization, 2006).

[9] E. A. Finkelstein, J. G. Trogdon, J. W. Cohen, and W. Dietz, “Annual Medical Spending Attributable to Obesity: Payer- and Service-specific Estimates,”Health Affairs 28 (2009): 822–31.

[10] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, The State of Food Insecurity in the World (Rome, Italy: Food and Agriculture Organization, 2008).

[11] Following Rochelle Nolte, Shawn C. Franckowiak, Carlos J. Crespo, and Ross E. Andersen, “United States Military Weight Standards: What Percentage of US Young Adults meet the Current Standards?” American Journal of Medicine 113 (2002): 486–90.

[12] Daniel Sack, Whitebread Protestants: Food and Religion in American Culture (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2001); and Gerald Carson, Cornflake Crusade (London, UK: Gollancz, 1957).

[13] William Ian Miller, “Gluttony,” Representations 60 (1997): 92–112.

[14] See Gen 3; Ex 16:3, 17:3, 34:28; Deut 9:9, 9:18; 1 Sam 1:7-8, 7:6, 14:24, 23:14b; Ps 63:1b; 1 Kgs 17:6, 21:27-9; 2 Kgs 19:1; Dan 1:12-17; Mt 3:4b, 9:9-13; Mk 1:6,  2:13-17; Lk 2:36-8, 24:41-3; Jn 21:9-13; and 2 Cor 11:27.

[15] E.g., John M. G. Barclay, “Food, Christian Identity and Global Warming: A Pauline Call for a Christian Food Taboo,” The Expository Times 121 (2010): 585–93; Nathan MacDonald, Not Bread Alone: The Uses of Food in the Old Testament (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008); David G. Horrell, Solidarity and Difference: A Contemporary Reading of Paul’s Ethics (London, UK: T&T Clark, 2005), 166–203.

[16] Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977–78 (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), esp. 205–8.

[17] An excellent discussion of this image is in Jane Boyd and Philip Esler, Visuality and Biblical Text: Interpreting Velázquez’ Christ with Martha and Mary as a Test Case (Florence, Italy: Olschki, 2004). Yet not even here is the significance of its painter’s religious ambiguity identified. Widgets Widgets