The enemy still uses all his cunning to catch more people in his trap. Some are tempted by tantalising images of food on social media and food that develops a craving for exquisite treats. Others are seduced by all sorts of fashionable diets, such as Veganism or uncooked plants, keeping us preoccupied with finding ways of pleasing our flesh under the guise of healthy eating. None of the above applies, of course, to diets prescribed by doctors for their patients.
In this secular world, temptations await a Christian at every corner, and some can be quite stealthy. For example, Vegan diets are close to Lenten meals. Feasting on the popularity of Veganism, stores and restaurants offer a rich choice of the most exquisite treats without a single ingredient that is of animal origin. Many otherwise observant Christians will adopt the Vegan diets with outward humility and hidden indulgence, taking pleasure in the foods rich in soy-based dairy and meats, tofu, cakes and sweets. Adherents to the fast can still take find enjoyment in these treats, even if it is not as intense as in regular foods. Formal observance of the fast has become less challenging, but does this mean that we are truly fasting? In this piece, we recall the aims and meaning of fasting in the body and the dangers of gluttony in its various forms.
The proof fasting is in its fruits
The holy fathers have written extensively about fasting. Saint Theofan the Recluse writes, “to fast means to avoid eating until you are full but to leave the table while you are still a bit hungry, keep your heart and mind unburdened”. In the same vein, Saint John Chrysostom writes, “Especially during fasting, we pray with attention and feeling; for that is when the spirit is nimble, unburdened and not oppressed by the deadly encumbrance of pleasure.” He also adds, “One should not fast only with one’s mouth; let our eyes, ears, arms and all members of our bodies fast also; for fasting does honour only to those who not only abstain from food but also eschew sin. Abstinence in food alone devalues a fast.” In other words, fasting is not just about abstinence in the body. It should bring us to focus on prayer and opposing sin, and help us grow in the spirit.
The fruits of the fast are the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Fasting endows us with the virtues that we cannot acquire on our own. It is an unwritten law of spiritual life that no man is capable on their own of acquiring the gift of love, mercy, prayer or repentance. Fasting is a special time when man and God are at work together. We practise humility and abstinence; we work hard, repent before the Lord and ask Him for His gift of patience and love for his neighbour. The merciful Lord will respond to the diligence and labours of His child by endowing him with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Conscientious abstention from overeating and other passions that stem from makes the Christian ever richer in the Lord with every fasting period.
The passion of self-indulgence in food
“Like humility is the highest of all virtues, so is self-indulgence in food of the belly the lowliest of all passions”, – wrote Abba Isaiah of Scetis. Self-indulgence is a craving for food that amounts to the victory of the flesh over the spirit. Self-indulgence in food violates the second commandment because it causes people to put pleasure for their bellies above the Lord. It is the third deadliest sin after pride and adultery. As with the other two deadly sins, the enemy spares no effort to cultivate, justify and normalise gluttony. Eating out is becoming a common pastime. Increasingly, people choose restaurants and cafes with the most tasteful and diverse fare. The taste for exquisite or gourmet food is cultivated from childhood. Fasting, on the other hand, is met with derision, and its meaning is being distorted. A variety of alternative diets are taking their place, that better the flesh but not the spirit. Some unbelieving doctors are too quick to advise their patients against fasting without adequate exploration of the ascetic tradition of the Eastern Church.
What every Christian should remember, however, is that the sin of gluttony brought the falling from grace of Adam and Eve, lay at the root of the iniquity of Sodom and Gomorrah, and remains the breeding ground for multiple other sins today. In Christian ascetic, opposition to all passion begins with abstinence. Fasting periods are an ideal time to practise it.
Variants of the passion of gluttony and distinctions among them
The Holy Scripture puts gluttony among the most destructive sins of the flesh for the soul and body of a person and their neighbours. It manifests itself in different forms, varying in gravity and conspicuousness.
1. Overeating, or eating to excess.
No one should exceed one’s measure in food, especially during fasting. Our food needs, however, are individual. Nor can a layperson fast as a monk, and a sick person fasts differently from a healthy person. Some church fathers recommend leaving the table when still hungry. The Holy Venerable Silouan of Mount Athos advised, “Eat only so much that when you are finished, you still have the desire to pray, keep your spirit alight and drawn to the Lord day and night”. We also know Saint Silouan as a man of great physical strength, who normally needed more food than most others to keep his energy levels. When he was living in the world as a young man, he could easily eat an omelette with fifty eggs after a large helping of meat. Saint Joseph the Hesychast underlined that every person will know their measure from the fitness of their bodies. So listen to yourself as your conscience as you decide how much food you need to eat.
2. A craving for unusual or gourmet foods. Conducive to this passion are advancements in culinary art, and the widening choice of rarer and more exquisite foods and recipes. Vegan sausages, cheeses, dairy and sweets rank among the examples of this trend. Other foods to which we may have an unhealthy attraction include Drinks, confectionery, or baked items.
To keep this passion at bay, the holy fathers recommend laying less stress on the tastefulness of our food and practise modesty in our diets by learning to be content with more common and bland foods nutritious to our bodies. Some saints have mixed different foods on one plate, while Saint Paisios of Mount Athos ate nothing but cabbage for eighteen years to cultivate an aversion to food. But these practices of monastics need not be appropriate for all people.
3. Eating outside the regular hours.
John Climacus wrote, “Gluttony is the deception of the flesh, which cries out to us, ‘I am hungry’ even when it is full. It persuades us that it still needs more when it is bulging with food”. We can control the impulses of our flesh by eating at regular hours. It is also a health-promoting habit. Conversely, snacks between meals threaten to evolve into uncontrolled consumption of food beyond all measure.
4. Eating in secret, out of greed, reluctance to share or through lack of self-control. In monasticism, this includes consumption of foods not allowed on fasting days or outside of normal hours.
To avoid falling into sin, the holy fathers always ate in the company of others and shared their food.
Simple dining rules
The first rule is to pray before every meal. No food consumed without prayer and God’s blessing will be beneficial; instead, it will only stoke up the passions of the flesh. The Holy Venerable Seraphim of Vyritsa emphasised the importance of vehement prayer before a meal and elaborated the following prayer rule;
Start with the prayer “Lord our Father” to receive His blessing of the food. Chant the hymn “Virgin Theotokos Rejoice ” and the Troparion “Archangels of Divine Armies”. Chant the Troparion to Saint Nicholas, asking the blessing of the saints. He also recommended sanctifying the food by sprinkling it with baptismal water.
According to Father Seraphim, all food should be consumed with gratefulness to God and with humility. When we eat to excess – on holidays, travelling or through our negligence or short-sightedness, we may be guilty of the sin of gluttony. We should not be apologetic but repent to God with a contrite heart, “I committed this sin through my infirmity. I repent. Please forgive me, O Lord.” Food becomes an instrument of our salvation when we take it gratefully as a gift from God.
We have explored at length genuine fasting and the sin of gluttony. We complete with the wisdom of two prominent saints.
“A full stomach always masks a hungry soul. Fasting is a feast of the soul. The more we fast, the greater the joy of our soul” (Saint Nicholas St. Nicholas Velimirovic).
“To benefit from fasting, a Christian should fast in the body and soul at all times” (Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk). May this fasting period benefit you physically and spiritually!