It is interesting that the story of mankind’s first sin involved eating. We didn’t eat too much, only the wrong thing in the wrong way. But as sins go, it seems rather mundane. Murder is more dramatic (that was a second generation sin). Betrayal makes for a better novel. But there it was – we ate our way to perdition.
It’s not widely known, but you can eat your way to paradise as well, at least, in a manner of speaking.
In Classical Christianity it’s called “asceticism.” The word is derived from the Greek for “exercise.” It refers to fasting (not eating some things), prayer (uniting ourselves to God), generosity (sharing what you have), and watchfulness (paying attention to where you are and when you are). And that is the spiritual life.
When I was young I imagined many things about the spiritual life. Caves and mountaintops, far out experiences of bliss and enlightenment, deep piercing words wrapped in exotic disguise. Today I wear the exotic disguise of an Orthodox priest, though after a while the cassock becomes more comical than exotic. An Orthodox priest in the South is not an object of admiration and wonder. He is more like a circus clown and a topic for conversation about “you won’t believe what I saw today at Walmart.”
But asceticism is not exotic nor even very difficult. Eating and not eating do not reach the level of difficulty of even a simple sport. Children do them all the time. Generosity is in no way complicated, again children do it with delight (except when they don’t). Prayer is hard, perhaps the hardest thing a person ever does as is the simple, continual act of watchfulness. It is in these two latter disciplines that the spiritual life most often stumbles.
But again, neither prayer nor watchfulness are outside or beyond the normal bounds of human activity. Prayer is talking (or not talking). Who you talk to and what you say apply to many other daily activities. It’s not complicated.
Watchfulness can be exhausting, but is quite normal. Every driver of a car has to practice some form of watchfulness. Mind-wandering, day-dreaming, and other more nefarious activities (texting), at 80 miles an hour are descriptions of how not to drive. And though such things happen all the time, they are certainly curbed sufficiently to allow most drivers, most of the time, to reach most of their destinations safely.
So the essential actions of the spiritual life are not complicated. We do them all the time – but in different ways and for different reasons. The ways and reasons of the spiritual life are thus the final, most fundamental question.
Why do I eat? Why do I pray? Why should I be generous? What am I watching for? The answer is counterintuitive. The answer to these basic questions of life is death:
Just as bread is the most necessary of all foods, so the thought of death is the most essential of all works. The remembrance of death brings labors and meditations, or rather, the sweetness of dishonor to those living in community, whereas for those living away from turbulence it produces freedom from daily worries and breeds constant prayer and guarding of the mind, virtues that are the cause and the effect of the thought of death. – St. John Climacus
I could state this more positively by saying that the ways and reasons of the spiritual life are found in uniting ourselves with Christ. But our sense of self-preservation will almost always want to find Christ without His Cross. St. John Climacus brings the matter of our life to a sharp point. You are alive – you are going to die. We have to work it backwards – live in a manner such that your death will not undo the whole of your life.
Fasting is learning how to eat in order to live. And the life that we live is the life of Christ. Therefore I eat a little less and share a little more. I eat a little less and pray a little more. I eat a little less and pay attention to my life.
Why do I pray? I talk to God because He alone is life. The true life-giving conversation is the one I have with God. I learn to say thank you, from the depths of my being. I learn to use my voice to offer thanksgiving in the name of all creation. I talk to God because He alone tells me the truth about myself and the world around me. God never lies.
I share what I have with others because they, too, are my life. They are not my rivals and my enemies. I don’t win if we all don’t win.
I pay attention and watch myself because I know that I have a tendency to wander. I forget who I am and why I am alive. I watch because I do not want to come to my last moment and realize that I forgot to live.
Oh, and don’t forget to say you’re sorry and forgive everyone for everything.
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