I had the great fortune of meeting Fr. George Calciu several times during his life and hearing him speak. Meeting him was perhaps the only time in my life I have felt myself to be in the presence of a truly holy person, not because of his wise words, or even because of the persecution he had suffered in his life, but because he was so genuinely humble and unassuming, while at the same time radiating such genuine love and joy. On one of his visits to the monastery (where I lived during high school), he spoke about fasting. While his words were squarely within the Orthodox theological tradition, he emphasized an aspect of fasting that is often forgotten. He spoke of fasting as an act of mercy towards the animal kingdom, and of the long periods of fasting as moments of peace when all of creation can rest. Perhaps his village upbringing was showing through, because while he spoke I could picture an idyllic time, when calves can drink their mother’s milk, when mother hens can hatch nests full of fuzzy chicks, when animals need not fear any kind of violence at the hands of humans.
In some sense Fr. George’s vision seems naive. The milkmaid in me (another part of my monastery heritage) knows that the calves will be separated and the cows will be milked during Lent, even at a monastery. The realist in me knows that the small number of Orthodox Christians who actually keep the fasting rules are not enough to make a difference to large-scale agricultural industries. Animals will continue to be slaughtered, whether I am eating them or not. And yet, Fr. George’s argument does stand up to scrutiny, both theologically and practically.
Theologically, the church has always understood that animal’s were created to be companions, not food. God only allows the eating of animals after the flood, as a concession to human weakness and a sign that the original creation is truly broken and will need to be saved by Divine intervention (it was actually the Old Testament reading for today). Orthodox Christians see themselves as living somewhere between that old, broken world and the renewed world of grace that is made possible by the coming of Jesus. We don’t yet fully belong to a new creation. We don’t live in perfect, peaceful companionship with animals (nor, unfortunately, with one another). We are even still allowed to eat them. And yet, we are expected to create in our hearts and our churches small places where that perfected creation can shine through into this broken world. When we fast we hear an echo, like a faraway train whistle, of the peace that once existed and that we believe will come again.
Practically, we know that the meat, dairy, and fishing industries use natural resources, destroy habitat for wildlife, and degrade the health of our environment at an alarming rate. While we know that there are no perfect or easy solutions (growing vegetables has it’s own environmental impact, as does replacing animal fats with coconut and palm oil, or animal protein with soy), it is also true that even small reductions in our consumption of animal products helps. If one fasts on all of the prescribed days throughout the liturgical year, it comes to about 180 days, or nearly half the year. Surely if more people followed those rules, the meat and dairy industries might scale back just a little, buying a bit more time for endangered species and reducing at least a small part of the damage done to God’s broken-but-still-beautiful world.