Wednesday, December 14, 2005

John Cassian on Fasting

John Cassian (ca. 360 - ca. 435) introduced Eastern monasticism into the West. One of this books, the Institutes (written about 425-428) discusses the way of life of monks in Egypt, and includes chapters on the eight principal vices.

In the Advent and Christmas seasons, gluttony is one of the most well-practiced of the vices. Cassian has quite a bit to say about fasting:
  • There is no single standard for fasting that applies to everybody. Age, sex, sickness, and individual constitution all need to be considered.

  • Virtues are not evenly distributed among persons, and that includes the practice of fasting.

  • We do have a shared goal, however: the avoidance of overeating and filling our stomachs.

  • A single day's fast is more beneficial for purity than those extended over longer periods. This is because the break-fast meal may be too large causing listlessness and sloth; also extreme hunger can cause sluggishness in the spiritual exercises.

  • A plain diet of either greens or bread may not agree with everyone, so some variation among persons is expected.

  • We are also not to be led astray by the pleasures of the palate.

  • Both the variety of food and the quantity eaten can lead to unchastity.

  • Wine leads to drunkenness, but also too much water or any kind of food can lead to a drowsy, stupified mind.

  • Cassian says that the Sodomites got on their path of destruction by eating a surplus of bread. Gluttony is a simple, common vice that can lead to much greater evil.

  • Food is needed to support life. It is not for making us slaves of our desires. We need to eat moderately enough to sustain health.

  • Delicate foods are permissible if they are healthy and taken in moderation.

  • Stop eating while you are still hungry.

  • Fasting will not make you holy. Other virtues are also required for purity: humility and lack of a desire for money; and freedom from anger, despair, self-esteem, and pride.

  • Fasting and self-control can purify a person who has restraint and moderation.

  • Chastity is difficult with a full stomach.

  • A person who gives in to bodily desires is a slave; freedom comes from self-control.

  • Control of gluttony is similar to the preliminary contests that decides who gets to compete in the Olympic Games. The Christian athlete, like the Olympic athlete, must first of all control his own flesh.

  • We gain control of our stomachs not only through fasting, but by hard work, keeping vigils, and spiritual reading, as well as the fear of Hell and the desire for Heaven.

  • The person who fasts must only eat at fixed times, and never at any other time. He should also get an adequate amount of sleep.

  • A person who fasts needs to simultaneously do a spiritual fast, where anger, envy, and slander are to be avoided.

  • The Egyptian monks would stop fasting at once if a visitor arrives and needs to eat. Charity to a fellow person is far more important than fasting, which can be done anytime.

  • Some monks made a practice of never eating alone, but only in community. This helps the practice of fasting.

  • Some never eat during daylight hours.
I am preaching to myself here!

These suggestions are suitable for most, but not all people. We also need to be aware of the problems of anorexia and related disorders. Here, fasting is taken to an extreme, and is not done in a prudent way. These disorders are a form of scrupulosity, and require an extraordinary amount of direction and treatment.

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