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The Spiritual Discipline of Not-Overeating?




John Cassian was asked by Bishop Castor of Gaul (France) to document the wisdom and practices of the desert fathers after spending time in the desert monasteries of Egypt and Palestine, known for their spiritual rigor and ascetic practices. He hoped that Western monasteries could benefit from their learning. The fourth-century monk wrote in On the Eight Vices, A clear rule for self-control handed down by the Fathers is this: stop eating while still hungry and do not continue until you are satisfied.”[1] While I have spent the last year studying the disciplines of prayer, lectio divina, solitude, fasting, silence, and others, I was struck by Cassian's simple but powerful rule of walking away from the table before being satiated. John Wesley adopted the same rule and lived to 87, weighing about 130 pounds. To be clear, this is not about weight loss but spiritual discipline.


One of the vices that Cassian addresses is gluttony, and he offers a potent antidote in self-control. He teaches that mastering the stomach is the antithesis of gluttony,[2] a concept that holds immense significance in the journey of spiritual formation. We should avoid overeating, as it “dulls the keenness of the mind.”[3]


Since I began to look at On the Eight Vices, I have started to practice the discipline of not overeating. While this doesn’t seem so spiritual, Cassian listed controlling one’s appetite as the first of the eight vices to overcome. Interestingly, Ezekiel does not initially accuse the people of Sodom of perversion but of being “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned.” (Ezek 16:49). Yes, these led to “detestable things” (v. 50), but one may reason from the passage, that had they dealt with their appetite and other less severe sins, they would not have ended up in perversion and abuse.


We cannot live without food. It’s the primary way, along with sleep and water, that we sustain our flesh. Most people eat three times a day. Since the flesh is at war with the Spirit (Gal 5:17), this gives us three daily opportunities to tame our flesh. In between meals, we can choose not to eat or eat healthy snacks when the flesh would prefer sweets or junk food. As I write this, I am on an airplane, and they just came around with unhealthy snacks. Something as simple as not eating a snack on a plane is a beneficial practice in the flesh that yields spiritual benefits. Engaging in this micro-discipline heightens my spiritual hunger, enhances my alertness towards matters of the kingdom, and enriches my study sessions with greater productivity and significance.


My dear friend Michael Brown struggled with food addiction (see his book). He said that each time he did something “good,” such as fly to another city to minister or take his grandkids to the movies, he felt he deserved a food reward—a Cinnabon at the airport or popcorn with butter at the movies. He finally realized that catering to his flesh with such rewards did not benefit his soul but actually dulled his spirit. He has lost over one hundred pounds and kept it off for almost a decade. More importantly, he has kept himself from an early death, and I am sure he would testify as to the spiritual benefits of taming his appetite.


This lesson is especially clear to me now, as I am returning from five days of vacation. We were treated to delicious food and great restaurants. And there is a time to enjoy food and family, for sure! But still, I felt spiritually weak after several days of gourmet food. I was practicing other disciplines during this time but had compromised regarding my food intake. We had a great time, but I was looking forward to returning to my routine of the healthy discipline of not overeating.


The next phase of training in this area is where I can be in such an environment of abundance and practice self-control. I find that when I am home, in my routine of working, studying, and cooking my own food, it is much easier to live a less indulgent life. However, facing several days of delicious food and high quantities proved difficult. The spiritual dullness I encountered proved to me how essential this discipline of controlling intake is to my soul. It strengthened my inner man, and when I ignored it, I felt the detrimental impact immediately. I can see why Cassian dealt with this vice before the other seven.


The best place to begin is by simply learning to leave the table before you are full. Don’t starve yourself, but don’t indulge yourself either. I would love to hear your feedback on this if you decide to practice.


 

[1] John Cassian, “On the Eight Vices,” Orthodox Church Fathers, accessed on April 28, 2024, https://orthodoxchurchfathers.com/fathers/philokalia/st-john-cassian-on-the-eight-vices.html.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Cassian, John Cassian Collection, Book V, The Spirit of Gluttony, Chapter V.

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I agree with the principle of practicing discipline in our eating and I appreciate the variety of things that you write about. I would add to what you wrote that it is "not by might, nor by power but by My Spirit, saith the Lord." Many think that in their own strength we can defeat the flesh and get discouraged with failure. Along with a desire to please the Lord in how we eat, we need to keep our eyes on Him and not on our flesh.

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I could definitely read more on this topic if you decide to expound on it, but for now I’ll appreciate the skim off the top. I obviously like “more” of a good thing, including food. 😊

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Chris Glover
Chris Glover
4 days ago

Excellent article and one which many believers would do well to heed. It is not honouring our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit to eat ourselves into an early grave! But we must also guard against the corollary - ie to start to worship the temple (of our body) itself

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