Evagrius Ponticus (d. 399), the great Desert Father with whom I’m spending this Lent has a has a way of pointing out obvious things that I’ve spent a very long time not noticing: biblically speaking, food has a long history of getting us into problems.
Desire for food gave birth to disobedience and a sweet taste expelled from paradise.”
You know, when you look at the story of the Fall, it seems Evagrius makes an excellent point.
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.” (Genesis 3:6 NRSV)
Christians have spent so much interpretive energy taking the story of the fall symbolically that I completely overlooked that Genesis portrays the original instance of human sin as disordered eating. (Not to say an “eating disorder” in the medical sense.)
So, if I am going to return to the beginning this Lent, and make a fresh start in the path God intended for me, Evagrius suggests I start by thinking about food; actual food.
This is where it is worth reminding ourselves that Evagrius is not setting out “deadly sins” in terms of outward behavior. He does talk about “gluttony” here, but he is inviting us to think about our “thoughts” which come first and prompt the actions. Change the outward action and you might simply cover up the disordered inner life that was prompting it—and the same problematic thoughts might find a way to prompt some other behavior.
A lot of Protestants are willing to fast from all kinds of things in Lent. We give up social media. We give up television.
Last year I spend Lent not looking at my blog stats. It was useful. It wasn’t as hard as fasting from, you know, food, the way my Orthodox friends do.
For Evagrius it is important to consider food as food, and to think hard about our thoughts about food.
His treatment of “gluttony” is not simply a matter of the amount of food. A distorted relationship to food can run to either too much or too little, as I suspect anyone in recovery from an eating disorder would tell you.
In one work Evagrius ruminates on both problematic thoughts and their healthful opposites. Among his associations on “gluttony” are
…imagining of foods, picturer of condiments…”
It is, as they say, the thought that counts here. This kind of thinking about food is a kind of lust, and those of us who read the glossy cooking mags are aware of the “food porn” created to get our mouths watering. The results?
I understand the madness. Any kind of disordered thought can take me there, especially the ones that push desire toward obsession.
But what is the solution?
Martin Luther thought we had some choice in the matter. In one of his commentaries on the Lord’s Prayer he related a story from “the lives of the ancient fathers” in which an elder counsels a younger brother about tempting thoughts:
Thou canst not my dear brother prevent the birds in the air from flying over thy head but yet thou canst prevent them from building their nests in thy hair.”
Actually Luther suggests that we can “easily resist” by praying for God’s help. He makes it sounds simple; experience says it isn’t.
Evagrius’ advice is rooted in his embodied faith. Disordered thoughts give rise to problem actions, but the influence can run the other way too:
When our soul yearns for a variety of foods, then let it reduce its ration of bread and water that it may be grateful even for a small morsel.”
You know, it might be worth a try. A season of partial hunger might, conceivably, help me see food simply as food. That could be the kind of renewed mind Scripture calls “repentance.”
I’d love to hear from you in the comments: What do you see as the benefits of fasting in Lent? And fasting from what?
If you enjoy thinking about faith today in the company with the greats of the Christian past, you’ll love my new book on classical lectio divina. Get your free copy by clicking here!