Our relationship with food
Today, in the year of our Lord 2016, there continue to be problems with regard to eating. For a great many people in what is often called the “third world” the problem is that there is not any food to be eaten. Hundreds if not hundreds of thousands of people starve. Even in 2016. The “first world” countries on the other hand seem to be suffering from sometimes highly destructive relationships to food. Today we hear about “Binge Eating Disorder,” or “Food Addiction,” and we have also learned that over consumption of certain foods (and drinks) can severely undermine the metabolic function of the body to the point where Type 2 Diabetes sets in. Eating is a very ordinary and every day sort of activity. Yet it is worth paying attention to eating because it really should not be taken fro granted at all. People do not fall ill, or even deadly ill, simply by not eating (starvation). People can also contract deadly illnesses by eating too much or by eating the wrong kinds of foods. In a very real sense therefore “we are what we eat.”
If our relationship with food gets out of hand it can lead to over eating. Not an over eating where we enjoy good company, good food, and good beer in a festive sort of way. But rather a compulsory drive to loosen one’s belt buckle and devour the contents of our refrigerator. All alone, without enjoyment but rather increasing a feeling of guilt with every bite. In other words it is a lonely, unhappy, deeply tragic phenomenon. Eating until one is so full that the stomach hurts, nausea sets in, one is emotionally drained … A devastating collapse of our body and soul.
In the spiritual teaching of St. Evagrius Ponticus eating plays a very important role. The spiritual journey of the praktikos (one who puts into practice the teachings of Christ) begins with the phenomenon of eating. What is more “eating” will remain a concern for as long as the journey lasts. Though the spiritual journey of the praktikos is not intended as a remedy for psychological or physical illness, it can play a beneficial role insofar as it too aims at restoring a healthy relationship to food. It is, naturally, evident that the spiritual journey also does not resolve a food shortage where the means of production (for eample) are insufficient or lacking. With these limitations in mind we can still confidently say that the path of the praktikos is a healthy one and is part of a “healthy life-style.”
Knowledge – gnosis
The above listed disorders can be diagnosed as psychiatric illnesses. There are different schools of psychiatry and they will differ in their approach to tackle the problematic relationships we might have with food. The famed “psychological” insights of the Desert Fathers is not such a science. The Desert Fathers, Evagrius in particular, have important psychological insights, but they are not a medical diagnostic tool. Nor are they “therapy” in the medical sense. Insofar as the psychology of the Desert Fathers concerns human beings, however, there are bound to be points of contact with the medical practice and if applied wisely the Desert Fathers may have some beneficial things to contribute.
The psychology of the Desert Fathers is an integrated part of a larger whole. To the Desert Fathers this larger whole is properly called Gnosis or knowledge. Great Schema Monk Gabriel Bunge (a former Benedictine hermit) explains this knowledge:
This Christian Gnosis is the fruit of God’s grace and it consists of divine grace and human effort. It encompasses physics and metaphysics, philosophy and theology, practice and theory, in one grand worldview concerning created reality.
~ Gabriel Bunge, “Gastrimargia,” p. 16-17.
The psychology of the Desert Fathers, instead of being a medical science, always points beyond itself. It is oriented towards metaphysics and theology. This is not a psychology which limits the human being to an ever improving self, it rather seeks to free the human being from the evil thoughts. The latter have taken away from the human being the ability to transcend oneself in an encounter with the Other whereby it also enabled to experience the self’s true nature. The psychology of the Desert Fathers seeks to return this ability of transcendence and encounter to the human being. He is not merely a self … A human beings is gifted with being after the Image of God. This is what is in need of being restored. It is here that we clearly see that this psychology does indeed point beyond itself to ultimately theological things such as our relationship to and with God. Christian Gnosis is the knowledge of ourselves as fallen, it is the knowledge of ourselves as imago Dei (image of God), it is the knowledge that tells us what we are to do if we wish to return from fallenness to imago Dei, it is the knowledge of the world as created by God, it is the knowledge of our spiritual opponents, and, ultimately, it is the knowledge of God as Trinity. This knowledge is never merely cerebral. It always implies activity and action. To know what to do is possible only if one does it. This is why the Lives of the Fathers are so crucial. They show us what to do. Once we are doing what we have been taught we will also grow in knowledge of what we are doing. This growth is gradual, hard work, but real.
Fr. Gregory Wassen