While we would ideally be focused on deepening our relationship with God on a continual basis, it is clear that we all have seasons of devotion–sometimes greater, sometimes less. The observance of the Christian year or Church calendar is intended to help us free our devotional lives from bondage to our wills and instead begin to form us in such a way that we are continually moving deeper. Lent is one of the most important times in this process of formation.
It is easy to think of Lent as a time of renunciation (and hopefully, penitence). I say that it is easy, but what I really mean is that it is easy to look at Lent as a time of a certain kind of renunciation. In our culture it has often been seen as a good time to start a new diet; it may well be, but the question is whether that new diet (or the limited renunciation of chocolate) takes hold in any way and helps move us further along the path of discipleship the rest of the year.
The point is that Lent is a particularly good time to make a change, whether it be to renounce some harmful activity or item of enjoyment or to take on a particular discipline of prayer or scripture reading in the hopes of establishing a long-lasting habit. That, in the end, is the practical purpose of Lent–and indeed the whole church calendar in some ways–it helps us become disciples and make concrete changes in our lives.
One such concrete change I hope to work in my own life regards my eating habits. The more I’ve studied the early Christian tradition, the more interested I’ve become in the way the monastic tradition has approached issues of sin and self-restraint. The other day, as part of my Lenten studies I was reading the Philokalia–a collection of writings compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth, and most familiar to Eastern Orthodox Christians–and I came across an interesting section from John Cassian, who was himself influential in forming the character of Christianity in the British isles through his sharing of what he’d learned from the monks & hermits of the Egyptian desert. In this particular section, entitled On the Eight Vices, Cassian begins his discussion with food:
On control of the stomach
I shall speak first about control of the stomach, the opposite to gluttony, and about how to fast and what and how much to eat. I shall say nothing on my own account, but only what I have received from the Holy Fathers. They have not given us a single standard and measure for eating, because not everyone has the same strength; age, illness or delicacy of body create differences. But they have given us all a single goal: to avoid overeating and the filling of our bellies. they also found a day’s fast to be more beneficial and a greater help toward purity than one extending over a period of three, four or even seven days. Someone who fasts for too long, they say, often ends up by eating too much food. The result is that at times the body becomes enervated through undue lack of food and sluggish over its spiritual exercises, while at other times, weighed down by the mass of food it has eaten, it makes the soul listless and slack.
They also found that the eating of greens or pulse did not agree with everyone, and that not everyone could live on dry bread. One man, they said, could eat two pounds of dried bread and still be hungry, while another might eat a pound, or only six ounces, and be satisfied. As I said, the fathers have handed down a single basic rule of self-control: “do not be deceived by the filling of the belly” (Proverbs 24:15. LXX), or be led astray by the pleasure of the palate. It is not only the variety of foodstuffs that kindles the fiery darts of unchastity, but also their quantity. What ever the kind of food with which it is filled, the belly and genders the seed of profligacy. It is not only to much wine that besots our mind: too much water or too much of anything makes it drowsy and stupefied. The sodomites were destroyed and not because of too much wine or too much of other foods, but because of a surfeit of bread, as the prophet tells us (cf. Ezekiel 16:49).
Bodily illness is not an obstacle to purity of heart, provided we give the body what its illness requires, not what gratifies our desire for pleasure. Food is to be taken in so far as it supports our life, and not to the extent of enslaving us to the impulses of desire. To eat moderately in reasonably is to keep the body and health, not to deprive it of holiness.
A clear role for self-control handed down by the fathers is this: stop eating while still hungry and do not continue until you are satisfied. When the apostle said, “make no provision to fulfill the desires of the flesh” (Romans 13:14), he was not forbidding us to provide for the needs of life; he was warning us against self indulgence. Moreover, by it’s self abstinence from food does not contribute to perfect purity of soul and unless the other virtues are active as well. Humility for example, practiced through obedience to our work and through bodily hardship, is a great help. If we avoid avarice not only by having no money, but also by not wanting to have any, this leads us towards purity of soul. Freedom from anger, from dejection, self-esteem and pride also contributes to purity of soul in general, while self control and fasting are especially important for bringing about that specific purity of soul which comes through restraint and moderation. No one whose stomach is full can fight mentally against the demon of unchastity. Our initial struggle therefore must be to gain control of our stomach and to bring our body into subjection not only through fasting but also through vigils, labors and spiritual reading, and through concentrating our heart on fear of Gehenna and on longing for the kingdom of heaven.
Maybe this explains why sexuality is such an issue in the western world–we have full bellies!