Prayer and Porridge

BOSNIA MONASTERY WINESome brothers visited Abba Anthony and asked him to tell them how they could find salvation. The old man said, “You are familiar with the Scriptures. That should teach you enough.”

“Yes, but we want a word from you also, Abba.”

Then the old man responded, “The Gospel instructs you to turn the other cheek.”

They said, “We can’t do that.”

“Then if you can’t offer the other cheek, at least permit one cheek to be struck.”

They replied, “We can’t do that either.”

“If these things are beyond you, then do not return evil for evil.”

“We can’t.”

Abba Antony turned to his disciple. “Prepare a little porridge for these people, because they are not capable of doing anything.” To his visitors he said, “If you can’t do this or that, there is nothing I can do for you.

“What you need is prayer.”

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





16 responses to “Prayer and Porridge”

  1. David Avatar

    Many of these stories of monks are confusing because they seem to be able to do impossible things, but simple things confound them. Turning the other cheek is much easier than say, fasting. I assume they were doing that, they were monks.

    We had a guest priest visit us a few months ago who talked about how wonderful a gift fasting was because it was so easy. He meant this universally. As is it were the easiest way to be holy! I nearly cried. I came to the Church to know the “fellowship” (refer to your expanded definition of that word in your posts from a long while back), but some days I still feel like I’m walking through the valley alone.

    On fast days I often go to bed very early (sometimes even before my kids), because I’m so miserable I just want the day to be over.

    I’m not trying to judge the brothers in the story. I suppose I’m just indulging in a bit of self-pity. It doesn’t feel like self-pity, but that’s probably what it is.

  2. fatherstephen Avatar


    Your experience, I think, is the more common and even normative experience. Fasting is hard. Fasting combined with prayer and attention of the heart is even harder.

    The desert fathers say, “Prayer is a struggle to a man’s dying breath.”

    I’ve never heard someone say fasting is great because it’s so easy. It would have struck me strangely as well.

    I practice asceticism, and try to go to bed giving thanks for the mercies of God, because if my day is measured by my ascetical efforts, it will always have been a failure. Only the mercies of God make a day a good day (in such things).

    I feel a great deal of commonality (communion) with the failure of these brothers. I am encouraged by Abba Antony’s words because he didn’t say, “Get out of here. You’re useless.”

    Instead he recognized their weakness. Gave them some food, and told them to pray. This is the mercy of God.

    We should know the fellowship (communion) of the Church – and, like Paul, should boast (if we boast) in our weakness – not that we make no effort – but because in our weakness God is strong. Let others boast in how easy fasting is. I’ll boast in the mercy of God, who uses a weak old man like myself.

    Pray, fast, give alms, but only be confident in God and boast in Him alone.

    Forgive my preaching. Just wanted to offer a word of encouragement.

  3. Ryan Avatar

    Fasting is great, and indeed it is easy – relatively. I find that, like you say, prayer with attention and focus is much harder, and giving ourselves over to God is harder still.

  4. AR Avatar

    I honestly think that how easy fasting is depends upon your lifestyle and your personality. My husband does hard manual labor all day long, and he only does one thing at a time for the most part. He can process carbs. He says fasting makes his mind sharper and helps him to focus and to keep his mind in prayer.

    My case is different. I do many things at once all day long and they are always more mental than physical except for short, unpredictable bursts of physical activity. I have to nibble all day long, and my eating has to be very balanced. Fasting even a little makes me woozy and fuzzy and after a day or two it just turns into mindless suffering. My work suffers, my child suffers, the house and my husband suffer because I cannot function regardless of how hard I try. It makes me lose any gains I may have made in any discipline in any area of life, whether in religious practices or in my worldly duties.

    I have prayed that God will give me strength from a different source so that I can fast. But this prayer was immature. I hadn’t built up to it. So the prayer was not answered. So I was not worthy. So that is where I’m at. So I start where I’m at. I have to eat, and I have to learn how to pray.

    I do not worry much about fasting anymore. If I only abstain from meat on Sunday morning I know that I am honoring God as much as my husband who goes completely hungry, because the effort is equal. And I still have energy to lead the choir. I will never be a fundamentalist again, certainly not about Orthodoxy. So I can’t live up to the Orthodox ideal. Who could? Somewhere in the intersection between trying and failing grace comes in.

    Many would not or could not assent to what I’ve said here, even though my priest has given me a dispensation to eat on Sunday morning. Some would conclude that I am rejecting the cannons of the Church. Some would feel that they need to uphold the full requirements publicly and keep the dispensations private.

    But, to deal with requirements that are beyond your ability, you have to develop a folk wisdom. You start to suspect that whenever a a discipline is lifted from its ideal context and dropped into any one person’s life, it will always look a little different. At what other time in history do you have this huge influx of converts into the Church who have a certain amount of doctrinal and spiritual formation in certain lopsided areas, but in other areas are far worse off than any ancient pagan?

    You have to go on living. You have to trust in God’s mercy without taking advantage of it, and that’s a sort of inner balance you find, I think.

  5. Marsha Avatar


    I often do say that I think fasting is easy. However, I find that when I am self-pitying about things other than fasting, I tend to find it harder to do, and often fail. So it isn’t as easy as just abstaining, you know?

    May God bless you.

    And I love this story for the grace and acceptance offered. You can’t even turn your cheek? Eat some porridge (that someoe eelse prepared, mind you!) and pray.

  6. Marigold Avatar

    I’m sorry to say I don’t understand this story at all! The wisdom of the Fathers is often dispensed with such terseness as to bypass the duller of us 😛

    x M.

  7. coffeezombie Avatar

    I think I had a similar reaction to David at first when I read the story. I thought, “They cannot even abstain from returning evil for evil? How hard is that?”

    But, when I really think about it, perhaps it is a lot harder than I think. Perhaps, because I do not fast as well as these monks likely did, and because I do not pray even as well as these monks likely did, and because I do not give alms or practice generosity as well as these monks likely did, perhaps I often think of myself as not returning evil for evil, but, in my heart, and unknown to me, I do. Perhaps I think it is only easy because I am not yet at a point that I can see even my own sins rightly, whereas these monks, maybe, had reached that point?

    Then again, I, for one, still find it difficult to turn the other cheek. If I restrain myself outwardly, from reacting verbally or physically, regardless I likely still react inwardly, hoping some evil befalls the offender or imagining how I would like to get revenge.

    In the end, though, we’re all different. Perhaps one person finds fasting to be easy, but feeds himself on wrongs remembered. And perhaps another finds it easy to forgive his enemies, but gluts himself on food.

    “For if Thou shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with Thee, there is forgiveness.”

  8. Karen Avatar

    Hmmm . . . This post and the comments puts me in mind of the story of Elijah after his exploits and Jezebel’s persistent persecution and threats. After defeating the Prophets of Baal, one more threat from Jezebel, and he was ready to pack it all in. I love that the Lord just sent the angels to minister food to him and let him rest. After that refreshment, he ran all the way to Mt. Sinai (I think) where he was to encounter God in the “still, small, voice . . . ” Our abilities, and those aspects of obedience that we encounter as real difficulties vary a great deal from person to person I would imagine. The point is to keep working at things and never, never give up! God is good.

  9. Stephen Avatar

    I have heard it preached and read somewhere that even the demons fast from food. Fasting in and of itself brings no spiritual progress and quite possibly more harm than good. It makes sense that someone new to fasting might ease into it rather than fail completely or go into delusion or even ruin their health. On the other side I often wonder how pervasive our culture is on thoughts and our attempts at fasting. Most of us grow up and live in a world of plenty and of immediately gratifying our wants and desires. Do we give up to easily? While it is true that we are all different- which was stated several times above- and we all have different jobs and metabolisms, the Church prescribes a fast, so it would seem right to follow that without adding or taking away, unless instructed otherwise by ones priest. There are always circumstances and exceptions and discerning when this is the case is not an easy task. In the end fasting is a tool meant to show us that it is the mercy of God that sustains us. I have as many questions on these things as the next person, so these are just some thoughts, generated from my own desire to learn.

  10. David Avatar

    I don’t mind the sermon, Father Stephen. I’m not going to turn away God’s instruction so kindly offered. I would say that I find all matters of discipline hard. My wife often chastises me for trying to carry in all the grocery bags at once. I simply do not want to make any more trips than necessary and would rather lift one great mass than many small masses.

    This is aspect of my spiritual life that I believe will be the longest to conform to Orthodoxy. It would be easier to do one all night vigil a week than pray every evening. For others, this is not so. In this, I think they are wiser than I.

    I have also spent my lifetime up to this time manipulating myself by way of my passions (and as a by-product, feeding them). I’m having to transition from “coping mechanisms” to “therapy”. 🙂

  11. Marinaki Avatar

    There are people in our times who have managed to ‘turn the other cheek’ (Gandhi, to some extent MLK, modern martyrs to the Soviets) – in essence it is a mathematical equation. If someone does evil to you and you retaliate you’ve increased the evil, if you abstain then you don’t increase it and let it die out, or I guess negate it. In this case, I guess, the fasting is also a form of abstaining – that prepares us for the greater truths of the Gospel.

    In essence, however, I think the story is asking us to act according to our measure. Some people can run a whole marathon, whereas for others it is an achievement to do a 100 yard dash.

    With regard to difficulty with fasting, it can be a danger, especially for those new in the faith, to try and exceed what they can possibly do. I’ve heard of some people not only abstaining from meat. fish, dairy, but also limiting their meal intake, and fasting till the ninth hour (3 pm) etc.
    This – if done too soon – can be detrimental. We must also consider health issues (i.e. diabetes) – and cultural ones.

    I was brought up Orthodox in a culture which has plenty of healthy fasting dishes in it’s diet. I look forward to all my favourite dishes during the fast (although days without oil do leave me hungry!) Someone else brought up on a culture of ‘meat and two veg’ or a heavy bias towards dairy, with no inkling of what good healthy fasting food is – is going to find it extra tough.

    If it gets to the point of making you miserable I’d say talk to your spiritual father or parish priest (if you don’t have a spiritual father) maybe some things have to be relaxed. The canons are not cannons – they are not meant to be a burden, if they are, then they have to be adjusted to your measure (the principle of economy)

  12. ioannis Avatar

    I do not think that David finds the matters of discipline so hard, as he says. 🙂 I would say that he rather finds them very easy, so easy that they become even boring. Maybe I am wrong though. Forgive me David for my interference.

    That’s a very nice blog Father Stephen that I am glad that I discovered it today and I read already many entries and especially those about icons. Thank you.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar


    It is interesting that Gandhi learned about non-violence through his contact (by letters) with Leo Tolstoy – adopting Tolstoy’s Christian pacifist position and adapting for the Indian culture. MLK, of course, modeled his own approach on that of Gandhi. Both were astounding figures, particularly in the political context. There is a deeper experience of “turning the cheek” than can be found in either of their examples. These can be found particularly in the lives of a number of the saints.

  14. David Avatar

    Just for the record, so I don’t appear more than I am.

    Ioannis, no, I go to bed at night because I’m miserably hungry. Boredom would be an improvement. I have yet to experience the “pleasures” of fasting. My stomach cramps, my limbs feel listless, I cannot concentrate and I become highly irritable. I pace back and forth in the kitchen. I’ve even driven to a nearby McDonald’s in the middle of the night just to pound my steering wheel and return home.

    The odd thing is that I’m no stranger to discomfort. I can endure great pain when necessary and my body, despite being over weight, is capable of some feats of endurance every bit as well as when I was in my 20’s.

    Pray for me, a sinner.

  15. Marinaki Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    Your absolutely right… MLK and Gandhi came to mind as people who are well known and who were inspired by Jesus’s teaching and somehow managed to enact it. I also mentioned the Orthodox martyrs of the last century (the saints with the deeper experience). These were orinary men and women of faith who managed to to extraordinary things. Sometimes people get the impression that saints are in another league, or belong to another era. However, as the well-known examples above and the, less well known, martyrs to the communists show it is possible.


    Are you fasting in the correct manner? Fasting should not leave you hungry. Unless directed otherwise – you should be able to eat three square meals a day, and even have snacks in between if you like. Simply these should be at a minimum meatless, but strictly speaking, without fish or dairy, too. There are lots of fasting foods that can fill you up, you can eat pasta till you drop, rice, potatoes, beans (more beans), lentils (these all have protein), soya alternatives, tofu and so on. You can even have seafood (if you can afford it – where I live it’s cheap – but I hear it is expensive in the US). Of course, there may be medical issues, someone with say – diabetes – might need more protein – then you would need to discuss with your spiritual father or parish priest about what is feasible. There are lots of healthy fasting recipes here

    If you are eating well on fast days, and still miserable, maybe you need to speak with your spiritual father about what is possible for you – in your circumstances and with your lifestyle.

  16. David Avatar

    Thank you Marinaki. My priest is very kind. I think I’ve already posted too much on this thread, but I can say that part of fasting’s challenge is my usual gluttony.

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