Monday, October 17, 2022


    Well, so I said I would write about the approach of the ancient Christian monastic desert fathers & mothers to sin, starting this week with gluttony. But can I just stop here for a minute and acknowledge the weight of imposter syndrome on this? Because what do I know? I'm not a scholar of ancient Christian asceticism. And I'm not a very good practitioner of modern monastic asceticism, either. What I am is a glutton, honestly. Any moderate progress I made during my first 3 years as a hermit, I've lost during the last year of stress since I decided to move overseas. I have no credibility on this topic, least of all with myself. That said ... I do believe in this stuff! I believe in it enough to want to keep trying it myself, to try again to get on track.

    The desert monks did not expect to master the tendency to gluttony quickly, it is one of the most fundamental and fiercest of the struggles with the will we can face. So, I'm writing this for myself, to explore my own relationship with food and drink, informed by the teaching on gluttony from John Cassian's Institutes. Because failure doesn't mean impossibility. It's just the "error" part of "trial and error." Again, I have come to see self-flagellation as prideful, because beating myself up for my weaknesses implies that I thought I wasn't supposed to have any. I'm weak. I'm human. I fail. Piling drama on top of my failures distracts me from learning from them. 

    So, then, the first thing about the monastic approach to gluttony is that it's not a diet. Cassian's chapter on gluttony starts and ends with this point: that everyone is different, each one's needs are different, and the same person needs more in some circumstances or times of life than in others. There are fasts and feasts, and hospitality always trumps self-discipline. The best practice, from the monasteries Cassian considered the strongest and holiest, was never to lay down a blanket rule for everybody to follow about what, when, and how much to eat. That's not to say that there were no rules about food, but rather to emphasize that rules themselves are not the point, they're just tools to help us to reach our real goal. Mindfulness is the point, and rules must yield to it. Rules must be firm enough to provide structure, without being too rigid. Rigid rules produce atrophy of the will; firm but flexible rules train and strengthen it.

    The second point is that from the monastic perspective, God is both the means and the end of all ascetical practice (the practice of loosing the grip of compulsivity in ourselves). That is, my work is twofold: on one hand, to make an effort to eat right, and on the other, to pray and meditate. You could call my work the "proximate means" to the end of defeating gluttony. But the ultimate means to improvement, by which I mean, the thing that actually allows me to succeed at all, to make any real progress in virtue, is the grace of God. What is grace? Grace is unearned help from God, propping up my weak will. I do not earn grace by refraining from sin; I refrain from sin with the aid of grace. I lay myself open to grace by acknowledging my need of it, and by asking God's help. And I am motivated in this whole life by a desire for contemplative union with God, which is what I mean by saying that God is also the "end." The grace of God is the means, contemplation of God is the end. 

    This goes along with another point Cassian spends a good amount of time on, which is that gluttony itself is not an isolated thing. To stick to a diet, all by itself, is a lot like what Alcoholics Anonymous calls being a "dry drunk." What I mean is, gluttony might be the first and most fundamental of the compulsions that we have to address in ourselves, but unless we also make progress in letting go of greed, anger, lust, pride, and all the rest of them, we're guaranteed to fall off the wagon. It's not about the food. It's about my whole soul, my thoughts, my feelings, my humility before God and neighbor.

    Probably half of my blog readers don't believe in God. I do, I love God and feel God's love vividly. Obviously the monks Cassian learned from also believed whole-heartedly in God. But honestly, there seems to me to be much more in common between Christian and Buddhist monasticism than there is between either of them and 99% of "diet" advice out in the world. And Buddhism does not define the means and the end of ascetical practice as "God." I have said before this thing that I truly believe, that the God of my understanding doesn't care whether or not you believe in "God." My God just wants you to be happy and thrive. So from an agnostic or non-theistic monastic perspective, you might perhaps say that the mindfulness practice itself (or maybe the dharma) is the means, and the end is enlightenment -- or just a state of "lightness," physical (since we're talking about gluttony) and also mental and emotional. The loosening of the grip of gluttony, the lightening of the constant load on limited willpower. 

    Cassian says, "there are three kinds of gluttony—first, that which urges the anticipation of the canonical hour for eating; then, that which rejoices only in filling the belly to repletion with any food whatsoever; and third, that which is delighted with more refined and delicate foods." So here, for me, some practical rules that I can try to apply to my gluttony problem:

  1. Don't neglect my mindfulness practice (the Divine Office, meditation, journalling), even -- especially -- when I'm not in the mood.
  2. Decide when I'm going to eat each day (2 or 3 meals? 5 or 6 smaller ones?), and when I'm not; set bells to ring for mealtimes, and stick to it for a week or two. If it's not working out, if I'm too hungry between meals or not hungry again at the next mealtime, don't give up. Just adjust as needed until I find something that works. Then stick to it, unless there's really a good reason not to.
  3. Serve myself less than I think I want. I got told "my eyes are bigger than my stomach" when I was a high-energy growing little kid, and neither has my mind learned to downsize portions with my slowing middle-aged metabolism. Second helpings are not a problem, but if I fill up my plate the first time, I'm bound to eat too much. 
  4. Don't get hung up on fancy menu plans. Yes, prefer sustainably-sourced, healthy food, but don't tell myself I'm doing a damn thing about the profound problems in the world food system by indulging in boutique organics from my nice urban chain supermarket. I'm not. Keep it simple, and donate the difference to some NGO that's really doing the work. 
  5. Once I find a plan that seems to work pretty well, if (or rather, when) I find myself tempted to depart from it, take the time to question why -- am I actually hungry? Working out, burning a lot of calories? Is it a special occasion, or a social occasion? Or am I just bored, depressed, anxious, avoiding a hard thing, and is there some healthier way to react to that? Pay attention to how it's going.
  6. It's OK to put particular focus on this one for a while, even a long while. But remember that all the virtues support each other, as do all the vices. If I find myself getting lazy (note: sloth ≠ rest, a topic for another day), or irritable, or envious, or discouraged, I need to pay attention to that, too, or I'll find myself backsliding in my eating habits. 

    And maybe, after all, there's something here that someone else might find useful. The experience of these desert monks, from such a radically different time and place and lifestyle from mine, tells me that gluttony must be almost a universal struggle. As soon as humans have access to enough food and any choices at all about what, when, and how much to eat, the will power starts to be taxed.

    God, grant us the grace to live mindfully in your care. Amen.

~~~  PEACE  ~~~

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