Fasting as Askêsis

“The strife which the monks felt to be a necessary condition of all spiritual advance took place in two regions. There was strife against the body — the struggle with physical needs, desires, and passions. There was also the struggle against infirmities and failings of the soul — spiritual strife. In each region the strife is, strictly speaking, an asceticism, that is to say, an exercise undertaken with the object of attaining some further end. In the case of the physical asceticism of the hermits it is especially necessary to understand the meaning of the words we use and the real nature of the practices described. Asceticism (askêsis) means an exercise, and an exercise is an entirely useless and meaningless thing unless it is undertaken with a view to something to be gained by its use. When St. Paul speaks of “exercising” himself he says that he does so in order to have a conscience void of reproach. In exactly the same way the monks practised exercise, asceticism (askêsis), not as if the things they did were in themselves good, but simply as a means to the attainment of that perfection which they desired.
desert-trees
The most striking form which the physical asceticism of the hermits assumed was fasting. There were other forms, but fasting was the most esteemed, and it is of fasting that we read most in the stories of their lives. There are in the annals of Egyptian monasticism some instances of terribly severe and prolonged fasts. There were hermits who ate only once every two or three days. A common practice was to eat nothing until after sunset. There was no attempt, at all events in Lower Egypt, to establish anything like a uniform rule on the subject of fasting. It was recognised that the capacity for fasting varied greatly in different individuals. One man might eat what seemed to be a great deal, and yet truly fast. Another might eat very little, and yet be a glutton. So far as the advice of the greatest Fathers can be said to form a rule, it may be expressed in the words — “Do not eat to satiety.” In the spirit of this advice each hermit regulated the time of his own meals and the quantity and quality of his food as seemed best to himself.

The end which the hermits hoped to attain by fasting was the subjugation of the lusts of the flesh. The hermit who disdained the exercise of fasting was compared to a horse without a bridle. How far the hermits were from regarding fasting as an end in itself, or even as invariably the best means for overcoming fleshly lusts, may be seen from the fact that young men were sometimes advised to eat more and fast less, so as to obtain more strength to resist the attacks of their spiritual enemies. Apart, however, from the practice of fasting as an asceticism, an exercise undertaken for a purpose, the hermits fasted in simple obedience to the Lord’s teaching and in sympathy with His fasting. This is part of their whole conception of the religious life as a literal imitation of Christ.

Fasting, being a merely physical exercise, is regarded always by the hermits as a practice which ought to be discontinued directly it interfered in the smallest degree with the attainment of a virtue or the fulfilment of a higher kind of duty. Thus, if success in fasting led a man into danger of becoming proud or vainglorious, it was better for him to eat, even to eat flesh. A hermit, whose severe fasting led him to envy a brother whose conditions of life were pleasanter, had better eat flesh and drink wine than fall into such a sinful state. In the same way it was felt to be better for a man to break his rule of fasting than to assert himself by keeping it when others in his company wished to eat. Active charity, such as manifests itself in hospitality to strangers was always to be preferred before fasting. It might happen that a hermit, whose ordinary observance was very strict, would break his fast even seven times in one day if seven separate strangers came to his cell demanding entertainment. In so doing he was right, for the lower duty, of fasting according to his rule, had only given place to a higher one, love showing itself in hospitality.”
wisdom of the desert
From James Hannay “The Wisdom of the Desert” Chapter IX: On Fasting
http://www3.nd.edu/Departments/Maritain/etext/wd09.htm

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