Friday, March 1, 2013

How to Partake of Food, or, A Heavy Belly Clouds the Soul

 As this is a time of penance and fasting when more attention is paid to how and how much we eat, I thought posting some words from St. Gregory of Sinai (1265-1346), a great Eastern monk and saint, on the effects of eating and how much we should eat.  I am not posting for his definite diet (though the limited bread and water is interesting to consider) but more for his principles, such as how the belly affects prayer, how each such determine his own course of holy eating, how the ill should not have restrictions, how to refrain from gluttony by the three degrees of eating, etc.

"What shall I say about the belly, the queen of the passions?  If you can deaden or half-deaden it, do not relent.  It has mastered me, beloved, and I worship it as a slave and vassal, this abettor of the demons and dwelling-place of the passions.  Through it we fall and through it—when it is well-disciplined—we rise again....

As the fathers have pointed out, bodies vary greatly in their need for food.  One person needs little, another much to sustain his physical strength, each according to his capacity and habit....When the stomach is heavy the intellect is clouded, and you cannot pray resolutely and with purity.  On the contrary, made drowsy by the effects of too much food you are soon induced to sleep; and as you sleep the food produces countless fantasies in your mind.  Thus in my opinion if you want to attain salvation and strive for the Lord's sake to lead a life of stillness, you should be satisfied with a pound of bread and three of four cups of water or wine daily, taking at appropriate times a little from whatever victuals happen to be at hand, but never eating to satiety.  In this way you will avoid growing conceited, and by thanking God for everything you will show no disdain for the excellent things He has made.  This is the counsel of those who are wise in such matters.  For those weak in faith and soul, abstinence from specific types of food is most beneficial; St. Paul exhorts them to eat herbs (cf. Rom 14:2), for they do not believe that God will preserve them....

Because you are ill, you should be entirely free in partaking of food.  If you eat too much, repent and try again.  Always act like this—lapsing and recovering again, and always blaming yourself and no one else—and you will be at peace, wisely converting such lapses into victories, as Scripture says.  But do not exceed the limit I set down above, and this will be enough, for no other food strengthens the body as much as bread and water....

There are three degrees of eating: self-control, sufficiency and satiety.  Self-control is to be hungry after having eaten.  Sufficiency is to be neither hungry nor weighed down.  Satiety is to be slightly weighed down.  To eat again after reaching the point of satiety is to open the door to gluttony, through which unchastity comes in.  Attentive to these distinctions, choose what is best for you according to your powers, not overstepping the limits."--St. Gregory of Sinai, On Prayer §6

St. Gregory of Sinai, pray for us!

Nota Bene: This passage comes from The Philokalia, Volume IV, pp. 280-281.

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