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Question 49.

Father your blessing!
Is it true that monks only eat fish, or are they permitted to eat meats (i.e. red meat, poultry) too?

With respect,



Answer to Question 49.

Dear Evangelos,

Canon 51 of the Apostolic canons says:

“If any Bishop, or Presbyter, or Deacon, or anyone at all on the sacerdotal list, abstains from marriage, or meat, or wine, not as a matter of mortification, but out of an abhorrence thereof, forgetting that all things are exceedingly good, and that God made man male and female, and blasphemously misrepresenting God’s work of creation, either let him mend his ways or let him be deposed from office and expelled from the Church. Let a layman be treated similarly.”

From the above canon it is clear that no one should abstain from meat because he thinks it is repulsive to eat animals which God has created for man’s use and benefit. There is no direct canon forbidding monks from eating meat but from the very beginning of monasticism it has been the custom as part of their ascetic requirements to give up eating meat.
The following is taken from the Pedalion and shows quite clearly that in the Orthodox monastic tradition, monks didn’t and don’t eat meat.
“The aim of the monastic profession is sobriety, virginity, and the restraint and suppression of the body. But the eating of meat, which is the richest of all foods in fat and grease, is in consequence unfavourable to sobriety and virginity, which is the same as saying that it is unfavourable to the aim and end of monastic life, owing to its tendency to tickle the flesh and to raise a war of wanton appetites and desires against the soul. Accordingly, if, as St. Basil contends, monks ought to restrict themselves to a diet that is not rich, but, on the contrary, of little nutritiousness; and if they ought neither to eat the more savoury and flavoury foods, since these conduce to the development of a love of pleasure, according to the same saint; how, then, can it be said that it is all right for them to eat meat, which is the richest of all foods, and the most nourishing, and most savoury and flavoury? Secondly, monks ought not to eat meat, because in doing so they are violating this most ancient custom among monks—I mean abstinence from meat… Divine Chrysostom, too, tells us (in his first sermon to Theodore after he fell out of order) that a monk situated in the desert begged his mate to go and get him some meat to eat, and threatened that if the other did not want to go (because of the absurdity and unreasonableness of his request, and because eating of meat was forbidden) he himself would have to go down to the market place. And elsewhere the same saint in relating the customs of the monasteries of that time says: “Everything there is clear of the odour of roast meat and free from the taint of blood” (Sermon XIV on the First Epistle to Timothy page 307 of Vol. IV)… Divine Gregory of Thessalonica, too, says openly that the eating of meat is forbidden to monks (Sermon I of his later ones in behalf of those reposing in sacred peace). Emperor Nieephorus III Botaniates, having become a monk, after losing his empire, and having been asked whether he could stand the life of a monk magnanimously and without quailing, couched his reply in the following words: “it is only the abstinence from meat that troubles me; as concerning other things I do not mind them much” (Metetius of Athens, Eccles. Hist. Vol. II, page 414). This confirmed by the Life of John Climax, which says that the saint ate everything that was permissible to his profession and entailed no blame…
Thirdly, and lastly, monks ought not to eat meat, if not so much because it is an impediment to the aim and end of the monastic commonwealth if not so much because it is contrary to the most ancient tradition of the Church and of the Fathers of the Church; yet even more so because of the common scandal which it causes to the hearts of the multitude. The monks eat meat. This is a proposition which even when merely heard becomes a stumbling block to many men. For not only did the great Apostle say on the one hand: “I will eat no meat as long as the age lasteth, lest I scandalize my brother” (I Cor. 8:13); and again: “It is well neither to eat meat, nor to drink wine, nor to do anything at which thy brothcr stumbleth, or is scandalized, or has qualms” (Rom. 14:21); but even the Abbot Poimen, on the other hand, when once sitting at a table on which there was meat, refused to eat of it, saying that he did so in order to avoid scandalizing the Christians there.”

The stable diet for monks is fish, dairy products, pulses and vegetables. The majority of monasteries follow the ancient tradition, but there are monasteries that are not so ascetical minded and allow meat in their diet. I also know of a monastery that although is very ascetical yet on Easter night the abbot allows the monks to eat meat brought to the monastery by the regular visitors. The reason he allows it is not to give the monks the pleasure of eating meat, but to show the people that they do not eat meat all year round because they have a disgust for it, but because they have given up eating meat as part of the monastic and ascetical requirements.
Also if a monk is ill and his doctor says that he must occasionally eat a little meat then he must follow his doctor’s advice, but maybe should do it discreetly to avoid scandalizing his brethren or other onlookers.

With love in Christ
Fr. Christopher