The Wisdom of the Desert

Chapter IX:
On Fasting

THE strife which the monks felt to be a necessary condition of all spiritual advance took place in two regions. There was strife against the body -- the struggle with physical needs, desires, and passions. There was also the struggle against infirmities and failings of the soul -- spiritual strife. In each region the strife is, strictly speaking, an asceticism, that is to say, an exercise undertaken with the object of attaining some further end. In the case of the physical asceticism of the hermits it is especially necessary to understand the meaning of the words we use and the real nature of the practices described. Asceticism (askêsis) means an exercise, and an exercise is an entirely useless and meaningless thing unless it is undertaken with a view to something to be gained by its use. When St. Paul speaks of "exercising" himself he says that he does so in order to have a conscience void of reproach. In exactly the same way the monks practised exercise, asceticism (askêsis), not as if the things they did were in themselves good, but simply as a means to the attainment of that perfection which they desired.

The most striking form which the physical asceticism of the hermits assumed was fasting. There were other forms, but fasting was the most esteemed, and it is of fasting that we read most in the stories of their lives. There are in the annals of Egyptian monasticism some instances of terribly severe and prolonged fasts. There were hermits who ate only once every two or three days. A common practice was to eat nothing until after sunset. There was no attempt, at all events in Lower Egypt, to establish anything like a uniform rule on the subject of fasting. It was recognised that the capacity for fasting varied greatly in different individuals. One man might eat what seemed to be a great deal, and yet truly fast. Another might eat very little, and yet be a glutton. So far as the advice of the greatest Fathers can be said to form a rule, it may be expressed in the words -- "Do not eat to satiety." In the spirit of this advice each hermit regulated the time of his own meals and the quantity and quality of his food as seemed best to himself.

The end which the hermits hoped to attain by fasting was the subjugation of the lusts of the flesh. The hermit who disdained the exercise of fasting was compared to a horse without a bridle. How far the hermits were from regarding fasting as an end in itself, or even as invariably the best means for overcoming fleshly lusts, may be seen from the fact that young men were sometimes advised to eat more and fast less, so as to obtain more strength to resist the attacks of their spiritual enemies. Apart, however, from the practice of fasting as an asceticism, an exercise undertaken for a purpose, the hermits fasted in simple obedience to the Lord's teaching and in sympathy with His fasting. This is part of their whole conception of the religious life as a literal imitation of Christ.

Fasting, being a merely physical exercise, is regarded always by the hermits as a practice which ought to be discontinued directly it interfered in the smallest degree with the attainment of a virtue or the fulfilment of a higher kind of duty. Thus, if success in fasting led a man into danger of becoming proud or vainglorious, it was better for him to eat, even to eat flesh. A hermit, whose severe fasting led him to envy a brother whose conditions of life were pleasanter, had better eat flesh and drink wine than fall into such a sinful state. In the same way it was felt to be better for a man to break his rule of fasting than to assert himself by keeping it when others in his company wished to eat. Active charity, such as manifests itself in hospitality to strangers was always to be preferred before fasting. It might happen that a hermit, whose ordinary observance was very strict, would break his fast even seven times in one day if seven separate strangers came to his cell demanding entertainment. In so doing he was right, for the lower duty, of fasting according to his rule, had only given place to a higher one, love showing itself in hospitality.

Sometimes it seems as if, through the exercise of fasting, the hermits actually attained to such a conquest of the flesh that its needs and demands no longer interfered with spiritual communion with God. Thus we read of solitaries who forgot to eat amid the rapture of a bliss only to be compared to the bliss of angels. We read, too, of men whose talk on spiritual matters became so absorbingly interesting that the needs of their bodies disappeared from their consciousness, even though their meal was spread ready before them.


How the spirit of love may loose the obligation of a fast, and yet where love makes no call on us the days of fasting ought to be observed.

The abbot Silvanus came one day with his disciple Zacharias to a certain monastery. The brethren who dwelt there besought them to eat something before they departed. They willingly received the food placed before them, lest they should grieve the brethren who offered it. Afterwards they departed. As they journeyed they came to a pool of water, and Zacharias wished to drink of it. Silvanus rebuked him, saying, "This is a fast day. You ought not to drink." He replied, "But, my father, have we not already eaten and broken our fast?" "My son," said Silvanus, "that eating was for the sake of the brethren, because we loved them. Now let us keep our fast."


How it is better not to fast than to boast about our fasting -- as the Lord saith, "When ye fast, appear not unto men to fast."

There was an assembly of monks in a certain church on a feast day. As the custom was, after the sacrifice had been offered among them, the brethren dined together. One of them said to the disciple who set food before him, "I will not eat this. I eat no cooked food." This he said boasting of his own abstinence. Then said the blessed Theodorus, "It would be better for you, brother, to be eating flesh in your own cell, than that such a word should be heard among the brethren."


How humility is to be preferred before fasting. A certain anchorite dwelt in a cave not far from a monastery, and led a life of great privation. Once some brethren came from the monastery to visit him. As the custom was, he set food before them to refresh them after their journey. The brethren compelled the old man to eat with them, saying that they would not eat without his company. Afterwards, when they thought upon what they had done, they said to him," We fear that you are grieved, father, because to-day for our sakes you have eaten more than you are wont." But he replied, "Brethren, I am not troubled in this matter. I am only grieved when I have acted according to my own will."


How charity is to be preferred to fasting.

Epiphanius, the Bishop of Cyprus, once sent a message to the holy Hilarion, saying, "Come hither, that we may see each other and converse together before we depart from the body." Hilarion came, and the two old men sat down to eat together. There was set before them the flesh of some birds. Of this the Bishop partook, but Hilarion refused it, saying, "Pardon me, but since I became a monk I have never eaten anything that had life." At these words the Bishop was grieved, and replied, "Since I became a monk I have tried never to allow anyone to sleep until I had removed any cause of complaint he had against me, nor myself to go to sleep while I was vexed with anyone." "My father," said Hilarion, "I pray you pardon me. Your way of life is far more excellent than mine."


The saying of an unknown monk, teaching the same thing.

It is better to eat meat and to drink wine than to feed upon the flesh of your brother by envying him.


The teaching of St. Antony, that wisdom is to be preferred to fasting.

There are some who keep under their bodies by fasting, and yet are far from God because they lack discretion.


The teaching of the abbot Moses on fasting as an aid to perfection.

Fastings, vigils, meditations on the Scriptures, self-denial, and the abnegation of all possessions are not perfection in themselves, but aids to perfection. The end of the science of holiness does not lie in these practices, but by means of them we arrive at the end. He will practice these exercises to no purpose who is contented with these as if they were the highest good. A man must not fix his heart simply on these, but must extend his efforts towards the attainment of his end. It is for the sake of the end that these things should be cultivated. It is a vain thing for a man to possess the implements of an art and to be ignorant of its purpose, for in it is all that is of any value.

The teaching of the abbot Theonas about the occasions on which men ought not to fast.

If at the coming of a brother, in whose person a man ought to refresh Christ with courtesy and embrace Him with a kindly welcome, he should choose to observe a strict fast, would he not be guilty of churlishness rather than be deserving of praise for devoutness? If, when the failure or weakness of the flesh requires the strength to be restored by partaking of food, a man will not consent to relax the rigour of his fasting, is he not to be regarded as a cruel murderer of his own body rather than as one who is careful for his own salvation? So, too, when a festival season permits a suitable indulgence in food and a liberal repast, if a man will resolutely cling to the strict observance of his fast he must be considered as not religious, but rather boorish and unreasonable.


How spiritual thoughts put to silence the demands of the body.

Once there came a hermit to the cell of an elder to talk with him. The elder said to his disciple, "Prepare some vegetables for us, and moisten some bread." The disciple did so. But the two old men remained in spiritual converse till the sixth hour of the next day. Then said the host again to his disciple, "Prepare some food for us." The disciple answered him, "My father, I prepared it yesterday." Then the two old men rose up and ate together.


Of a certain brother who conquered his body lest he should grieve another.

One of the elders was sick, and for many days could not eat. At last his disciple asked to be allowed to prepare a special dish that he might relish. Now there was in the cell a jar in which there was a little honey. Beside it there hung another containing oil, and that rancid, for the lamp. The disciple by mistake poured the oil and not the honey on the dish he had prepared. The old man, when he had tasted it, said not a word but silently swallowed a mouthful. The disciple then constrained him to eat some more. With difficulty he did so. Again the disciple pressed him to take of it a third time. But the old man replied, "In truth, I cannot eat again, my son." The disciple still pressed him, saying, "It is very good. See, I will eat with you." When he tasted the dish, and knew what he had done, he fell upon his face and said, "Alas, my father, I have poisoned you. Why did you not speak?" Then the old man said, "Be not grieved, my son. If it had been God's will for me to eat honey then you would have put honey in your dish."


The use of fasting, and how it helps the life of the soul.

Fasting is the bridle in the mouth of the monk. It holds him back from sin. He who rejects the practice of fasting is like an unbridled, fiery horse. He is swept away by passion.


The conduct of the abbot Moses, and how the brethren recognised that charity is above rubrics.

Once a rule was made in the Scetic desert that the monks should fast during the week of the Passover. It happened, however, that certain brethren from Egypt came to visit the abbot Moses during that very week, and he prepared some food for them. Some of the neighbouring monks saw the smoke of his fire rising from Moses' cell, and they said to the clergy of the church which was there, "Lo! Moses has broken our rule and cooked some food." Then the clergy replied, "When he comes we will speak to him about the matter." On the Sabbath, when the abbot Moses came with the strangers to the church, the clergy understood his conduct, and cried out in the presence of the assembled brethren, "Oh, abbot Moses, you have indeed broken a commandment of men, but you have bravely kept the commandments of God."


A rule of life.

A certain brother once visited a hermit, and was entertained by him. He feared lest his entertainment had interfered with the severity of the hermit's living, and when he was departing he said, "My father, pardon me if I have hindered the observance of your rule of life." The hermit answered him, "My rule of life is to receive you with hospitality, and let you depart in peace."


How a man may break his fast through love, and another who keeps his fast may yet be yielding to a base kind of self-indulgence.

Once there were some brethren who, for the love they bore their guests, ate with them, though it was a season of fasting. There was another brother who scorned them as they sat at meat. When the abbot John beheld him he wept, saying, "What kind of spirit has this man in his heart that he laughs at the brethren, scorning them? He ought rather to be weeping for himself. It is he who breaks his fast, not they. It is he who is eating. He devours charity."


It is better not to fast than to be praised for fasting.

In a certain region there was a man who fasted much, so that the name of Faster was given to him. Hearing this the abbot Zeno sent for him. He came joyfully. After praying together they sat down, and the abbot Zeno began to work in silence. Having no chance of speaking, the Faster was attacked by a restless spirit of accidie. At last he said, "Pray for me, my father, for I am going away." "Why are you going ? " asked the old man. " Because," said the other, "my heart is as if it were on fire, and I know not what is the matter. When I was at home I used to fast until the evening time, and no such thing happened to me." Then said the old man, "At home you were fed through your ears by men's praises. Now, go away. Eat at the ninth hour, and if you do anything, do it secretly." In following this advice he found that he came to look forward eagerly to the ninth hour. Those who knew him began to say of him, "The Faster has fallen under the power of some devil." He then came and told all this to the abbot Zeno, who said to him, "This way and this leading is according to God's will."

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