Fasting and Almsgiving

As I mentioned in this post, each month I’m spending some of my devotional energy on one of the spiritual disciplines discussed by Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline. Last month was prayer, and the next chapter is fasting, so June has theoretically been the month of fasting.

Fasting is an interesting discipline, and can be hard to talk about. It is very seldom practised today, and has in the past been used as a demonstration of feats of devotion to Our Lord that lead to pride. So when people talk about their own fasting, they may feel pride. Or they may feel proud that they aren’t proud. Or they may feel proud about their honesty that they struggle with fasting. Or … and so forth.

For many, fasting is a source of spiritual breakthrough. No doubt it would be so for more, if only more of us actually fasted with some semblance of regularity.

But is fasting enough?

No.

Mortifying the flesh is never enough. This is the mainstream patristic consensus. We may have to mortify the flesh in order to gain a body (Sergei Bulgakov), but if fasting or vigils or standing on pillars or wearing hair shirts or inverted hedgehog vests is not combined with other disciplines, it is meaningless.

As one of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (found here) relates:

A brother said to an old man: “There are two brothers. One of them stays in his cell quietly, fasting for six days at a time, and imposing on himself a good deal of discipline, and the other serves the sick. Which one of them is more acceptable to God?” The old man replied: “Even if the brother who fasts six days were to hang himself up by the nose, he could not equal the one who serves the sick.” Here we learn that love is above fasting, that we must not presume to put our fasting above “the more excellent way,” the “new commandment” to love one another.

The Western Fathers, you will be pleased to know, agree. Leo the Great believes that fasting can help cover our sins (and whether you agree with that theology or not, the second half is important), but only when connected to acts of charity and compassion for the poor.

St Augustine is similar, maintaining that of the two, it is acts of mercy and charity that are more important. If you give alms without fasting, that can still be a good work. But fasting without the other virtues is mere flesh.

I do not write today’s post to discourage fasting. Far from it! Would that many more of us observed both fasts from all food and abstinences from others on a regular basis! But when we fast (as Our Lord says it, not if) we should ever be seeking the Giver of good gifts as well as to do good deeds ourselves.

One recommendation I read somewhere (I think it was in something by Richard Foster, but it seems not to have been Celebration of Discipline, so that could be a false attribution) was to pray about a specific topic when we fast. Say, a temptation that has besetting us. Or maybe you know of someone who has a big test or an important meeting at work — you could fast and pray for them that day. Or fast and pray for persecuted Christians.

And then, let us give up of our material possessions even as we give up eating. Leo, in fact, recommends his congregation to give what they did not eat to the poor. Imagine that, if we fasted, and reckoned what we saved, and either donated the money to a charity or the food to a food bank! That would be the sort of fasting the Lord wants to see:

Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke? (Isaiah 58:6 NKJV)

Evagrius, Avarice, and Us

So, although I’ve fallen off the Read the Fathers cart (but hope to hop on again soon!), I’m still very much in the world of the Fathers. And since Thursday, I’ve returned a few times to the Desert Fathers and Mothers, who were my entry point into the patristic landscape of theology and spirituality.

This morning, over tea and toast, I read Evagrius Ponticus’ brief treatise ‘[To Eulogios.] On the Vices Opposed to the Virtues’, in Robert E. Sinkewicz, Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus (a translation of all the extant Greek versions of Evagrius’ ascetic writings). Herein Evagrius has some good things to say about anger, and I’ll probably blog on them soon.

But what caught my eye was ch. 3, ‘Avarice and freedom from possessions’:

Avarice is the parsimony of idols, the prophecy of the crowd, a vote for stinginess, a hoarding mentality, a wealth of captivity, a race of injustice, an abundance of illnesses, a diviner of many years, an enchanter for industriousness, a counsellor of sleeplessness, poverty of the belly, meagreness of foods, insatiable madness, a wickedness of many cares.

Freedom from possessions is the uprooting of avarice and the rooting of freedom from it, a fruit of love and a cross of life, a life free of suffering, a treasure free of envy, a heaven free of care, a sun without distraction, immeasurable matter, incomprehensible wealth, a scythe for cares, the practice of the Gospels, the world readily abandoned, a fast-running contestant. (PG 79.1141D; p. 63 in English)

I think every culture and every age is susceptible to certain of the Eight Thoughts* more than others, although all of us are beset by all of them to a greater or lesser degree. Today, we are hounded and beset on all sides by avarice — greed — in the ‘West’.

Many of us will not think that we are. But just as Cassian has thrown aside the veil covering our gluttony, so Evagrius here removes the mask of generousness that hides our avarice. Do you have ‘a hoarding mentality’? Does your desire for possessions or for money lead to injustice (whether directly by you or indirectly by companies and corporations)? Are you industriousness at work not for a job well done but a pay check well fattened? Do you worry about the fate of your earthly possessions — whether iTunes won’t allow you to pass your music on to your son or whether thieves will break in and steal?

Avarice is an attitude of the heart. When we are not free to give away our things or spend our money generously or give to the poor or loan things; when we feel a need to own that which we could as easily borrow — whether from a library or a friend; when we neglect other duties to make more cash; when we not only have an abundance but do not share that abundance with others; when we are never willing to open our homes up to friends and neighbours — we exhibit symptoms of avarice.

And the cure for avarice? Simplicity. As we shall see later.

*Although in this text, Evagrius gives us nine, adding Jealousy between Vainglory and Pride.

Anger (with a little help from the Desert Fathers and Evagrius)

Sts. Anthony and PaulI used to have a lot of anger issues. Rarely directed towards fellow humans (usually inanimate objects or myself) and certainly never physically violent — at least regarding humans (in first-year undergrad I once chucked a book across my room and made a hole in the wall; the book was the object of my anger). These issues, which rarely but still manifest themselves to do include a lot of physical energy and, if directed at a person, yellling.

Earlier today I got really angry with someone in a café. Which is always awkward. And I can’t get it out of my mind and focus on my work.

Out of remorse for the book-throwing and to mask my folly back in first-year undergrad, I memorised and posted on the wall over the hole James 1:19:

Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. (NIV)

Anger, according the fourth-century ascetic movement (I’m thinking mostly of Cassian and Evagrius here) is a result of our inability, postlapsarianly (?), to control the irascible part of our soul. Irascible is just a Latin-based word that means ‘anger-able’. If we were holy, our irascible part would only result in anger towards actual injustice and the abandonment of the worship of God, as we see in Christ clearing the moneychangers out of the Temple. Most of us are not holy, though. And most of our anger arises out of selfishness, out of frustration, out of fallenness, out of a need to be right, out of wounded self.

So, as an exercise for myself, I’m writing this and wondering: What is the Desert teaching on anger? I have here beside me, pulled from my pile of Late Antique/Early Mediaeval monastic texts, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection as translated by Benedicta Ward, and The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer by Evagrius Ponticus, translated by John Eudes Bamberger. Both are from Cistercian, whose monastic ressourcement I have extolled previously.

From the Sayings (the numbers in brackets are the number of each saying by Abba; this is not exhaustive):

Abba Agathon (19): A man who is angry, even if he were to raise the dead, is not acceptable to God.

Abba Ammonas (3): I have spent fourteen years in Scetis asking God night and day to grant me the victory over anger.

Abba Isaiah (8): When someone wishes to render evil for evil, he can injure his brother’s soul even by a single nod of the head.

Abba Isaiah (11) was also asked what anger is and he replied, ‘Quarrelling, lying and ignorance.’

Abba John the Dwarf (5): Going up the road again towards Scetis with some ropes, I saw the camel driving talking and he made me angry; so, leaving my goods, I took to flight.

Abba John the Dwarf (6): On another occasion in summertime, [Abba John] heard a brother talking angrily to his neighbour, saying, ‘Ah! you too?’ So leaving the harvest, he took to flight.

Abba Nilus (1): Everything you do in revenge against a brother who has harmed you will come back to your mind at the time of prayer.

Abba Nilus (2): Prayer is the seed of gentleness and the absence of anger.

Abba Nilus (6): If you want to pray properly, do not let yourself be upset or you will run in vain.

It is clear that the Desert Fathers (and, undoubtedly, Mothers) had a fairly bleak view of human anger. Evagrius Ponticus, who was a spiritual master who dwelt among them and was highly influential in later Byzantine spirituality, lists anger in the eight deadly thoughts, which are precursors to Gregory the Great’s Seven Deadly Sins. From The Praktikos:

There are eight general and basic categories of thoughts in which are included every thought. First is that of gluottony, then impurity, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory, and last of all, pride. It is not in our our power to determine whether we are disturbed by these thoughts, but it is up to us to decide if they are to linger within us or not and whether or not they are to stir up our passions. (6)

What, we may ask Evagrius, is anger?

The most fierce passion is anger. In fact it is defined as a boiling and stirring up of wrath against one who has given injury — or is thought to have done so. It constantly irritates the soul and above all at the time of prayer it seizes the mind and flashes the picture of the offensive person before one’s eyes. Then there comes a time when it persists longer, is transformed into indignation, stirs up alarming experiences by night. (Praktikos 11)

Evagrius is insightful. These and the Sayings are all well and good — but how do we fight anger?

Reading, vigils and prayer — these are the things that lend stability to the wandering mind. Hunger, toil and solitude are the means of extinguishing the flames of desire. Turbid anger is calmed by the singing of Psalms, by patience and almsgiving. But all these practices are to be engaged in according to due measure and at the appropriate times. What is untimely done, or done without measure, endures but a short time. And what is short-lived is more harmful than profitable. (Praktikos 15)

He has much more to say on anger than that. What is clear is that anger is not imagined to be part of the holy lifestyle of the Desert monk. And we are to fight anger through prayer, through Psalmody, by patience, and by almsgiving. The outward disciplines combined with an inner seeking after God, then, will help people like me be free from anger.

What more remains to me than this — Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Friday’s Failed Fast

Because it’s Lent, and because it’s a good habit I’d like to re-acquire, I fasted last Friday. Until lunch time.

That would be a fast fail.

To ease my body into the world of fasting, I was only going to skip lunch, you see. All went well at the beginning. Every Friday is Bacon Roll Friday, so after I’d finished my bacon roll, I was set to go foodless until supper.

I went to work, and sat down at my desk, where I was reading a book about Leo the Great. After a couple of hours, I got a little hungry. That’s the way I am, but even when not fasting I’ve been making myself either hold out until lunch, anyway, or eat portions of my lunch throughout the day so as not to overeat. Tall, ectomorphic men can be overweight without looking it.

Anyway, this was fine. I was brushing up on my fifth-century history.

But around noonish, the problem went beyond hunger.

I have been a student for most of the past 11 years. I sit hunched over desks and tables for a living. Well, I’m not supposed to hunch. But it is hard not to. Especially if you are hypermobile like me. This means that not only am I really flexible (an asset when I was a dancer), and not only do I hyperextend most of my major joints, it is also really easy for me to slouch, and when I slouch my slouch goes farther than that of the average man.

So I started getting a pain in my left shoulder blade, extending down through my entire arm. This happens. I have exercises that, in the long term, will make it better, but nothing can make it go entirely away in an instant, even if I sit with good posture.

One thing does help, though. Ibuprofen.

But I checked the Internet and the box of the Ibuprofen, and you’re not supposed to take it on an empty stomach, especially if you take it fairly often. It can give you ulcers.

And then I got  headache.

So that was enough of that!

The pain and the hunger were making it impossible for me to focus. So I closed the book about Leo (it’s not an especially good one, anyway), and off I went home to have some lunch, Ibuprofen, and then worked from there for the afternoon.

I tell you this story because very often people like me blog about triumphs. Or we don’t even blog about our own triumphs and struggles, but about the theory or the advice of others. Rather than telling of my own weaknesses in the spiritual life, I make myself appear an authority by providing for you the wisdom of the Desert Fathers or John Cassian or Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica or John Wesley or Leo or Ambrose and so forth.

But I am, as stated in my last post, just a patient in a hospital discussing remedies with fellow patients.

And some of the remedies I haven’t really tried that often. And sometimes, things just don’t work like they do in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. And we need to realise that, chances are, the Desert Fathers faced these same issues, too.

(Actually, they probably didn’t face the issue I face because they spent their time either praying or in manual labour, and I have been informed by physiotherapists and I’ve even seen a book on the subject, that if we use our bodies — without breaking them or abusing them — a lot of the back issues such as mine will go away. It is the indolent, modern westerner who has so many back problems, not the active, ancient Coptic farmer.)

The Bible in the Ancient Church: Humility and Christ

Greek Majuscule Bible, ‘Codex Vaticanus’ (aka ‘B’); probably from Egypt during Athanasius’ lifetime (4th c)

My final talk on Ancient Christianity in Cyprus was ‘The Bible in the Ancient Church.’ Most of what I had to say I have said here before. I discussed allegory and typology, bringing up Melito of Sardis and Ephraim the Syrian. I also discussed the literal meaning of Scripture, and read out a passage from John Chrysostom’s commentary on Romans.

But what was new territory for me, really, was to discuss humility before Scripture and Christocentric interpretation.

What do the ancients say about humility?

The general attitude is embodied in a few sayings as follows:

Antony of Egypt once said, ‘I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, “What can get through from such snares?” Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility.”’[1]

Abba Poemen said, “As the breath which comes out of his nostrils, so does a man need humility and the fear of God.”

Isaac the Syrian, although a bit later than we are looking this week, once said, ‘No one has understanding if he is not humble, and he who lacks humility lacks understanding.’

Another story out of Egypt tells of a group of believers discussing a passage of Scripture. Everyone gave his own interpretation, speaking his opinion and mind as it came to him. The eldest believer there remained silent, however. One of the others said to him, ‘What about you? What do you think?’ He replied that he did not know, for he was not wise enough to discern the meanings of the Holy Scriptures.

I do not know that we should be so humble as that, but I do think the idea of approaching the Bible with humility is important. When we look at our many fractured denominations, not just between Protestant, Catholic, and various Eastern churches, but within evangelical Protestantism, each claiming that it has the one, true interpretation of Scripture, we should realise that perhaps some humility is in order.

Christocentric interpretation is probably even more important than humility in the face of Scripture. In his book On the Incarnation of the Word of God, Athanasios of Alexandria, Egypt, writes:

And so following the guidance of the sacred word we may now say fearlessly and unhesitatingly that the Son of man came down from heaven, and that the Lord of Glory was crucified: because in virtue of the mystery of the Incarnation, the Son of God became Son of man, and the Lord of Glory was crucified in (the nature of) the Son of man. What more is there need of? It would take too long to go into details: for time would fail me, were I to try to examine and explain everything which could be brought to bear on this subject. For one who wished to do this would have to study and read the whole Bible. For what is there which does not bear on this, when all Scripture was written with reference to this? (ch. 8)

As far as Athanasios is concerned, the whole point of Scripture is to point towards Christ, either as shadow, type, prophecy in the Old Testament or as fulfilment, proclamation, expectation in the New. This is the general paradigm for reading Scripture.

So we read Irenaios of Lyons, a man born in Izmir, writing in the late 100s about Christ as the second Adam and then going so far as to make parallels between Eve and Mary; he argues that just as sin entered through the disobedience of one woman, so did redemption begin through the obedience of another. When we read this, we don’t have to agree with him. But I, for one, applaud his desire to apply the Old Testament to the Gospel.

If the Bible does not have supernatural significance, if the events of the Old Testament, the bloody, violent purging of the Promised Land and the bloody, violent worship in the Tabernacle, hold only historical value about the beliefs of the people of Israel, I have no business with the Old Testament; I would rather read Homer or Vergil. But if they are part of something bigger, part of the grand narrative of God’s cosmic outworking of redemption and salvation for all of humankind, from Adam to Christ’s Second Coming, and if I can see Christ’s fulfilment of all things in the Old Testament—that’s a Scripture worth knowing.

Furthermore, it’s an approach to the Old Testament that is approved by the New: Christ is the Passover Lamb, Matthew references Christ fulfilling OT prophecies, Christ refers to himself fulfilling statements in the Psalms, Paul refers to an allegorical or typological meaning of Hagar and Sarah, Hebrews sees the Tabernacle and Temple worship as shadows and figures of what has come in Christ, 1 Peter sees Noah’s Ark as a prefigurement of baptism.

These are the ones that sprang to mind immediately while writing my first draft. There are no doubt more. With this attitude and this nexus of thinking in hand, I think we can come up with better exegesis and better preaching and deeper ethics than we often do. And maybe we’ll even smooth over some disputes.


[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, trans. B. Ward. Kalamazoo: 1975, Antony 7. See also Abraham of Nathpar, On Prayer 3, in Brock, The Syriac Fathers on Prayer. Kalamazoo: 1987, 193; Martyrius (Sahdona), The Book of Perfection, ‘On the Office,’ 10, in Brock 1987, 206.

A Saying of the Desert Fathers and the Drive to Consume

Library of the Benedictine Monastery of Admont; not quite what the Egyptians had in mind!

Perhaps the impending arrival of that High Holy Day for my American friends, Black Friday, caused this to come to mind; perhaps the proximity to Advent and, therefore, the shop-fest leading up to Christmas; perhaps it was the Holy Spirit — whatever the source, the other day a saying of the Desert Fathers (or Mothers) came to mind.

I don’t remember which collection of Sayings (Apophthegmata) or stories this particular saying comes from although I know it was not The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Sr. Benedicta Ward’s translation of the Greek alphabetical collection. Probably the Latin systematic collection (trans. by Sr. Benedicta for Penguin, The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks), although part of me wonders if it was the Lausiac History of Palladius.

Now that I’ve bored you with my uncertainty of the source, the story, as I recall, is that one day one of the Desert Fathers was walking along and came upon the cell of one of the brothers. He came on inside, and there he beheld several books on a shelf. He scolded the brother for having accumulated all these books, telling him that these books are bread for the hungry, clothing for the naked, medicine for the sick.

The story is evidently part of the network of various stories, sayings, and teachings found in the different collections and recensions and translations of Apophthegmata, hagiography, travellers’ tales, letters, and so forth, that seeks to create the image of the true monk as being an uneducated peasant or a wealthy person who has rejected education for the simple life of the contemplative mystic, turning aside from Greek philosophy and the false wisdom of much theology for the true wisdom that comes directly from God.

Such ‘true’ monks no doubt existed from the beginning, but it was not until the First Origenist Controversy at the turn of the fifth century that they were held up as the paragons of true monasticism in opposition to those — such as Evagrius Ponticus — who were tainted with worldly wisdom and education. From henceforth, this dichotomy continually arises in our literature about the Desert Fathers and Mothers, from Egypt through Palestine into Syria, into the sixth century and re-emerging throughout the centuries in such quarrels as the Hesychast Controversy involving Gregory Palamas (on whom I have written this) in the 1300s.

However, take caution! Be wary of these sources. These wee, memorable Sayings claim to be the direct truth and represent the earliest layer of monastic tradition. However, the collections of the Apophthegmata are mostly fifth- and sixth-century in origin. They will be edited accordingly, following the First and even Second Origenist Controversies. And other sources, such as the sixth-century Lives of various Palestinian monks by Cyril of Scythopolis, are highly partisan in the Origenist controversies which always pitted simplicity against wordliness and philosophy.

I don’t think this saying and many of the others about learning and books actually represent an anti-intellectualist strand in earliest monasticism. I would counter that this particular saying is actually about the accumulation of wealth, what I have called ‘intellectual consumerism.’ Books in the ancient world are highly valuable objects; it costs a lot to make a book entirely by hand, whether of papyrus or vellum (the story, in Egypt, would be about papyrus books). It was a criticism of gathering up things that moth and rust can destroy, not about learning from books.

However, we do have references throughout our sources that are decidedly anti-intellectual. I would argue that these are not about learning per se but about a. pagan learning vs. Jesus who is the Truth and b. humility. Humility is a pervasive monastic virtue, and — as the Scriptures say — knowledge puffs up. Therefore, intellectual folks need to be put in our place. We are no better than our less-educated Christian brethren. And we should remember that.

When the First and Second Origenist Controversies broke out, these sayings took on a life in polemic. Suddenly, rather than being about humbling the proud — intellectual or not — they were about winning a fight, about proving that your Origenist opponents were heretics steeped in pagan learning and un-Christian philosophy, regardless of the truth.

What to take away from this? Besides being cautious of what you read, be humble and buy fewer books at the least, I would say. 😉

Secondary Sources Informing This Post:

Daniel Hombergen, The Second Origenist Controversy: A new perspective on Cyril of Scythopolis’ monastic biographies as historical sources for sixth-century origenism. Studia Anselmiana.

AMC Casiday, Tradition and Theology in St. John Cassian.

What is passionlessness (apatheia), Clement?

This Thursday, my students are reading some excerpts from Clement of Alexandria (saint of the week here) and Origen in Stevenson’s A New Eusebius as we discuss the rise of intellectual Christianity. These are very interesting documents that give us a bit of a view into the intellectual climate of third-century Christianity.

While the rise of Christian asceticism and mysticism are often popularly portrayed as having their roots solely in the so-called ‘Desert Tradition’ (ie. Antony and the Desert Fathers and Mothers), it is clear to me as I read Clement of Alexandria that his thoughtworld is the same, and he no doubts has precedents himself.*

The word that hit me in this regard as I was reading the assigned selections from his Stromateis was passionlessness — a rendering of apatheia, also sometimes rendered dispassion. Clement writes:

Such an one is no longer continent, but has reached a state of passionlessness, waiting to put on the divine image. (IV.22.138.1; Stevenson p. 185)

What is apatheia, though? It is a word with an unhappy future after Clement, getting caught up in the First Origenist Controversy of the late 300s and early 400s, and no doubt in the sixth-century Second Origenist Controversy. It figures large in the work of Evagrius Ponticus, the learned spiritual master of the Egyptian desert who has left a mark on Eastern Christian spirituality directly, on Western through our old friend John Cassian. Cassian renders apatheia into Latin as puritas cordis — purity of heart.

Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God (Mt 5:8), after all.

Here is one of Clement’s descriptions of his gnostic as he progresses:

He, then, who has first moderated his passions and trained himself for impassibility, and developed to the beneficence of gnostic perfection, is here equal to the angels. Luminous already, and like the sun shining in the exercise of beneficence, he speeds by righteous knowledge through the love of God to the sacred abode, like as the apostles. (VI.13.105.1; Stevenson p. 185)

Apatheia is the moderation of the passions, then. And what are the passions? The selections I see before me do not tell, but I’ve blogged about my own perspective thereon before. They are the unreasoning movements within and without that assail us and can lead us down different paths, at times bad ones. Evagrius and Cassian give us eight deadly thoughts, or logismoi, to watch out for as we go about our lives. Avoiding these thoughts and exerting our intellect in a good way will help us navigate the world of the passions.

… the perpetual exertion of the intellect is the essence of an intelligent being, which results from an uninterrupted process of admixture, and remains eternal contemplation, a living substance. (IV.22.135.4)

The goal of passionlessness is contemplation, is, as in Cassian, is the vision of Heaven:

At any rate, after he has reached the final ascent in the flesh, he still continues to advance, as it fit, and presses on through the holy Hebdomad into the Father’s house, to that which is indeed the Lord’s abode, being destined there to be, as it were, a light standing and abiding for ever, absolutely secure from all vicissitude. (VII.10.57.5; Stevenson p. 187)

I have not read the entirety of Clement’s Stromateis, but I do know the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) provide a good place to start for thinking on these things, as does Evagrius’ Praktikos and the Chapters on Prayer.

*If we believe Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, these are Platonic. Given Clement’s use of the terms gnosis and gnostic, I wouldn’t be surprised if he is not appropriating Gnostic ideas for (proto-)orthodox ends.