Glory to God for All Things

Eating Your Way to Paradise

EmanuelIt 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.

25 Responses to “Eating Your Way to Paradise”

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  1. George says:

    Is it correct to say if Christ is Life, my life, then without Him I am death?

  2. Margaret says:

    Thank you Fr. Stephen, may it be so as you say here: “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.”

  3. mary benton says:

    Wonderful article, Fr. Stephen!

    I am curious why eating (fasting) has such a prominent place in asceticism – can you help me understand? I’m not denying that it has value but it seems to me there are many other things in addition to food that we might wisely “fast” from in order to grow spiritually.

    Certainly our current American culture demonstrates a disordered relationship with food. But fasting is an ancient practice and has been applied in cultures where food was not so abundant or so abused.

  4. Anna says:

    Father, bless!

    This is a great summary on fasting. We often mix up fasting as the true ascetic discipline of the Church with anything else (dieting…).

    I have to say that under this title I was expecting at least a fugitive mention of Holy Communion. But then I understood what you did.

  5. Dean says:

    Thank you Father Stephen for this good reminder of the basic spiritual disciplines as we anticipate Lent’s beginning. I like too this reminder from Father Hopko in his book “The Lenten Spring.” He writes, ” Joy is at the heart of everything in the Christian life, and Great Lent is no exception. The hymns and verses of the church services call Christians to begin with rejoicing.” From First Friday matins…”Let us enter the Fast with joy, O faithful. Let us not be sad. Let us cleanse our faces with the waters of dispassion, blessing and exalting Christ forever.”

  6. Lazarus says:

    Mary Benton ,

    As fr. Stephen says, “We didn’t eat too much, only the wrong thing in the wrong way…”

    As I understand it, The question of fasting is not so much about quantity of eating but quality of our relationship with what we eat. Addressing that question and walking in the revelation of the Spirit regarding it is the journey of transformation.

    All generations of mankind have know the scarcity and abundance of food. What is more every generation of mankind has embraced a dysfunctional relationship with food.

    I bow to fr. Stephen’s wisdom and correction regarding my take on this.

  7. Jeremiah says:

    Lazarus, I agree that it’s not just quantity, but quality in the way that we approach and understand our food. Food does not keep us alive, but Christ Himself is life.

    Additionally though, quantity of food is part of fasting as well. As Fr Stephen wrote, “Therefore I eat a little less and share a little more. I eat a little less and pray a little more…”

    I believe that just as an athlete lives an extremely disciplined life, so we athletes of spirituality must discipline our bodies to conform to the will of our spirit. Jesus said, “the spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” Fasting helps us tell our bodies, “No, you will not have whatever you want whenever you want. Instead, you will submit to the will of the spirit.”

    When partnered with prayer, we may find the above approach helps us draw closer to God, overcome the passions, and open our nous to see and understand Him a little bit more.

    Fasting will look different for everyone as we all have different dietary needs, allergies, and work conditions. But I think our attitude toward food goes hand-in-hand with the quantity we eat.

  8. fatherstephen says:

    Eating a little less is one of the obvious things we can do with food. Eating different food is another. Eating with true attention and gratitude is yet another. A lot more intentionality plays a part in all of this – and is thus a part of watchfulness.

    How would you eat your last meal? There is much to be considered in the Protestant name for the institution of the Eucharist: the Last Supper. Christ could have taught the same thing at any point in his ministry. He chose to teach His disciples how to eat as His last act together with them (and then washed their feet).

  9. Dean says:

    Christ commands us to not worry about what we are to eat…spoken in a time when scarcity could be quite real very unlike the surfeit of food we have in America. There he was speaking of quantity. But can’t we in this day and age break His command by worrying about the quality of food we eat…over trans fat, gluten, sugar, etc.? I’m not speaking of healthy concern but of over-preoccupation with foods. I see this in the general population as well as in some Orthodox.

  10. Albert says:

    This entry, Fr Stephen, along with comments (especially Mary Benton’s) – - So helpful to me. I developed a kind of eating disorder many years ago as a result of anxiety about fasting, self-discipline, etc. I eventually wound up in hospital, having lost 30+ pounds, and have not had what you could call a healthy relationship with food & drink ever since. Of course, I can’t blame my problems on church teachings; it’s just that I locked on to one element and lost perspective. My priest has helped me a lot, but this material, coming right as we approach great Lent, is such a great reminder. Thank you all.

  11. Michael Bauman says:

    Dino, and don’t forget the “gourmet” fasting with elaborate and often expensive recipes with extensive prep time and almost endless varieties of “fast legal” foods. I think it might be better to eat a hamburger at McDonalds with thanksgiving.

  12. lazarus says:

    Jeremiah,

    I agree that the most obvious thing about fasting is the adjustment of quantity and kind of food eaten. Given.

    My point is to keep the main thing the main thing. The goal is not about quantity or kind except in the case of eating disorders of quantity and kind. The goal is a change in the quality of the relationship we have with food as an expression of the relative decrease in the degree to which our bodily desires enslave us and are conformed to the exercise of the spirit’s dominion. The change in quantity and kind is an essential means to an end, but only a means; not the end in and of itself.

    So, I think we agree but are saying it differently.

    At least I hope so. :o)

  13. Luke says:

    Father Bless,
    I appreciate this post, and all your posts. This blog has helped me many times in the past 3 years since I stumbled upon it. I believe you’ve played a role in my journey, and I’m so thankful to have been chrismated this past December.
    In this post, I don’t understand st. John’s line “the sweetness of dishonor to those living in community,” could someone explain st John further.
    Thanks

  14. fatherstephen says:

    Luke,
    It is something of an ironic statement. For those who are seeking humility, a sure path to Christ, dishonor within the community (whether deserved or not) is “sweet.” But that “sweetness” only reveals itself to those who crave union with Christ. For them, they find no bitterness in their dishonor, only the sweetness of Christ Himself, who willingly bore dishonor and shame for our salvation.

  15. Dino says:

    Luke,
    Father Stephen’s explanation is sublime -especially in the sense that it makes the saying applicable to everyone and everywhere.
    The classic interpretation (far more narrow) is that he is comparing the two modes of monastic life (he does this a great deal in his writings), that of the coenobium (translated community) and that of the hesychast/anchorite (translated ‘living away from turbulence’). Since ‘dishonors’ or reprimands, or castigations are more likely in the former style of monastic life, and “worries” more likely in the latter, St John mentions that the constant memory of death has as its fruit, the ‘sweetening’ of the former dishonors that befall the coenobite, and the freedom of the latter worries that plague the anchorite, aiding perpetual prayer.
    The slight irony drives the point much better in the greek text, and as Father points out, [the Saint is aware of] the irony is one thing [someone might perceive it in that manner alone], however,St John is more concerned wih the profundity and depth of the fact that the revelation of sweetness only works on “those who crave union with Christ”.

  16. Michael Bauman says:

    Fr. would you say the actions are simple but the intent is not? The reason I ask is because I can easily go all day without eating without even noticing but when I decide to fast the troubles begin.

  17. mary benton says:

    I think I know what you mean, Michael. It seems that my primary difficulty is not with food but with my will.

    I had an interesting experience recently. I have been a vegetarian for some time and was eating at the home of a non-vegetarian friend. The food had been obtained from a restaurant and my friend accidentally served me something with meat in it.

    My willful urge was to not eat this bit of food and even to point out the meat in it. By the grace of God, I was able to stop myself and recognize that that would only serve to make my friend feel bad for displeasing me.

    It was a greater act of “fasting” for me to eat the food quietly and with appreciation – because I was fasting from my will. To not eat it would have easy.

  18. Rodger says:

    Very Good Mary!

  19. dino says:

    What rightly drives all ascesis, including fasting, in the varied and multifaceted circumstances of contemporary life, is one’s God-wards inner intent, I think. Because of this, skillful ways of applying this intent -according to the circumstances- effortlessly come to those who are firstly concerned with the purification of the inner man.(Matt. 6-33) But there are a multitude of reason’s why ‘troubles’ might begin, one would surely discern these with the help of his spiritual guide.

  20. drewster2000 says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    This post was obviously a “Christian’s Personal Practices for Dummies”. I just wanted to let you know that this dummy sincerely appreciated it. It was written very simply and clearly so that basically any 7 year-old could understand it. Even the explanations of “why” were not complicated, but formed for simple hearts, and I suspect that most of us are simple hearts at, well….at heart.

    So thank you very much.

  21. I love your book,keep in prayer to get safety to Austin,TX. To the monastery as God willed. servant of Christ

  22. Jason McIntyre says:

    The title immediately turned my mind to communion. Adam and Eve ate our collective way to death. Now we individually eat communion to life. Thanks!

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