Abstinence, moderation, fasting.

In today’s II Nocturn lessons St. Athanasius provides a rationale for fasting. He uses the story of the three youths and Daniel and their dietary customs. The latter customs are in conflict with the dietary customs mandated by the King of Babylon and the “prince of the eunuchs” is concerned that he might get into trouble if Daniel and the three youths would not be as physically fit as the others. After all, the king ordered a specific diet to achieve a specific bodily condition. Daniel challenges the prince of the eunuchs to allow him and the three youths 10 days. During these 10 days, they will follow their own dietary customs and will submit themselves to a physical examination upon completion. This said and done, it turns out that Daniel and the three youths are far better looking and far healthier than any of the others. The servants of God for the win!

Nocturn I has related the story I summarized above to the brave pray-er of the Breviary and in Nocturn II Athanasius begins his exegesis. He first points out that:

“If any should come and say unto thee, Fast not so often, lest thou injure thine health, believe them not, neither listen to them. They but lend their voices to the great enemy in suggesting such a thing unto thee. “

~ Anglican Breviary, II Nocturn, III Third Sunday in November, lesson i.

This bears a striking resemblance to Evagrius’ first of the Eight Thoughts (logismoi). For the tempting thoughts suggested by the “great enemy” is not so much to over-eat as it is to discourage ascetic affort as such! In the Praktikos Evagrius defines the tempting thought of Gluttony as:

“THE [tempting]-thought of gluttony suggests to the monk the quick abandonment of his asceticism.  The stomach, liver, spleen, and [resultant] congestive heart failure are depicted, along with long sickness, lack of necessities, and unavailability of physicians.  It often leads him to recall those of the brethren who have suffered these things. Sometimes it even deceives those who have suffered from this kind of thing to go and visit [others] who are practicing self-control, to tell them all about their misfortunes and how this resulted from their asceticism.”

~ Evagrius of Pontus, Praktikos 7 (Fr. Luke Dysinger’s translation).

Where Fr. Dysinger uses “abandonment” in Fr. Gabriel Bunge’s German translation we read “Zusammenbruch” (collapse). Gluttony aims to undermine not simply a healthy eating pattern, rather, it aims to destroy the very basis of Christian living. Abstinence or perhaps better yet “moderation” is a foundational virtue to learn because it is the basis of the stairway that leads to heaven. It remains for ever true that we are not “saved by our works” but it remains equally true that we cannot be saved without them. God’s grace and our response to it are both necessary. This teaching is satisfactorily explained in St. John Cassian’s Thirteenth Conference which we will not get into any further here. The same St. John Cassian speaks to us about “abstinence” and he asserts powerfully that absolutely no-one need be deprived of this virtue. Abstinence does not consist in extreme features of starvation which damage the body (as some ascetics were prone to do) but rather in moderation of the food we eat and the drinks we consume:

“AND so it is a very true and most excellent saying of the Fathers that the right method of fasting and abstinence lies in the measure of moderation and bodily chastening; and that this is the aim of perfect virtue for all alike, viz.: that though we are still forced to desire it, yet we should exercise self-restraint in the matter of the food, which we are obliged to take owing to the necessity of supporting the body. For even if one is weak in body, he can attain to a perfect virtue and one equal to that of those who are thoroughly strong and healthy, if with firmness of mind he keeps a check upon the desires and lusts which are not due to weakness of the flesh. For the Apostle says: “And take not care for the flesh in its lusts.”[204] He does not forbid care for it in every respect: but says that care is not to be taken in regard to its desires and lusts. He cuts away the luxurious fondness for the flesh: he does not exclude the control necessary for life: he does the former, lest through pampering the flesh we should be involved in dangerous entanglements of the desires; the latter lest the body should be injured by our fault and unable to fulfil its spiritual and necessary duties.”

~ St. John Cassian, The Institutes, Bk. V On the Spirit of Gluttony, Chapter viii.

That is to say, asceticism is possible. Any thought which undermines this truth is a manifestation of the tempting thought / spirit of Gluttony. It seems, therefore, that Gluttony is not simply about how much food and drink I wolf down, but more subtly, it is about stopping one from aqcuiring the Christian virtues by discouragement. Virtue is too hard. Virtue is unhealthy. Virtue is medieval / backwards. Virtue is relative. Virtue is … well … virtue is how we become one with Jesus Christ. No-one can be at one with Him unless he (or she) lives like Him.

“Beloved, now we are children of God; and it hs not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall se Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Hi purifies himself, just as He is pure.

Little children, let no one deceive you. He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous. He who sins is of the devil.”

~ St. John the Evangelist, I Epistle, chapter 3, verse 2-9.

The beginning of the practical life – which is the practice of God’s commandments in Jesus Christ – is abstinence so Evagrius writes (see Ueber die Acht Gedanken, I.1). It is therefore of the greatest importance that Christians become re-familiarized with this basic virtue. That they do not let themselves be fooled by “tempting thoughts” telling us otherwise. Sometimes such thoughts can be very subtle and Christians will simply need to gain experience in the practice of virtue (getting up after each time we fall) and as we become more experienced we will begin to recognize the tempting thoughts with ease. In a sense virtue is an art rather than an exact science.

The Anglican Breviary, first gave the medicine of the “word of God” to us and in th second nocturn administered / applied the cure via St. Athanasius. So that if we find ourselves troubled with an evil spirit tempting us that we may have:

“… recourse to the appointed remedy, namely, fasting, and the evil spirit will be forthwith compelled to leave him from dread of the power which cometh from a fast.

To fast is to banquet with Angels; and he that fasteth is to be reckoned, in so far as he fasteth, as among the angelic host.”

~ The Anglican Breviary, II Nocturn, III Third Sunday in November, lesson vi.

At which point it is important to remember that moderation not starvation is true abstinence and fasting. Moderation is what is required. The body must be given what it needs to be healthy but ought to be denied (unhealthy) pleasure or the satisfaction of its “lust”. In this tension, between “needs” and “wants” will we find true abstinence and fasting, and therefore the first step on “the ladder of divine ascent” as St. John of the Ladder would have it.

Fr. Gregory Wassen


About Father Gregory

I am an Anglican Catholic Priest, currently residing in Orvelte, the Netherlands.
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