Monday, March 9, 2009

St. John Cassian on fasting

In what amounts to a mostly selfish series of posts (as if anything about my blogging is not), I'm going to try to compile what I find to be some of the more useful remarks in St. John Cassian's books on the eight principal faults. By "useful" I mean, useful to me--undoubtedly, much that is useful to others will not make the cut. What's more, I don't even mean this in the sense of everything that is useful in his books, but mostly what doesn't stick in my head quite as easily, so that I might derive some particular benefit from writing it down. This latter qualification is emphatic, because it has the unfortunate effect of omitting some of the most important points. But precisely because they are so important, they are addressed in almost everything written or said about these subjects, so that I'm constantly reminded of them. The more mundane bits that I'm collecting here are probably less emphasized for good reason.

I should also clarify what St. Cassian's writings are about. He spent a good deal of time traveling throughout the Egyptian deserts, visiting monks in various places to glean their wisdom and practices and distill it all into some useful guidance for monasteries in western Europe. Of course, his writings are directed at monastics, and as such, will not always apply directly to laymen. But as long as we're careful to account for the difference in life situation, we can still glean a lot. After all, the fundamental point of monasticism is not to be different from everyone else, but simply to follow Christ.

We are in Great Lent, and the first fault St. Cassian addresses is gluttony, so fasting seems a logical place to start. There is a wealth contained in this little book, but I keep coming back mostly to the how-to parts. Fasting, of course, cannot succeed in isolation. The other principal faults must be addressed as well, which is why he doesn't stop here. Furthermore, fasting never works as an end in itself. The real objective is to make eating a less significant part of life, in light of more important things:
First then we must trample under foot gluttonous desires, and to this end the mind must be reduced not only by fasting, but also by vigils, by reading, and by frequent compunction of heart for those things in which perhaps it recollects that it has been deceived or overcome, sighing at one time with horror at sin, at another time inflamed with the desire of perfection and saintliness: until it is fully occupied and possessed by such cares and meditations, and recognizes the participation of food to be not so much a concession to pleasure, as a burden laid upon it; and considers it to be rather a necessity for the body than anything desirable for the soul. . . . And so at length we may enter on the course of our life, so that there may be no time in which we feel that we are recalled from our spiritual studies, further than when we are obliged by the weakness of the body to descend for the needful care of it. And when we are subjected to this necessity—of attending to the wants of life rather than the desires, of the soul—we should hasten to withdraw as quickly as possible from it, as if it kept us back from really health-giving studies. For we cannot possibly scorn the gratification of food presented to us, unless the mind is fixed on the contemplation of divine things, and is the rather entranced with the love of virtue and the delight of things celestial. And so a man will despise all things present as transitory, when he has securely fixed his mental gaze on, those things which are immovable and eternal, and already contemplates in heart—though still in the flesh—the blessedness of his future life.

We don't have to look hard to find examples of this principle. My son could practically starve himself to death if he were having enough fun doing other things. Get him playing with friends, or even other kids he just met, and it's almost impossible to drag him over to the table to eat for five minutes. Personally, I've ended up skipping lunch for a lot of reasons in my life--mostly because I had other things that I considered more important. In high school, dropping my lunch period made my schedule flexible enough to take the classes that I wanted. In various jobs, I've skipped lunch so I could leave early or go for a walk or get caught up on something--but it's always easiest to do when I have something to occupy my time instead of eating.

The point, then, is that fasting should not be a mere vacuum in our daily routine. I used to eat at this time--now I just sit around and think about food. Rather, it should be a zeal for our spiritual life that so consumes our efforts and focus that we consider food a distraction and an annoyance. Now, one application of this, I think, is that eating should be more interactive. There are plenty of stories in St. John Cassian and in other monastic writers about elders and hermits who would only eat when they had someone to share a meal with, or about breaking their usual fasting rule to offer hospitality to a guest. Eating has always had a social component to it, and it seems clear that that component should be more important than whatever of my own bodily desires are met by eating.

A guideline that I've toyed with but never really followed very well goes something like this--eat together with others; if no such opportunity arises, then eat when you must, due to hunger. Like anything else, there's still plenty of room to manipulate this kind of principle. The point isn't to seek out parties or to make your friends a means to an end. (No, I really don't care much for you, but you're as good an excuse as any to eat.) Maybe it's a principle that makes sense to me, because I'm not a very social person to begin with. Maybe it just needs to be explicated that part of the pursuit of the spiritual life involves a healthy level of solitude.

This overarching principle of priority leads into the next excerpt:
A monk therefore who wants to proceed to the struggle of interior conflicts should lay down this as a precaution for himself to begin with: viz.: that he will not in any case allow himself to be overcome by any delicacies, or take anything to eat or drink before the fast is over and the proper hour for refreshment has come, outside meal times; nor, when the meal is over, will he allow himself to take a morsel however small; and likewise that he will observe the canonical time and measure of sleep.
The context is in a monastery, where meal times and sleep times are carefully regulated. So the point here is, eat when it's time, with no snacking in between. This means, of course, that you will be eating together with the rest of the community, not based on your own biological urges. No one's going to starve by following this kind of rule. You might be hungry for a while, but you'll make it to the next meal time and eat whatever you need.

In a home where meal times are well-established, this rule could be applied pretty directly and probably is in many of them. We let our kids snack, but when we know it's coming up on a meal time, we make them wait. To them, it may seem like they really are starving to death, but it's a start in the process of learning discipline. Where meal times are less well-established, things can get a bit more complicated. But again, I think the general rule is, eat regular meals rather than snacking. Eat together if possible rather than alone.

Finally, some remarks on the type of food that we eat:
We should then choose for our food, not only that which moderates the heat of burning lust, and avoids kindling it; but what is easily got ready, and what is recommended by its cheapness, and is suitable to the life of the brethren and their common use. For the nature of gluttony is threefold: first, there is that which forces us to anticipate the proper hour for a meal, next that which delights in stuffing the stomach, and gorging all kinds of food; thirdly, that which takes pleasure in more refined and delicate feasting. And so against it a monk should observe a threefold watch: first, he should wait till the proper time for breaking the fast; secondly, he should not give way to gorging; thirdly, he should be contented with any of the commoner sorts of food.

Now, I'm no expert on what food "moderates the heat of burning lust," though if I recall correctly, that's at least part of the point of abstaining from meat and dairy as per the regular canonical fasting routine. My interest here is in the rest of what he has to say--the food we eat should generally be cheap, easy to prepare, and of common use. Now, when he says "common" here, I don't think he's exclusively talking about the avoidance of delicacies, though that's certainly something he has in view throughout. But he goes on to talk about those who want to eat a diet of beans or vegetables, rather than bread. There are many of the desert fathers who were known to subsist on such things, but my take on this is that it's a difference of communal life versus the life of a hermit. Many of the hermits would live on whatever they could forage around their dwellings. Presumably in a communal setting such a departure from the normal rule would require that someone make an extraordinary effort to get the alternate ingredients. In such cases, the best course is to accept whatever makes the most sense for the group; choosing to do otherwise could be a sign of vainglory (more on this later).

I sometimes struggle with this point, because what's cheap and easy in our culture is usually more processed, less healthy, and less basic. Because I generally fast alone, anything else would also mean preparing my own meals, buying a lot of special ingredients, and generally focusing a lot more attention on food than I do right now. Opening up a can of beans and a box of Triscuits is, quite simply, the best sort of meal preparation to keep from getting too obsessive about food. Another rule that I would say applies here is to eat leftovers. Don't get your heart set on whatever you know is in the cupboard, when there's something else that needs to be eaten up before it goes bad.

So, to boil down my personal application of these basic guidelines (again, what I'm shooting for, not where I am right now), I have in mind the following principles:
  • Focus on spiritual development, so that eating in itself is treated as a distraction from what's really important.
  • Don't snack--eat actual meals as necessary.
  • When possible, eat at regular mealtimes with the family, and eat whatever is provided.
  • Otherwise, choose food that is cheap, easy to procure, and easy to prepare; start with leftovers.
  • If there's no opportunity to eat with others, eat alone when hunger requires it; usually this means eating late in the day, when you know with more certainty that you need to eat alone.
The other point with all of this that I need to work on is controlling how much I eat at a time. Here the basic rule that almost everyone gives is to eat enough so you're not actually full. To some degree it's trial-and-error, but that's also where a lack of variety can help. For one thing, you're less likely to stuff yourself if the food just isn't that interesting. For another, you start to learn how much is the right amount to eat.

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