Once upon a time, a marketing genius thought up a great slogan for Lay’s potato chips:
Betcha can’t eat just one.”
My waistline has testified to the truth of this for decades. They are right. I can’t.
My conversation partner for Lent, the great Desert Father Evagrius Ponticus, had the same insight back in the fourth century:
If you give yourself over to the desire for food, nothing will suffice to fulfill your pleasure, for the desire for food is a fire that ever takes in and is ever in flames.”
Or, in the style of a proverb,
A sufficient measure fills a vessel; a full stomach does not say ‘Enough!’”
FOOD AND LENT
In Lent, traditionally, the Church has drawn our attention quickly and directly to our relationship with food. Food can’t be the end of the discussion, of course. To be ready for the wonders of Christ’s saving work in the cross and resurrection we need to examine the whole of our lives.
But food is the classic place to start. The whole forty days in traditional Christianity is a time of fasting—not a complete renunciation of eating, of course, but a withdrawal from excess and luxury in food to give attention to prayer.
I am really not good at this at all. It is the potato chip problem.
Part of the problem is that food is not itself a luxury, but a necessity. The need for food is part of our created nature.
And clearly taking joy in food is part of noticing the goodness of God’s creation. As Calvin put it,
he meant not only to provide for necessity but also for delight and good cheer.”
But the fact that I cannot, for long, give up eating and continue to live serves to mask the real problem: the pleasure of food has a real power over me.
Freedom in Christ should lead me away from any slavery. I want what Paul described when he said
‘All things are lawful for me’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful for me’, but I will not be dominated by anything.” (1 Cor. 6:12 NRSV)
FOOD AND FREEDOM
Evagrius has a lovely image to describe his ideal relationship with food:
A docile horse, lean in body, never throws its rider, for the horse that is restrained yields to the bit and is compelled by the hand of the one holding the reins”.
Evagrius calls us to consider who is in charge of our lives.
- Are we the horse, being ridden by passions and desires of our bodies, including the need for food?
- Or is there a way for Christ to be the rider, our embodied lives, full of passions and desires, guided by his gentle reins?
Evagrius has a fully embodied faith. He does not set out to reshape our opinions on points of doctrine. He directs our attention to things that affect our bodies, knowing that this will influence our relationship with God and what we believe.
In his discussion of food, as in everything else, he attends to our “thoughts” as both cause and cure. He places our minds, the thinker of our thoughts, in the saddle.
FOOD AND PRAYER
And so, he suggests we develop a relation to food that sounds very much like a traditional Lenten fast. It is a purposive approach to food. And the purpose is not pleasure. The purpose is to be ready and attentive for prayer.
A stomach in want is prepared to spend vigils in prayers, but a full stomach induces a lengthy sleep.”
I can tell you that in the second half of this assertion Evagrius is spot on. In school, if I had a class at 1:00 or 1:30, lunch in my tummy made it very hard to stay awake. Or after the Thanksgiving feast, how many of us just roll off our chairs for a nap?
Evagrius wants us to limit our food so our bodies take notice. He doesn’t call us to starve. He wants us to be free to draw close to God.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments! How does your relationship with food affect your experience of Lent and your relationship with God?
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