Sorting out a ‘Rule of Life’

One of the recommendations in the Catechism of the Canadian 1962 Book of Common Prayer is the creation of a personal rule of life. I’ve not investigated previous editions to know if they include this instruction. Nevertheless, I imagine few Canadians since 1962, let alone Anglicans at large beforehand, have followed through with this recommendation.

It is something that I have attempted before. I blogged about one attempt, and was told in the comments that I needed a spiritual father, otherwise I’d just fail.

As I reflect on the recommendations for individuals in The Apostolic Tradition as well as the reminders of asceticism for all believers that run through David W. Fagerberg’s On Liturgical Asceticism, I find myself musing on what my own ‘asceticism’, or askesis — the Greek word for training — or disciplina would look like.

As I sort it out, dealing with the passion of gluttony is one concern of mine, remembering that gluttony is not just eating too much (as yesterday here in Canada we celebrated Thanksgiving) but eating the wrong food and at the wrong time.

The other foundations must be prayer and Scripture-reading. I’ll post soon on the hours of prayer, I think. But I wonder if finding some way of praying at those times, as the ancient Christians and living monks do, might not be possible. Not a full-blown liturgy of the hours with set prayers, but times of prayer and remembrance, with maybe one or two offices proper mixed in?

What disciplines are you seeking to pursue in your own rule of life today?

Blogging Benedict: Food

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

It is fitting that today, the second day of Lent, I am blogging about food. For most people, Lenten discipline involves food in some way — giving up chocolate or coffee or alcohol or all sweet treats; fasting once or twice a week. In the Rule of Benedict, chapter 39, the abbot is to have discretion about the quantity of food to give the monks. They are to avoid over-indulgence.

The idea of discretion is in John Cassian, where it is considered foundational for the ascetic life. Many ascetics go too far and make themselves ill, for example. This is not merely theoretical or exemplary but a historical fact. John Chrysostom, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Francis of Assisi all damaged themselves through excessive fasting. Possibly Anselm of Canterbury as well, but I’m not sure (I forget).

For most of us, however, the danger is not excessive fasting but overeating, or, in Cassian’s vision, gluttony, which includes not just too much food but the wrong food or food at the wrong time. Hence why so many of us give up some delectable treat for Lent.

In chapter 40, alcohol also comes up:

We read that wine is not a suitable drink for monks, but since monks nowadays cannot be persuaded of this, let us at least agree to drink sparingly and not to excess, because wine causes even sensible people to behave foolishly. (p. 67, trans. White)

Interestingly, this is close to what Odysseus says about wine in Homer’s Odyssey, that it makes wise men say foolish things. Anyway, this is worth keeping in mind. Sometimes, for those of us with something of a straight-laced past for whom discovering ancient Christianity and the wider tradition has been liberating, alcohol can be a danger. I know some post-evangelicals who say things like, ‘I’m an Anglican because we can drink!’ Well, I’d have hoped the BCP or the poetry of John Donne or something like that would be better reasons to be Anglican. And sometimes, people not only drink to excess but start swapping the same ridiculous stories as those ‘in the world.’

I occasionally wonder if moderation is the harder route, and if it is easier either to be a lush or a teetotaller. Perhaps I’m too hard on everyone else?

Anyway, let us remember the words of Benedict about wine, as well as the Bible, which does, after all, call wine a mocker and strong drink a brawler. Christian freedom includes alcohol. Christian holiness restricts its amount.

Fasting – because Lent is only a month away

StJohnCassian_vice4We’ve just cleared the Christmas season, today being the First Sunday After the Epiphany. You might be thinking that now it’s time for your church leaders to kick back and relax. You’d be wrong, though! Even if all they’re doing is Lenten liturgies, and not organising special studies or thematic sermons, your clergy and lay leaders are probably already engaged in preparing for Lent. Easter is early this year, March 27, so Lent is early, too. Ash Wednesday comes on February 10. One month away.

My friend at the Urban Abbey in Thunder Bay, which I’ve mentioned before, graciously included me in their Lenten preparations, asking:

do you have some resources you would suggest for a six week preaching series on the role of fasting, and how it relates to Lent- even some crucial, often overlooked aspects- or simply put, what would you focus on?

I’ve been too busy preparing for a job interview to have given it a lot of thought, unfortunately. The interview has passed, though. So here I am, blogging about fasting. I still have to think more about this for my friend, though…

The first resource I would like to draw everyone’s attention to is my dear friend John Cassian (d. ca 435). In Book 5 of his Institutes, John Cassian discusses the ‘Spirit of Gluttony’ as part of his analysis of the Eight Deadly Thoughts/Spirits (these are an adaptation of Evagrius Ponticus that will be modified by Gregory the Great into the Seven Deadly Sins).

One of the themes running through both of Cassian’s major works (The Institutes and The Conferences) is discernment. Discernment is central to the disciplined life. It keeps you from doing more ascetic things than you can reasonably handle — a problem for ancient monks — as well as from being too lax (if a discipline is doing you no good at all or is really, really easy, is it really evidence of your sanctity?). Discernment is also helpful in our relationships with others — we cannot judge others if their rule of fasting or prayer is different, or if they are sore tempted by things we barely feel.1

Therefore, the first rule of fasting that comes out of Cassian is not to obsess over what others do. The second is related to it — set a fast that will challenge you (one meal, two meals, three meals, 24 hours, two days, a week, 40 days, or maybe two days out of a week or whatever). On a few occasions in Book 5 of the Institutes, the difference of the rule of fasting in different monastic or ecclesial communities addressed, as is the issue that a lot of monks break their rule of fasting in order to show hospitality to Cassian and his friend Germanus as they travel around the famous ascetics of Egypt.

The third rule is to remember what the purpose of fasting is.

Fasting is not an end in itself. As Cassian discusses in the first Conference, the point of all ascetic effort, of all the disciplines, is purity of heart. The goal of purity of heart is to see God (cf. Matthew 5:8). In Institues Book 5, the argument is set forth that we cannot attain to spiritual purity until we have learned to control our bodies. The spirit of gluttony lies at the root of many of our problems; if we can tame the stomach, we can start to tame the thoughts that run through our heads.

We need to remember that we humans are, indeed, spiritual beings, but that we are also a psychosomatic unity. Everything we do is embodied. The embodied reality of human life means that Christian disciplines are not simply spiritual and intellectual — prayer, Scripture reading, contemplative prayer, praise of our God — but they are also physical — fasting, kneeling, prostrations, Eucharist, baptism, sexual purity.

As Sergei Bulgakov says, we mortify the flesh in order to gain a body.

I hope these thoughts help as we look forward to the Lenten season.


1. One of the stories out of the Egyptian desert is about a young monk who was struggling with the spirit of fornication to a very high degree. He went to seek the advice and wisdom of one of the elders, and explained his thoughts and desires and temptations about fornication. The elder had never really suffered from strong temptations to fornication and was horrified at what he heard and berate the young monk so such an extent that the younger monk was on the verge of giving it up. An angel was watching and was not well-pleased, so he opened the elder monk up to just a small fraction of what temptations the younger monk was suffering, and the elder monk could barely handle it. The moral of the story is that you don’t know another person’s suffering and temptations; what they need from you are your advice, your prayers, and your love, not your judgement. That’s the role of discernment.

Gluttony: Alive and Well

A friend of mine posted a link on facebook to this article from The Atlantic: “The Moral Crusade Against Foodies.” It’s an interesting article that delves into the world of food writing and the gastronomes/epicureans/gourmets/foodies who write about food.

It is a world that fixates on food, the eating thereof, the production thereof, and so forth. Usually in quantity, often unusual. Ultimately, the various problems concerning this lifestyle and mindset that arise in the article are boiled down to coming from the singlemindedness of the foodie.

This is, at a certain level, what gluttony is (the author of the article points this out).

Gluttony is when we focus too much on the appetitive aspect of our person. It is when we succumb to concupiscence concerning the sensual pleasures of food and drink to an unhealthy degree. It is the dethroning of God by Food.

Of course, John Cassian (our old friend) goes farther (he would). John Cassian tells us that gluttony is not merely eating too much or fixating on food but is basically any misuse of food as we seek to live a disciplined life. Primarily he is concerned with monks who eat at the wrong time — ie. too early — or monks who eat the wrong food — ie. not part of the Rule — or monks who eat too much — the common use of the term gluttony.

Given that John Cassian also teaches us that we shouldn’t eat enough to be satisfied, I don’t think we should simply apply all of his teachings on gluttony to our lives. Nevertheless, I think a few thoughts are worth contemplating in this regard.

First, eating at the wrong time. Or even eating too fast, if you ask me. Our bodies are a gift from God, and our bodily state can affect our spiritual state since we are psychosomatic unities.* Eating too fast means we don’t digest properly and sometimes our body doesn’t even know it’s full. It can lead to accidental overeating. Eating at the wrong time is also interesting because we often eat just whenever we (I) feel a little bit hungry — and eat whatever we can get our hands on first, be it a Mars bar, a bag of crisps, or something else unhealthy. Why not hold out against hunger until you’re home and can eat something healthier and cheaper?

Second, eating the wrong food. I eat the wrong food a lot. Soda pop, Mars bars, other chocolate bars, chocolate flapjacks, crisps, chips, other deep-fried items, greasy pizza, salty popcorn, on it goes. Now, I’m not entirely sold out to asceticism. I think we can treat ourselves to tasty, unhealthy food — but only in moderation. A can of pop or a chocolate bar every day, or even every other day, is not treating your body as it deserves. It is surrendering endurance to the easy, tasty, delectable way out. It is not discipline but laxity, surrendering to the appetitive part of your soul. It is, simply put, gluttony.

Eating too much, the third, is standard gluttony. But it can call out to any of us, at an Indian buffet, or a really cheap fish & chip shop, or the deal at the cinema with the gigantic popcorn, or what have you. This is healthy eating 101, though. We don’t need fifth-century monks telling us we shouldn’t overeat. Overeating when combined with unhealthy eating can lead to obesity and ultimately kill you.

But before that, it can kill your soul.

So let’s be more disciplined with our food intake as to when, what, and how much! Maybe our prayer lives and devotional times will pick up. Maybe we’ll hate it. But I’m pretty sure it will be good for us.

*Or noetopsychosomatic?