Several times we have noticed that the patristic homilies encourage fasting. In a previous post, I have mentioned that the patristic authors, often themselves ascetics, enjoyed a very sparse diet. The Egyptian monks especially limiting themselves to bread and water (for the most part). Evagrius Ponticus, perhaps the greatest of the ascetical theologians to have graced the Church, informs us that the desire for a variety in one’s diet is, in fact, a demonic temptation made possible by the weakness of the flesh. But why should the desire for variety be a demonic temptation? Is Evagrius not a bit too extreme here?
Let’s look at the Antirhetikos again below.
“Against the thought that weeps over simple foods and dry bread [say]: A morsel with pleasure in peace is better than a house full of many good things and unjust sacrifices (Proverbs 17, 1).”
~ Evagrius, Antirhetikos, 1, 24.
One would think that the desire for variety is not that bad. After all, simple foods and dry bread is really very limited and alleviating it by ever so little variation seems quite normal. But this line of thought is to miss the point. The ascetic has deliberately set himself this limit. This limit is, as it were, a going into the desert to confront the flesh and the devil. To do battle with them. The desire for variety is a breach in the ascetic’s defenses insofar as he has picked the simple foods and dry bread as a battleground.
Staying with this topic for a bit longer we can see yet another problem hiding behind the seemingly innocent desire for variety:
“Against the soul’s thought that travels to its corporeal kinsfolk and finds a table filled with all kinds of foods [say]: Get up and leave, for this is not your place of rest because of uncleanness (Micah 2, 10).
~ Evagrius, Antirhetikos, 1, 39.
The “table filled with all kinds of foods” – a wide variety of foods – puts the ascetic back home where he started with his kinsfolk. The ascetic had left his home and entered the desert precisely to meet the limitations of his flesh and fight the devilish temptations the flesh exposes him to. Via the full table he has actually lost the battle. He has returned to where he started in defeat. Behind the desire for variety, we find the temptation to give up the ascetic fight. To give in, to surrender. In other words behind the desire for a variety of food, we find a deeper, hidden, issue. The thought of giving up.
This is discernment. The point, says St. John Cassian, of fasting is precisely to gain discernment. To recognize where our weaknesses are and how the demons seek to exploit them. Fasting is not a goal in itself. This discernment is a skill to be learned by long practice. This skill cannot be learned without the Teacher Jesus Christ, making prayer a crucial element in spiritual life. It is not a coincidence that the Scripture provides the weapons to defeat our weakness and our demonic opponent.
The Antirhetikos is not a list of remedies according to a precise sequence. The reader – rather ascetic – must himself read the individual passages (which appear in the order of the books Scripture) and discern which ones address his situation. The book must be read prayerfully in order to be applied successfully. Here, again, is the point of the exercise: to gain salvific knowledge. It is not about speculative thought, but about knowledge as experience. Not any experience but the experience of growing spiritually in Jesus Christ the Saviour. Saving knowledge is always knowledge in Christ. This is not the heresy of gnosticism, we are here dealing with. This is the “knowledge of salvation” the Song of Zacharias” speaks of every morning in the Office of Lauds.
Fr. Gregory Wassen