The three stages
It may seem awkward that on this blog about the Anglican Breviary an extended discussion of food is underway. It is, however, directly relevant. Our relationship to food is a vital, if not fundamental, element of our spiritual life. We cannot hope to learn to live the kind of life which sustains prayer unless we have some measure of control and understanding concerning how, what, and when we eat. It is not accidental that the Desert Fathers as well as St. Benedict’s Rule have important things to say precisely about the consumption of food.
St. Evagrius of Pontus divides the spiritual journey of the Christian in three parts:
All three are stages in the spiritual life . They are not neatly separate as the Christian life is actually lived, but they overlap. Evagrius’ is not an iron clad system. Evagrius did not invent this line of thought, nor was he the only expositor of it. It would seem that this sort of teaching circulated rather widely among the so-called Origenist Monks of 4th century Egypt. In using the word Origenism I must make it clear that I am referring to the teaching such as can be found in St. Anthony the Great and those following in his footsteps. I am not referring to the sort of Origenism (if it can be called that! ) described by either Theophilus of Alexandria or the Emperor Justinian. When I use the term Origenism I am referring to the mainstream Nicene Orthodoxy as it is turned into a practical way of living and teaching by St. Anthony and other 4th century Desert Fathers.
The stage of praktike concerns the putting into practice of the commandments. Performing the commandments opens up to Physike which is the contemplative knowledge of created reality. Physike is mediated knowledge of God. God as Creator and Redeemer is indirectly revealed in Scripture and Nature. As one continues to improve in living a dedicated life in Christ (praktike) God will eventually reveal himself to the Christian without mediation. This is what Evagrius calls Essential Knowledge or theologike. This stage is not the necessary result of praktike and physike (even though it is not attained without them). Theologike is the result of God’s grace. One becomes a theologian only if God chooses to bestow this grace upon the faithful Christian. There is therefore no technique that brings it about.
As a spiritual diagnostic tool we are perhaps familiar with the so-called seven deadly sins. This list is first found as such in St. Gregory the Great, himself a great master of the spiritual life. Pushing back beyond St. Gregory we find St. John Cassian listing eight such deadly sins, and pushing beyond St. Cassian we find Evagrius’ list of eight such sins. We cannot push further behind Evagrius, the list of eight deadly sins first occurs in his writings. These eight are all of them manifestations of one basic and founding sin though: self-love (being in love with one self). Unlike St. Gregory the Great, Evagrius sees misdirected love as the problem where it all begins to go wrong. Not pride but love of self is the core problem in the spiritual life. Love, true love, is the remedy of this ailment and the three pronged path of Christian life (praktike, physike, theologike) is the medicine.
The Evagrian list consists of the following vices:
- gluttony (gastrimargia)
To understand these vices and to perceive how they affect one’s life is the great work of praktike. It is therefore important to understand at least some of the basics of Evagrius’s psychology and anthropology of which we will hear more anon. At this point it is crucial that the reader understands that it is not by accident that gastrimargia tops the list. It is not that this is the most vile or heinous of the vices, rather it is because this vice forms the first breach in our defenses. It is a gateway vice and forces an opening into our lives for the others.
The first thing to do when we find ourselves in a hole is to stop digging. In the context of the eight vices to stop digging is the equivalent of learning to relate to food in a healthy way. To gain control over our eating habits rather than to have them control us. Eating is something even the most spiritually advanced must do in order to live. There is therefore a sense in which the least experienced beginner and the most advanced expert are facing the exact same task. There is no elitism here. In a following post I will pick up on how gastrimargia manifests in our lives. It may be a surprising discovery! Gastrimargia – to lift but a tip of the veil – does not always manifest in eating or drinking too much … The deadly sins or passions manifest in hidden ways.
In the Fall man was seduced and fragmented by food and his redemption too involves food. The fallen man is baptized so that he may have access to the Eucharistic Body and Blood of his God and Saviour: Jesus Christ. This Jesus unites us all into one body. The Eucharistic Lord is broken so that the multitude of “breads” (Hosts) would reach the multitude of the divided human race, bring them to partake of the one Cup (containing the Lord’s Blood), so the division may be overcome and healed. In Jesus Christ we have become adopted into God’s family and have God for our Father.
Food and Breviary
Food and what we do with it, how we relate to it, is of great significance in the spiritual life. It is therefore of great importance that the we realize the Breviary regulates our relationship to food by means of the kalendar. Throughout the Church Year there are several seasons in which our intake of food and the kinds of food we consume is regulated by fasting and abstinence. The Desert Fathers provide different rules of eating and fasting for their disciples. The idea is to adapt the rule to the need of the individual disciple. The Breviary acts – in a sense – as a spiritual father or mother. It gives general guidelines for eating and fasting that are general enough so that most (if not all) can follow it.
One of the key points is here is not that one performs great acts of asceticism as if the spiritual life were some sort of circus act. The point is rather that the commandment given in the beginning (Genesis 3) concerning what we shall and shall not eat be followed. In other words: the waters of Baptism returns us to Paradise and God once again puts before us a command. We are given the opportunity to obey and by obedience to God become free from the slavery to our desires. The Breviary is a means through which God guides us. This guidance is not limited to the kalendar. The Legends of the many, many saints we find in the Breviary provide us a pattern of living. They are examples showing us how God’s commandment can be put into practice in different circumstances. Christianity is a way of life. The Anglican Breviary provides a guide on the way if we would only use it.
Fr. Gregory Wassen