Eating and Abstaining from Foods (St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite)

NOTE: The following is St. Nikodemos’ interpretation of the 51st Apostolic Canon, found in The Rudder, pp. 181-183; 337-344:

St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain


If any Bishop, or Priest, or Deacon, or anyone at all on the holy list, abstain 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, but blasphemously misrepresenting God’s work of creation, either let him correct and purge his ways or let him be excluded from the Church. The same applies to a layman. (Apostolic Canon LIII; CanonXIII of the 6th Ecumenical Synod; Canon XIV of Ancyra: Canons I, IX, XIV, XXI of Gangra; Canon LXXXVI of Basil.)


All things are pure unto the pure in heart and conscience (Titus 1:15). “For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it be received with thanksgiving(I Timothy 4:4); just as St. Paul says in particular, and there is nothing that is common or “unclean of itself,” i.e., impure in respect of its own nature and entity (Romans 14:14).

For this reason, too, the divine Apostles in their present Canon are at one in ordaining that any bishop or priest or deacon, or anyone on the holy list of priests and clergymen, who forgets that everything that God has made is very good, and that God created man male and female (Genesis 1:27) and abstains from marriage; and from the eating of meat, and from the drinking of wine, not by way of mortification and temperance and discipline of the flesh,70 but because he loathes them, and in this way blasphemes and misrepresents the work of God’s creation by considering that it is unclean and bad.

Any such person, I say, must correct himself and learn not to loathe and shun these things; and he should consider the fact that neither marriage, nor lawful intercourse with a woman is harmful, nor is meat, nor wine, but only the misuse of them. If, however, he fails to correct himself, let him be deposed, and at the same time be excommunicated from the Church. Likewise let any layman be excommunicated who should loathe these things.


In agreement also with their Canon LIII the same Apostles depose those in Holy Orders who fail to eat meat on Feast Days, or to drink wine on such days, not for the sake of mortification, but out of abhorrence or abomination. The Synod held in Gangra on the other hand, even subjects to anathema those who disparage matrimony and loathe a Christian woman who sleeps with her lawful husband (Canon XIV) and particularly those who remain virgins, not for the sake of the good of virginity itself but because they loathe lawful marriage (Canon IX); and also anathematizes a woman who departs from her husband on the ground that she finds marriage disgusting. (CanonXIV).

For this reason the Sixth Ecumenical Synod in its Canon XIII, to remain in full force and effect and indissoluble; and that none of them are not to be forbidden the Holy Orders simply because they have a lawful wife, seeing that, according to the Apostle,“marriage is honorable, and the bed undefiled” (Hebrews 13:4). The synod held in Ancyra prescribes (Canon XII) that those priests and deacons who do not eat meat, as a matter of temperance, ought to taste a little of it in order to avoid rousing the suspicion that they loathe it, and then exercise temperance and refrain from eating any more of it.


The present Apostolic Canon, as well as Canon XIV of Ancyra, leads to the correct and true conclusion that some men, including bishops, priests and deacons, who though not monks, both then and nowadays, of their own will refrained and still refrain from eating meat, not because of any abhorrence, or any other heretical wrong thinking. Away with the thought! (For that was a peculiarity of the ancient Greeks, who refused to eat meat, on account of their belief that irrational animals possessed a soul; hence they did not even dare to slaughter them, Plutarch states. Others also, who did likewise were to be found among the Marcianists and generally among the Manichees, according to Epiphanios; and among the Encratites, according to St. Basil; and among the Bogomiles, according to Balsamon). But they did this for the sake of mortification or asceticism, as mentioned in the present Canon, and for the sake of disciplining the flesh in temperance, according to Canon XIV of Ancyra: I said that bishops and priests and deacons who were not monks were in the habit of practicing temperance in regard to meat or of not eating it at all.

From that time indeed it became a most beneficial custom in the Church of Christ for some not to become bishops until they had become monks. This is a fact which is verified by the words which both the Bishop of Caesarea and the Bishop of Chalcedon addressed to the legate of Pope John at the synod held at the time of Photios, which words ran as follows: “Even in the East unless one had become a monk he could not become a bishop or a patriarch, and again, “In the time of his Photios’ prelacy many were counted among clergymen who were monks. Symeon of Thessalonika (Canon 266) says that most of those who were destined to become bishops were first made monks by the Church and then appointed as bishops.

See also the footnote to Apostolic Canon LXXX. From that time, such a custom came to prevail, and that they themselves ought not to eat meat says Dositheos, the celebrated Church Father of holy memory in his Dodecabiblus, page 779. Here we see a patriarch addressing patriarchs, and a bishop addressing bishops, not I myself. Consequently, all those who break the benign custom are doing wrong, because they are causing a scandal to simple Christians, in addition to all the other evils resulting from such misconduct. For this reason, Cedrenos denounces the Bishop of Copronymos (Constantine V) who was made Patriarch, by charging that from a monk he became as a crowned one or stephanites, that is a clergyman who ate meat.

But if bishops, as maintained by this bishop and patriarch Dositheos, ought not to eat meat, how much more is it not incumbent upon monks to refrain from doing so? The latter, indeed, ought to abstain from eating meat because of three good reasons. In the first place, being that the aim and end of the monastic profession is temperance, virginity, and the restraint with the suppression of the flesh. But the eating of meat, which is the richest of all foods in fat and oil, is in consequence unfavorable to temperance and virginity, which is the same as saying that it is unfavorable to the aim and end of monastic life, owing to its tendency to titillate 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, low in nourishment. So if they ought neither to eat the more savory and flavorful foods, since these are conducive to the development of a love of pleasure, according to the same Saint (see “Against Plato,” his 71st discourses); then how can it be said that it is proper for them to eat meat, which is the richest of foods, the most nourishing, and the most savory and flavorful? 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.

That this custom which is grace-filled andof such antiquity practiced even before the time of Empress St. Theophano is evident also from the testimony we have spoken of above.

For Copronymus lived a hundred and fifty years before the time of Empress Theophano. Divine Chrysostom also tells us (in his first sermon to Theodore after his fall) 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 the 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 odor of roast meat and free from the taint of blood” (Sermon XIV on the First Epistle to Timothy, page 307 of Volume IV). Nicephoros Gregoras, too, in his Roman History records that the wife of John Glykeos the financial officer became a nun and her husband also sought to become a monk. But the emperor being very fond of him, forbade him to do so, because having bad fluids in the joints and at times subject to torment, he had to eat meat in the opinion of the physicians, but if he were to become a monk, he could no longer do so and remain praiseworthy and within the law. Divine Gregory of Thessalonika also says openly that the eating of meat is forbidden to monks (Sermon I of his later writings on behalf of those reposing in holy peace).

Emperor Nicephoros III Botaniates, on becoming a monk, after losing his empire, was asked whether he could stand the life of a monk magnanimously and without complaining, 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” (Meletios of Athens, Ecclesiastical History, Volume II, page 414).

This is confirmed by the Life of John of the Ladder, which says that the saint ate everything that was permissible to his profession and entailed no blame.

See also Evergetinos, page 425. But why should I be saying all this that is based upon testimonies of human beings? The Maiden Theotokos herself has borne this witness alone how ancient and how exceedingly soul-benefiting abstinence from meat is, in that she gave orders, by performing a wonder, to that most holy man Dositheos, when he was still a child, among other things, not to eat any meat, a fact which is told to us by the wise Abbot Dorotheos. Let the seal to these statements be Canon XXXIV of St. Nicephoros the Confessor, who manifests the following: “If any monk throws off the holy habit, eats meat, and takes a wife, such a man, if he does not repent ought to be anathematized, or if he stubbornly insists on wearing the habit, he ought to be shut up in a monastery.” Theophylactos of Bulgaria, also writes against the monks of the Latins and accuses them of eating meat broth, consequently he rejects the monks’ custom of not eating meat on the ground of its not being fitting.

St. Meletios the Confessor in his “Alphabet of Alphabets”, says that all men, including both laymen and monks, need to keep God’s commandments, but that monks especially ought to keep their virginity, flight from the world, and abstinence from meat, speaking in the following fashion: “All of us ought to keep the commandments of the Creator. All this is required of monks without exception, the only other thing that they have to offer to the Lord, is simply virginity, flight from worldly things, abstinence from meat, and endurance of distress and affliction.”

Thirdly and finally, monks ought not to eat meat, if not so much because it is an impediment to the aim and end of the monastic community; 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 to the end of the age, lest I scandalize my brother” (I Corinthians 8:13); and again: “It is well neither to eat meat, nor to drink wine, nor to do anything at which your brother stumbles or is scandalized, or is weakened” (Romans 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.

But if nevertheless our own meat-eating monks, in order to free themselves from all compunction, offer the pretext that St. Basil asserts (in his ordinance 26) that it used to be permitted by the Fathers to add a piece of salt pork to vegetables or legumes in stews, and further that Pachomios used to raise hogs at his monastery, and that Symeon the New Theologian (ca. AD l000) even raised pigeons, let them learn that the monks of the Latins similarly offer these pretexts.

Concerning what St. Basil the Great says, i.e., that it was permitted by ascetics in the region of the Pontus (or Black Sea) for such fat to be added to vegetables, the reply is that first of all this was a matter of necessity owing to the fact that in those parts of the earth there was no olive oil, according to Dositheos; secondly, it was because, as some say, the brethren were made ill by food wholly unseasoned; thirdly, it was because so little was added that it caused no sensation of pleasure at all, nor was it wholly stewed, according to the saint’s words: “For that tiny piece in such a large quantity of water, or of stew, if consumed as food, cannot be considered a source of enjoyment, but on the contrary, is a very strict and really severe form of temperance for ascetics.”

And fourthly, the reply is that even though St. Basil does say this, yet he does not recommend the eating of meat in spite of this. Wholly to the contrary, in fact, he rejects a rich diet, as we said, and seasonings, and calls the more savory and flavorful dishes a love of pleasure, while on the other hand, he praises food that affords little nourishment, and the cheaper and more easily obtainable foodstuffs, such as olive oil, wine, legumes and the like.

As for what has been said about Pachomios and St. Symeon, it is to be noted that they raised those things first of all for guests, and secondly for monks who were ill, according to Dositheos, just as they also had baths for the sick in their monasteries.

Moreover, even today if a monk is so ill as to be in danger of dying and he gets orders from the physician to eat meat, he will not be reproached or censured in case he eats it, since he is making use of it as a medicine, and not for the sake of pleasure and gluttony.

However, if anyone raises the objection that the Synod held in Gangra anathematizes in its second Canon anyone that condemns a man for eating meat, the objection is controverted by the fact that the same Synod justifies itself again in its Canon XXI by stating that it made that recommendation with regard to those who do not eat meat, not as a matter of ascetic mortification, but out of pride, or even out of abhorrence; and it adds, “As for us, we accept temperance when it is observed with modesty and piety.

Since some heretics, called Encratites, who loathed meat and did not eat it, find it convenient to ask us why we do not eat the meat of all animals, St. Basil the Great replies to them by saying in his Canon LXXXVI, that so far as regards their value all kinds of meat are considered with us to be like green vegetables and herbs, we do not eat all kinds of meat, but only meats that are harmless and useful to the health of our body. For both hemlock and henbane are herbs. The flesh of vultures and of dogs is meat; but just as no prudent man eats hemlock and henbane, because they are poisonous and deadly, so no one would eat a dog or a vulture, because they are both harmful to the health and unpalatable, except only if he should be forced to do so by the direst necessity and hunger. For then if he should eat a dog or a vulture, he would not be sinning, since those things are not forbidden in the New Covenant. For in their Acts (15:29) they only forbade one to eat foods offered to idols, and blood, and things strangled; while in their Canon LXIII they have likewise forbidden one to eat any animal that has been killed or caught by a wild beast, any animal that has died a natural death, and blood.

If however any should object that the dog and the vulture are called unclean in the Old Covenant, we reply that it is not because they are abhorrent and loathsome that they are so called, for we have said that there is nothing that is common or unclean by its own nature. But they are called thus for three reasons. The first and chief reason is as St. Basil explained above that all unclean animals are harmful to the health of the body; in fact this statement is corroborated by the experiments of physicians. A second reason is that they are supposed to be so in the estimate of most men, according to Prokopios. And a third reason is, according to Theodoret, to prevent the Jews from worshiping them as gods. So that, because of the fact that God loves the health of our body and wants to keep us from eating them, He called them unclean, in order that even their very name might cause us to hate them and to avoid them.

One conclusion which can be drawn from this Canon is that bishops, priests and deacons cannot be deposed because they abstain from eating meat or drinking wine or both, whether for a season only or on certain days, if when they do so it is not because of loathing meat and wine, but for the purpose of true mortification and temperance. This is so even if they refrain from eating and drinking such things on feast days. Moreover, it is equally true that the present Canon does condemn as transgressors others who abstain from this (or other foods), whether monastics or laymen, for purposes of mortification and temperance. This is the opinion of both divine interpretors of the Canons, Zonaras and Balsamon, who say that it applies even though they abstain from on feast days. For they neither disdain these foods according to the Canon, nor do they eat them on other days or abstain from them on festivals alone. On the contrary, they abstain equally on the former and the latter days solely for the sake of temperance. Yet in order that the abstinence of such persons may be free of the danger of scandalizing the multitude, it is better that such persons should eat their meals privately on such days. The same conclusion can also be arrived at by consideration of the previous Canon.


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