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Eating Habits of the Desert Fathers

Excerpts from James Wellard, Desert Pilgrimage.

Off we went in the dilapidated vehicle to the monastery called Macarius, the oldest of the four surviving convents and the farthest away. From the distance it appears across the rock-strewn sand as a small brown fortress, completely isolated in the wilderness of sand and rock. It had always been like this, the most remote of the great monkish colony of the Wadi Natrun--the most pillaged, and devastated and, as a result, the poorest of the remaining four convents.

The monastery of Macarius commemorates one of the first and greatest of the Desert Fathers who came to this valley in the second half of the fourth century. Macarius personifies in his life and philosophy the ideal of the early Christian ascetics who believed that the road to heaven was by way of total self-abnegation, the philosophical basis, of course, of all mysticism and mystical experience. Thus, during his sixty years' residence in the wasteland, Macarius excelled all the other hermits in the austerities he inflicted upon himself, for we are told that he lived only on raw vegetables and beans for seven years together; and for the following three years subsisted on an additional ration of five ounces of bread a day. I have often been asked when I reported cases of modern hermits I have seen who have survived for decades on a similar diet how this is possible. The answer is not as difficult or complicated as it seems.

First, the European diet, with its enormous quantities of meat, vegetables, fruit, bread, cakes, chocolates, et cetera, is as alien to desert-dwellers as the diet of, say sheep or horses is to us. Millions of people can and do survive on 'a handful of rice' in many parts of the world; and, what is more, they live as long as the European on his enormous and varied quantities of food. Secondly, the climate in Lower Egypt makes far less claim on the constitution than it does in northern Europe. Nobody feels the need for a huge plate of roast beef, two veg, and a suet pudding either at midday or even in the cool of the evening. And thirdly, whether one approves of self-denial or not, it is certain that the mind can control the appetites of the body, especially in poor countries where scarcity is, in any case a fact of life.

So the privations of Macarius in the matter of good are not all that exceptional, and we can well believe the story of Palladius, a disciple of the hermit, of how a present of a bunch of grapes was offered to the saint who personally carried it the cell of a brother who was ill; and how this monk thanked the father and then sent the grapes to another whom he thought had greater need of a little treat; and so from cell to cell until the grapes came back to Macarius.
Advice to the Solitary on Eating
Excerpts from The Philokalia

Evagrius Ponticus...On Asceticism and Stillness in the Solitary Life
Keep to a sparse and plain diet, not seeking a variety of tempting dishes. Should the thought come to you of getting extravagant foods in order to give hospitality, dismiss it, do not be deceived by it: for in it the enemy lies in ambush, waiting to tear you away from stillness. Remember how the Lord rebukes Martha (the soul that is overbusy with such things) when He says: 'You are anxious and troubled about many things: one thing alone is needful' (Luke 10:41-42) - to hear the divine word; after that, one should be content with anything that comes to hand. He indicates all this by adding: 'Mary has chosen what is best, and it cannot be taken away from her' (Luke 10:42). You also have the example of how the widow of Zarephath gave hospitality to the Prophet (cf. 1 Kings 17:9-16). If you have only bread, salt or water, you can still meet the dues of hospitality. Even if you do not have these, but make the stranger welcome and say something helpful, you will not be failing in hospitality; for 'is not a word better than a gift?' (Eccles. 18:17). This is the view you should take of hospitality. Be careful, then, and do not desire wealth for giving to the poor. For this is another trick of the evil one, who often arouses self esteem and fills your intellect with worry and restlessness. Think of the widow mentioned in the Gospel by our Lord: with two mites she surpassed the generous gifts of the wealthy. For He says: 'They cast into the treasury out of their abundance; but she . . . cast in all her livelihood' (Mark 12:44).
Do not hanker after fine foods and deceitful pleasures. For 'she that indulges in pleasure is dead while still alive', as the Apostle says (1 Tim. 5:6). Do not fill your belly with other people's food in case you develop a, longing for it, and this longing makes you want to eat at their table. For it is said: 'Do not be deceived by the filling of the belly' (Prov. 24:15. LXX). If you find yourself continually invited outside your cell, decline the invitations. For continual absence from your cell is harmful. It deprives you of the grace of stillness, darkens your mind, withers your longing for God. If a jar of wine is left in the same place for a long time, the wine in it becomes clear, settled and fragrant. But if it is moved about, the wine becomes turbid and dull, tainted throughout by the lees. So you, too, should stay in the same place and you will find how greatly this benefits you. Do not have relationships with too many people, lest your intellect becomes distracted and so disturbs the way of stillness.
Picture both these states: lament and weep for the sentence passed on sinners; mourn while you are doing this, frightened that you, too, may be among them. But rejoice and be glad at the blessings that await the righteous, and aspire to enjoy them and to be delivered from the torments of hell. See to it that you never forget these things, whether inside your cell or outside it. This will help you to escape thoughts that are defiling and harmful. Fast before the Lord according to your strength, for to do this will purge you of your iniquities and sins; it exalts the soul, sanctifies the mind, drives away the demons, and prepares you for God's presence. Having already eaten once, try not to eat a second time the same day, in case you become extravagant and disturb your mind. In this way you will have the means for helping others and for mortifying the passions of your body. But if there is a meeting of the brethren, and you have to eat a second and a third time, do not be disgruntled and surly. On the contrary, do gladly what you have to do, and when you have eaten a second or a third time, thank God that you have fulfilled the law of love and that He himself is providing for you. Also, there are occasions when, because of a bodily sickness, you have to eat a second and a third time or more often. Do not be sad about this; when you are ill you should modify your ascetic labors for the time being, so that you may regain the strength to take them up once more.
As far as abstinence from food is concerned, the divine Logos did not prohibit the eating of anything, but said: 'See, even as I have given you the green herb I have given you all things; eat, asking no questions; it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man' (cf. Gen. 9:3; 1 Cor. 10:25; Matt. 15: 11). To abstain from food, then, should be a matter of our own choice and an ascetic labour.
Evagrius Ponticus...Texts on Discrimination in respect of Passions and Thoughts
1. Of the demons opposing us in the practice of the ascetic life, there are three groups who fight in the front line: those entrusted with the appetites of gluttony, those who suggest avaricious thoughts, and those who incite us to seek the esteem of men. All the other demons follow behind and in their turn attack those already wounded by the first three groups. For one does not fall into the power of the demon of unchastity, unless one has first fallen because of gluttony; nor is one's anger aroused unless one is fighting for food or material possessions or the esteem of men. And one does not escape the demon of dejection, unless one no longer experiences suffering when deprived of these things. Nor will one escape pride, the first offspring of the devil, unless one has banished avarice, the root of all evil, since poverty makes a man humble, according to Solomon (cf. Prov. 10:4. LXX). In short, no one can fall into the power of any demon, unless he has been wounded by those of the front line. That is why the devil suggested these three thoughts to the Savior: first he exhorted Him to turn stones into bread; then he promised Him the whole world, if Christ would fall down and worship him; and thirdly he said that, if our Lord would listen to him, He would be glorified and suffer nothing in falling from the pinnacle of the temple. But our Lord, having shown Himself superior to these temptations, commanded the devil to 'get behind Him'. In this way He teaches us that it is not possible to drive away the devil, unless we scornfully reject these three thoughts (cf. Matt. 4:1-10).

3. Man cannot drive away impassioned thoughts unless he watches over his desire and incensive power. He destroys desire through fasting, vigils and sleeping on the ground, and he tames his incensive power through longsuffering, forbearance, forgiveness and acts of compassion. For with these two passions are connected almost all the demonic thoughts which lead the intellect to disaster and perdition. It is impossible to overcome these passions unless we can rise above attachment to food and possessions, to self-esteem and even to our very body, because it is through the body that the demons often attempt to attack us. It is essential, then, to imitate people who are in danger at sea and throw things overboard because of the violence of the winds and the threatening waves. But here we must be very careful in case we cast things overboard just to be seen doing so by men. For then we shall get the reward we want; but we shall suffer another shipwreck, worse than the first, blown off our course by the contrary wind of the demon of self-esteem. That is why our Lord, instructing the intellect, our helmsman, says in the Gospels: 'Take heed that you do not give alms in front of others, to be seen by them; for unless you take heed, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.' Again, He says: 'When you pray, you must not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in synagogues and at street-corners, so as to be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they get the reward they want. . . . Moreover when you fast, do not put on a gloomy face, like the hypocrites; for they disfigure their faces, so that they may be seen by men to be fasting. Truly I say to you, they get the reward they want' (cf. Matt. 6: 1-18). Observe how the Physician of souls here corrects our incensive power through acts of compassion, purifies the intellect through prayer, and through fasting withers desire. By means of these virtues the new Adam is formed, made again according to the image of his Creator - an Adam in whom, thanks to dispassion, there is 'neither male nor female' and, thanks to singleness of faith, there is 'neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free; but Christ is all, and in all' (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3: 10:11).

5. When our incensive power is aroused in a way contrary to nature, it greatly furthers the aim of the demons and is an ally in all their evil designs. Day and night, therefore, they are always trying to provoke it. And when they see it tethered by gentleness, they at once try to set it free on some seemingly just pretext; in this way, when it is violently aroused, they can use it for their shameful purposes. So it must not be aroused either for just or for unjust reasons; and we must not hand a dangerous sword to those too readily incensed to wrath, for it often happens that people become excessively worked up for quite trivial reasons. Tell me, why do you rush into battle so quickly, if you are really above caring about food, possessions and glory? Why keep a watchdog if you have renounced everything? If you do, and it barks and attacks other men, it is clear that there are still some possessions for it to guard. But since I know that wrath is destructive of pure prayer, the fact that you cannot control it shows how far you are from such prayer. I am also surprised that you have forgotten the saints: David who exclaims, 'Cease from anger, and put aside your wrath’ (Ps. 37:8. LXX); and Ecclesiastes who urges us, 'Remove wrath from your heart, and put away evil from your flesh' (Eccles. 11:10. LXX); while the Apostle commands that always and everywhere men should 'lift up holy hands, without anger and without quarrelling’ (1 Tim. 2:8). And do we not learn the same from the mysterious and ancient custom of putting dogs out of the house during prayer? This indicates that there should be no wrath in those who pray. 'Their wine is the wrath of serpents' (Deut. 32:33. LXX); that is why the Nazarenes abstained from wine.

It is needless to insist that we should not worry about clothes or food. The Savior Himself forbids this in the Gospels: 'Do not worry about what to eat or drink, or about what to wear' (cf. Matt. 6:25). Such anxiety is a mark of the Gentiles and unbelievers, who reject the providence of the Lord and deny the Creator. An attitude of this kind is entirely wrong for Christians who believe that even two sparrows which are sold for a farthing are under the care of the holy angels (cf. Matt. 10: 29). The demons, however, after arousing impure thoughts, go on to suggest worries of this kind, so that 'Jesus conveys Himself away', because of the multitude of concerns in our mind (cf. John 5:13). The divine word can bear no fruit, being choked by our cares. Let us, then, renounce these cares, and throw them down before the Lord, being content with what we have at the moment; and living in poverty and rags, let us day by day rid ourselves of all that fills us with self-esteem. If anyone thinks it shameful to live in rags, he should remember St Paul, who 'in cold and nakedness' patiently awaited the 'crown of righteousness' (2 Cor. 11:27; 2 Tim. 4:8). The Apostle likened this world to a contest in an arena (cf. 1 Cor. 9:24); how then can someone clothed with anxious thoughts run for 'the prize of the high calling of God' (Phil. 3:14), or 'wrestle against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world' (Eph. 6:12)? I do not see how this is possible; for just as a runner is obstructed and weighed down by clothing, so too is the intellect by anxious thoughts - if indeed the saying is true that the intellect is attached to its own treasure; for it is said, 'where your treasure is, there will your heart be also' (Matt. 6:21).

12. He who has mastery over his incensive power has mastery also over the demons. But anyone who is a slave to it is a stranger to the monastic life and to the ways of our Savior, for as David said of the Lord: 'He will teach the gentle His ways' (Ps. 25:9). The intellect of the solitary is hard for the demon to catch, for it shelters in the land of gentleness. There is scarcely any other virtue which the demons fear as much as gentleness. Moses possessed this virtue, for he was called 'very gentle, above all men' (Num. 12:3). And David showed that it makes men worthy to be remembered by God when he said: 'Lord, remember David and all his gentleness' (Ps. 132:1. LXX). And the Savior Himself also enjoined us to imitate Him in His gentleness, saying: 'Learn from Me; for I am gentle and humble in heart: and you will find rest for your souls' (Matt. 11:29). Now if a man abstains from food and drink, but becomes incensed to wrath because of evil thoughts, he is like a ship sailing the open sea with a demon for pilot. So we must keep this watchdog under careful control, training him to destroy only the wolves and not to devour the sheep, and to show the greatest gentleness towards all men.

21. Whenever unclean thoughts have been driven off quickly, we should try to find out why this has happened. Did the enemy fail to overpower us because there was no possibility of the thought idea of bread persists in a hungry man because of his hunger, and the idea of water in a thirsty man because of his thirst, so ideas of material things and of the shameful thoughts that follow a surfeit of food and drink persist in us because of the passions. The same is true about thoughts of self-esteem and other ideas. It is not possible for an intellect choked by such ideas to appear before God and receive the crown of righteousness. It is through being dragged down by such thoughts that the wretched intellect, like the man in the Gospels, declines the invitation to the supper of the knowledge of God (cf. Luke 14:18); and the man who was bound hand and foot and cast into outer darkness (cf. Matt. 22:13) was clothed in a garment woven of these thoughts, and so was judged by the Lord, who had invited him, not to be worthy of the wedding feast. For the true wedding garment is the dispassion of the deiform soul which has renounced worldly desires. [In the texts On Prayer it is explained why dwelling on ideas of sensory objects destroys true knowledge of God.]

23. As we stated at the beginning, there are three chief groups of demons opposing us in the practice of the ascetic life, and after them follows the whole army of the enemy. These three groups fight in the front line, and with impure thoughts seduce our souls into wrongdoing. They are the demons set over the appetites of gluttony, those who suggest to us avaricious thoughts, and those who incite US to seek esteem in the eyes of men. If you long for pure prayer, keep guard over your incensive power; and if you desire self-restraint, control your belly, and do not take your fill even of bread and water. Be vigilant in prayer and avoid all rancor. Let the teachings of the Holy Spirit be always with you; and use the virtues as your hands to knock at the doors of Scripture. Then dispassion of heart will arise within you, and during prayer you will see your intellect shine like a star.
Evagrius Ponticus...Extracts from the Texts on Watchfulness
1. A monk should always act as if he was going to die tomorrow; yet he should treat his body as if it was going to live for many years. The first cuts off the inclination to listlessness, and makes the monk more diligent; the second keeps his body sound and his self control well balanced.

4. Once I visited St Makarios1 at noon and, burning with intense thirst, I asked for a drink of water. But he said: 'Be satisfied with the shade, for at this moment there are many travelers who lack even that.' Then, as I was telling him of my difficulties in practicing self-restraint, he said: 'Take heart, my son; for during the whole of twenty years I myself have never had my fill of bread, water or sleep; but I have carefully measured my bread and water, and snatched some sleep by leaning a little against the wall.

5. Spiritual reading, vigils and prayer bring the straying intellect to stability. Hunger, exertion and withdrawal from the world wither burning lust. Reciting the psalms, long suffering and compassion curb our incensive power when it is unruly. Anything untimely or pushed o excess is short-lived and harmful rather than helpful.
Some of the monks ate very little, like John of Lycopolis who ate only a little fruit each day and Pityrion who had a light diet of a little corn-meal soup each day. At Bawit it was customary to keep the canonical fasts of Wednesday and Friday, days of complete abstinence from food, in memory of the Passion of Christ, but on other days a meal in the evening, usually after Communion, was the norm. Older monks might eat very little simply because of age, but the custom observed by the travelers seems to have been as in this story:

"Abba Joseph asked Abba Poemen, 'How should one fast?'

"Abba Poemen said to him, 'For my part, I think it better that one should eat every day, but only a little, so as not to be satisfied.'

"Abba Joseph said to him, 'When you were younger, did you not fast two days at a time, Abba?'

"The old man said, 'Yes, even for three and four and the whole week. The Fathers tried all this out as they were able, and they found it preferable to eat every day, but just a small amount. They have left us this royal way, which is light.'"
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