During my New Year’s week in the hospital for gut issues I was seen by several doctors. Each of them had a different set of instructions on if and/or what I could eat or drink. I would have orders reversed more than once in the same day. One meal I ate what I wanted. The next meal I fasted from food and drink, only to wind up with hot prune juice and graham crackers for a bedtime snack that night. For me, eating became a practical space of letting go of control, and being grateful for what I was given, when it was offered.
My hospital experience would have seemed less abnormal to fourth century desert dwellers (well, minus the hot prune juice). The desert fathers spoke of excessive attention to food and drink as the passions (demons) of the body to be defeated through self-control. The temptation to give into these passions were “lighter and more frequent” than other temptations, yet the impulse of desert spirituality was to nip hard at these “lesser” passions. Holding these lighter passions in check made the soul stronger to battle the less frequent, yet heavier passions to possessiveness and, heaviest of all, to vainglory and pride.
Evagrius writes, “When our soul desires a variety of foods, then it should be confined to bread and water to make it thankful for a mere mouthful” (Evagrius Essentials). Spiritual life in the desert prized internal freedom so much, that anything that distracting needed to be taken in hand.
These “lighter” passions can also be called appetites: those needs of the body we share with the beasts: hunger, thirst, rest and restlessness. They are intended to serve us, not to master us. Practical desert spirituality placed steady emphasis on keeping these basic needs in check.
I think of these appetites as the target of first tier temptations. Like the lowest level of a video game, the desert abbas and ammas understood that overcoming the temptations connected to our bodily needs were essential to growth and freedom in the Christian life.
We live in a different time, and our understanding of care for our bodies does not include limiting ourselves to one meal a day or one hour of sleep a night. Yet we can still face temptations that rob us of the interior simplicity so desired in the desert. I find any extreme focus on what or how much I eat brings a compulsiveness that is antithetical to freedom of any kind. Either I’m medicating pain and reaching for
anything, or counting how many carrots I eat. Either way I am caught in temptation: in the first case I act as though I really do live by bread alone, and nothing (or no one) else will fill me. In the latter case I am mastered by what I do and do not eat, and spend far too much time thinking about me.
I taste freedom in this area when I don’t think about food except when I am hungry and need to eat. And here, I share the deep impulse of desert spirituality: to live inside the Sermon on the Mount.
“Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what your will drink.. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6)