by Monk Moses

I told myself that I would not bother with the matter  of the financial crisis again.

However, because the situation is continually getting worse and the justifiable complaints  quietened, I decided not to keep to my word.

I will not mention known bitter events, nor will I appraise them. On a daily basis,  recent decisions are looked at again and again while the problems become greater and the crisis even greater.

Unlit dead ends, tragic dramas, images of sorrow, shame and misery. Anxiety, distress, bankruptcy, unemployment, uncertainty and suspicion prevail. This is ultimately a miserable degeneration worthy of tears.

We again need loudly to repeat the slogan about change. It is an opportunity now, which we wouldn’t have otherwise, to admit defeat, our weakness, our sin.

To be led with courage to necessary repentance. Right now, there is no time to lose.

We should accept that we’ve gone adrift, we our life has been mistaken, we did not set high goals, we agreed with injustice.

Unfortunately, falsehood,  the opacity, dishonesty, indifference, contempt became dominant in our lives.

It is time to look deep within ourselves, to examine ourselves strictly and  to transform our passions.

It is our last chance, there is no room for procrastination and delay. We are responsible for ourselves. Let’s leave others alone. Let’s look at our not so familiar selves more closely.

We were quite modest in our charity, our love of humanity,  of our brothers and sisters, and our love of God.

We did not hold the poor man in our tight embrace. We did not feel deep hurt for the person in pain. We did not run off together so willingly to help our neighbour’s need. We don’t want to create guilt and build up culprits.

We must all admit that we could all have done a lot more. However, we didn’t do this for a variety of reasons.

This present crisis is perhaps a good opportunity for us to take off our masks, to become more genuine, more honest, to stop kidding ourselves.

Let’s leave our comfortable armchairs for a while. Let’s us at least light a candle. Let us give comfort in order to be comforted.

Let’s leave our televisions for a bit, our lethargy and convenience. Let’s get real. Let’s get rational, recover, get up again and deny shallowness.

Prosperity is going away. Greece is clouded over. Despair goes grappling round from house to house.

In a short while we’ll have electricity cuts, blackouts.  The country will sink into darkness. They’ll be selling candles on the street.

It’s good to have interest, but the dignity of the modern Greek is more enviable. Does Europe want to suffocate us? Is Greece lost? We will not let Greece be lost and drowned.

We will bring back our Greek Orthoodox traditions, our knowledge of  History, our prudence and modesty.  It was the whole physician-philosophers, educated clergy, papadaskaloi (schoolteacher-priests), noble benefactors.

Today’s crisis uproots  nouveau riche mentality. Of necessity, it brings back thrift, frugality, fortitude and fairness.

National pride is not a sin, the universality of Orthodoxy is a valuable jewel. The Greek is upset by vilification, falsehood, fraud, relegation and mockery

He has been despised, mocked and morals have been thrown out and behold the results. Shame was thrown into the trash can.

Any  intelligence or manners remaining, that traditional noblesse was used for fraudulent purposes. Especially for own self-interest. The shift was violent, popular and short.

Education is trampled underfoot. Principles, ideals and institutions  derided thoroughly and repeatedly. A few people objected, not so strongly, fearing the counter-attack.

We reiterate that there is no alternative but a public admission, in all honesty, courage and humility of our many mistakes.

Not so that  the storm will pass, but a return to a lifestyle without stress, fear, insecurity and malaise.  Honesty is now necessary. We are tired of the promises, falsehoods, their humiliations.

The paranoid unrepentant wants to continue to dominate in order to earn the fruits of their maelstrom.

The direct overthrow of corruption would certainly contribute to the healing of the government machine. Love of virtue will strongly arm the  modern Greek to get out of this severe financial and overall crisis

So we think, believe, hope and pray.

Source:Romfea

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“If there is no God all things are permissible.” – Dostoyevsky

“You cannot serve God and Mammon” Luke 16:13

The complex social, economic, and political factors that have led to these outbursts of violent looting and arson boil down to a single cause: a culture of greed, the inevitable result of a secular society.

[I started a new blog and was resolved to write regularly. Suddenly, I was rudely interrupted by riot on my doorstep. There have been many commentators on the symptoms and cures of this and will be many more. However, my exploration of the passions, of vices and of virtues is not irrelevant here.]
 
The looting and arson in Tottenham, Wood Green and Enfield had nothing at all to do with protest or poverty. It had everything to do with a materialistic culture based on sheer greed.  A culture that glorifies money, power and violence.

Other social commentators are waking up to the moral decay in our society where “An almost universal culture of selfishness and greed has grown up.”

I am usually the last person to agree with Mr. Cameron, but when he said “Society is not just broken, it’s sick”,  he was right.  In speaking of morality, the Orthodox Church, does not equate it with right and wrong, but uses the language of medicine. It talks about the vices, the passions, as sickness. These sicknesses need to be cured. What we have witnessed in London in the past few days is symptomatic of one of the eight vices referred to in the Evagrian tradition. This is the vice of avarice or as we would recognise it today – greed.  

What is Greed?

Greed is about getting things.  Greed is a excessive love or desire for money and material things and an unbalanced desire for even more. Greed doesn’t really care about enjoying the possessions acquired. A greedy person values things more than they value people or relationships.  Greed revels in the temporary and rejects the eternal.  Greed is the desire to own more than I need, out of  fear of idolatry. Greed is a disease of the heart. .

Yet nowadays,  far from being a vice, greed is often considered a virtue.


There are three kinds of avarice. The first does not permit renunciants to be deprived of their wealth and property. The second persuades us by a still greater covetousness to take back What we have dispersed and distributed to the poor. The third demands that we long for and acquire what in fact we did not possess before. St. John Cassian

Why is greed spiritually unhealthy?

One of the things Jesus warns about most often is greed. There are many reasons why greed is spiritually unhealthy:

  • Greed shows a mistrust in God. It is the ultimate expression of a godless society that had no space for God. Even for those who say they believe God exists greed  expresses doubt that God will provide all that you need. It is disbelieving Jesus when He promises that God will provide everything you need (Luke 12:22-31) “The birds of the air that sow not nor do they reap, nor gather into barns, and the lilies of the field that labour not, neither do they spin.” (Matt. 7:24-34). Instead, they rely on themselves alone. “Behold the man that made not God his helper: But trusted in the abundance of his riches and prevailed in his vanity.” (Ps. 60:9)

‘A mole burrowing in the earth is blind and cannot see the stars; and he who does not trust God in temporal things will not trust Him in eternal things’ – St Cosmas  the Aetolian .

  • Greed is the height of  self-love and selfishness. Greed ruins marriages, destroys friendships, and divides families all in the selfish pursuit of gratifying one’s self. Greed is the opposite of charity, generosity and love. Greed disregards all others and puts falsely high importance on the self: it is a form of self-worship. The  greedy have no qualms about depriving others of what they need. In London this week we saw how callous the looters were. This stems from arrogance and pride. These greedy people  consider themselves so important they do not mind harming and trampling all over others to get what they desire.

For the more you abound in wealth, the more you lack in love for others. St. Basil

  • Greed promotes crime. More crimes have been committed due to greed than any other vice. Greed drives people to steal, lie, betray others and even kill in order to acquire more more money and worldly possessions. Greed makes us stamp upon fairness and  justice when we want what rightfully belongs to another, to the point of doing anything to get it, even when we don’t need it. In doing this greed does not just feed our wants, it also tramples upon others needs.

Avarice in the 21st Century: Consumerism

Do we possess our possessions, or are we possessed by them?

We live in an increasingly materialistic culture, this is manifested in he rise of  consumer culture. It could be argued that consumerism, the social and economic creed that encourages us to aspire to even more than that share, regardless of the consequences, is just avarice and greed writ large.

We even see the extent of this with the psychologists using the term ‘pleonexia’ (an ancient Greek word meaning ‘greediness’)  to diagnose a pathological greed that can contribute to a host of ills, including stress, burnout, gambling addictions, compulsive shopping, ‘affluenza’ and loss of moral grounding. The clinical psychologist Madeline Levine speaks of  “a shift away from values of community, spirituality, and integrity, and toward competition, materialism and disconnection.”

We live in a culture of instant gratification, where we are encouraged to own the most recent iPod or iPad, the next smartphone, the latest designer clothing, and if we can’t get this legitimately or through credit, our morally bankrupt society now has kids talking of ‘aggressive shopping’. 

We go after and desire certain goods to boost our self esteem. When investigating which new laptop to buy several Apple Mac owners have just advised me not to get one. I asked “Why? Most Mac owners are enthusiastic?”

“Well, we would have said get an Mac a few years ago, but now you can get much better value with a PC”

“So, why do people still buy Macs?”

“Well, the thing about a Mac is it makes you feel good about yourself”

Greed is dangerous because when we are in its grip we believe that the things we own are really ours and that we have control over them and, therefore, control over our lives.

We are no longer defined by our relationships but by our possessions. Who we are is defined by what we own.

What’s the cure?

There are two main ways of overcoming greed:

  • Generosity and gratitude
  •  Asceticism

Having an attitude of gratitude and giving.

Someone who truly believes that everything belongs to God, not just our possessions, but our very selves, is free to give generously and does so without worry and anxiety.

How much stuff do you really need? If you can limit the number of things you own and are grateful and appreciative of what you already then you are well on your way to conquering greed.

Ask yourself – “What if I woke up today with only the things I thanked God for yesterday?”

You go a step further when you  are generous with both your time and possessions.On a practical level, one remedy for greed could be  to give money away every week. This should not be from what is left over, but the first thing we . You could take it further and fast from consumerism -maybe once a month or during the main fast seasons of the Church, avoid from going to the shopping mall, or shopping online, avoid adverts and things that encourage this ‘want more’ mentality.

Next time you go to buy something – stop yourself and question -do I really need this?

Finding an antidote in asceticism

‘Blessed is he who is not attached to anything transitory or corruptible. Blessed is the intellect that transcends all sensible objects and ceaselessly delights in divine beauty. If you make provision for the desires of the flesh (cf. Rom. 13:14) and bear a grudge against your neighbour on account of something transitory, you worship the creature instead of the Creator’. – St Maximus the Confessor, First Century on Love, 18-20.

The Orthodox Tradition of  prayer, fasting, repentance and alms-giving are powerful antidotes to greed . If we pray and humble ourselves and ask for God’s help we can overcome any passions. Prayer makes us mindful of God and strengthens us. Fasting teaches us self-denial, self-control and gives us a spirit of sacrifice. Alms-giving encourages generosity and putting others first.  Overall, our passions are overcome through daily repentance.

Should we tear down our barns? (Luke 12:18)

What we tear down and what we build up tells us a lot about what we truly value and the state of ours soul.

You can tear down your greed , you can tear down your consumer lifestyle and build up a new barn filled with alms-giving, help for others or generosity; or you can tear down your barn and build one that is bigger, better and even more comfortable than the first at the expense of everyone else around you/ 

The choice is yours? 

Do you want to be defined by what you own or who you love?

Further Reading

Quotes from the Fathers on Avarice

On Avarice – St. John of Kronstadt

The Hidden Devastation of Greed – Fr. George Morelli

Books

Red Tory: How Left and Right have Broken Britain and How we can Fix It – Philip Blond

Whoops!: Why everyone owes everyone and no one can pay– John Lancaster

On Social Justice (Popular Patristics Series) – St. Basil the Great

Evagrius of Pontus (Cistercian Studies Series) Talking Back – A monastic handbook for combatting Demons

Defeating Sin: Overcoming Our Passions and Changing Forever – Fr. Joseph Huneycutt

 

In my last post Joe Hegyi asked me “How do we cultivate this inner life?”

I’m certainly no expert myself, but try to follow the teachings of our Church in this modern world.

Here’s something I use with my adult classes for Orthodox believers:

  1. Have a Time for Prayer: Make prayer a regular part of your routine – something as regular as brushing your teeth everyday. Set time aside to be with God. Little and often.
  2. Have a Space for Prayer: Find a private corner where you can have your icons, prayer books, prayer ropes, votive lamp (kantili) etc.
  3. Use the Bible: Read the Scriptures slowly and prayerfully, drink them in.
  4. Build up a Prayer ‘library’: Get a prayer book, and collect prayers that you can use. Learn Prayers of the Church. Use the Jesus Prayer.
  5. Speak from your heart: Use your own prayers and thoughts too. Be comfortable with God.
  6. Get a spiritual guide: Establish a relationship with a spiritual father, ideally, with your parish priest if he can hear confession. Otherwise, a local priest who can understand your background and situation, and hear your confession.
  7. Find out about fasting: Fasting trains you up for prayer. Perhaps start with Wednesdays and Fridays, and then attempt the greater fasts. Speak with your spiritual father about this. If you have a medical condition etc. this should be taken into consideration.
  8. Sanctify all you do: Remember “This is the day that the Lord has made, Let us rejoice and be glad in it!” God isn’t just a part of life, an added extra. Thank God all the time, let Him know your concerns. Dedicate everything to him.
  9. Use technology to your advantage: You can download the daily readings and saints to your phone calendar, get Orthodox prayer reminders on Twitter, have the daily readings and commentaries e-mailed to you, keep up with Orthodox events on Facebook, listen to Orthodox Radio while you work, and learn much more about the Orthodox Faith using the Internet.
  10. Join with others in fellowship and enter the life of the Church: Become part of a community. The Church is not a building, but a community of Christians who gather together. It is not the priests and the clergy, it is all of you gathering together. Don’t complain that “The Church” isn’t doing enough – blaming the priests – you are the Church; What are you doing?
This was originally posted for the small Orthodox Study Circle I run and  based on our study of Liturgy and how to live it
You can see some of the original ppts and handouts here

“We do not readily despise the delights of this life if we do not taste with complete satisfaction the sweetness of God.” Diadochus of  Photike

Our passions are often expressions of an underlying spiritual emptiness. We can fill this emptiness with God or with an addiction.

“People’s real need is of God Himself. When these needs of the soul are not met, his  inner world is aggravated, it stays hungry, its great hopes and desires are unfulfilled, man becomes unhappy.” [   Metropolitan Hierotheos’ “Our real interests”  ]

This thought is echoed outside the Church, for example, the 12 step movement is clear that addiction is due to spiritual emptiness. In The Joy of Weight Loss the author Norris Chumley (producer of Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer [DVD]) tells of his own battles with overeating amongst other things he says“Food was my only comfort to help fill the emptiness I felt inside” and elsewhere

“Now I know that many people who are fat feel the emptiness I felt. When you feel empty, when you feel ashamed, when you feel that you’re worthless or no good, you want to try to soothe your feelings. My way was to eat.”

He later goes on to describe how he found his ‘salvation’ from overeating in recognising joy. He writes:

“Joy is also a spiritual condition. Joy happens when you are feeling blessed. It comes when you feel the presence of your Creator, assuring you that you belong and that you’re not alone. Joy is when you know you are valued and important to this great universe.”

Longing for pleasure, joy and happiness are a basic human instinct. With joy comes hope, and with this cheerfulness and an optimism about life.

God has given us many great and simple blessings. We can take pleasure in a healthy way in the things we eat and drink, our conversations with those we love, fresh air, sunshine or even the fresh feeling of rain on our cheeks as at storm breaks at the end of a hot and humid summer day. We can also find great pleasure in man-made delights – our favourite songs and films, the hobbies we enjoy etc.

We have more man-made entertainment than ever before. We are constantly busy – in the midst of a ‘digital revolution’ where our life is filled with texting, e-mail, hundreds of TV channels, social networking through Facebook and Twitter, iPods and iPads, all kinds of games consoles (XBox, Gameboy, Wii) as well as online gaming. Just yesterday the British Govt. watchdog Ofcom described us as a “nation addicted to smartphones.” All this without even mentioning more traditional forms of entertainment, spectator sports, concerts, print media, the theatre etc.

You would think with all these distractions and forms of entertainment at our very fingertips we should be happier now than ever before.Yet the very opposite is the case. The more we fill our lives with distractions and things to do – without focussing on what will give us true joy and happiness – the more our misery increases.

Amy Winehouses’s recent and tragic death highlight the very real problems facing young people today and the temptations of drink and drugs. This week, the BBC program Panorama highlighted the problems of binge drinking and alchohol abuse in the UK. We saw the powerful story of Vicky whose life has been debilitated by drinking since her teens. There is more and more evidence that we are in the midst of an unparelled epidemic of addiction.  This is not to mention the rising number of depression and anxiety disorders. People turn to drink, drugs, excess food and even their smartphones in a constant effort to mask their inner emptiness.

“Alcoholism, drug addiction, the normalization of sexual immorality, as well as consumerism, and the pursuit of material prosperity as an end in itself,” explains Metropolitan Jonah “all of these are symptoms of the deep spiritual void created by secularism.” He continues “The fruit of secularism is despair.”

Image linking to graphs

Britain's Drinking Habits: Independent

Our body and soul are out of sync, they are broken and fragmented. We are inundated with entertainment, amusements and fun distractions, while drowning in severe spiritual emptiness.

Yet, as Metropolitan Hierotheos points out,

“Just as the body has its various senses and different bodily needs, the soul also has its own senses and needs. These are faith in God, prayer – which is the soul’s breath -, love, the communion of the Body and Blood of Christ.”

The human soul longs for God, and this longing creates spiritual hunger and thirst. If this spiritual hunger and thirst is ignored over time it numbs the inner being, leaving one with an feeling of emptiness and dissatisfaction. This unquenched thirst leaves the human soul barren and miserable.

To overcome this we need to cultivate spiritual life and revive the inner, hidden man of the heart. We are called to silence and prayer, to escape the decadence of the world and return to ourselves. This can only be achieved with an ascetic effort within the Church. It is within the Church that we find everything the soul longs for; we find grace and truth We are called to reject the passions and acquire virtues, preserving the grace given to us through the mysteries of the Church. As I write this today it is the Feast of the Transfiguration, and we are indeed called to internal transfiguration and regeneration.

Now more than ever we need to address this spiritual emptiness and find the fullness of Christ within the Church.

Metropolitan Jonah  states:

“The solution we are looking for is the Cross of Jesus Christ. It is His Cross that heals a fallen creation, a fallen humanity, and me as a sinner…The Christian ascetical life, that is the life of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, the works of mercy and obedience, is the application and the appropriation of the Cross to my life. It is the means by which I both enter into a life of communion with God and become myself a sacrament of that communion for others.”

We are called to be transfigured through Life in Christ and this Transfiguration leads to the Glory of the Cross.

“Let him who would come after Me, deny himself, take up his cross and follow Me.”

My mother came back from the Day Hospice today, looking worried and upset. This was unusual. Since being invited to attend this wonderful place once a week a short while ago she has always come back refreshed, enthusiastic and willing to tackle anything. It has become the highlight of her week. It is run by volunteers, and she enjoys the peaceful atmosphere there. In a strange kind of role reversal she brings us the paintings she has made and we put them on the fridge. She also crochets things to be sold to keep the hospice running.

We couldn’t speak immediately as we had unexpected visitors. Afterwards she said “Two people who used to go there, died last week. That lovely Jewish lady who played the piano for us, and it was so beautiful! Then this other lady who I spoke to about cooking” She was visibly upset and then started talking again about her own funeral (something we have discussed). She’s bought her grave plot and made preparations. However, she wanted to talk about what was still needed and how she should be buried.  I found it quite hard, but could only listen as she got a little upset. In the end, I texted my sister and asked her to phone as though by chance, and to cheer her up about something. This worked!

At other times  my mother continues to be her same formidable self! She has always been quite strong and quite demanding – absolutely every who knows her remarks on this. She works herself to the bone; if she was a kid she would be diagnosed as hyperactive. It’s hard to keep up with her! She also has a Mediterranean temperament and screams and shouts a lot. Her permanent volume is loud. She is very house proud and demands that we keep up with her standards.  Despite her serious health condition she continues to do this. Some days I think it just masks the pain.

While it makes my mother feel alive and well to nag, scold and berate us – it is emotionally debilitating and very tiring if you are on the receiving end. It’s compounded by the fact that you can’t really react negatively, or say anything, because you know she hasn’t got long. Also, when my mother’s around everything runs according to her plans and her time-scale and she is offended that anyone might have something else to do.

I go to work to rest. I’m a high school teacher, my job is stressful, but I go to work to rest. Unfortunately, it is the Summer break and there is no escape from the relentlessness of the demands. Although it’s hard; I wouldn’t have it any other way. It would be out of character and I would worry more.

Disappointingly I found solace in a big plate of home-made fries. FAIL!

[Initially this was going to be a private post – I’ll risk making it public. I haven’t the strength to look at all the theological issues here – but there are many]

I’m still in two minds about this experiment. Do I want to make this a professional blog with a few select and carefully written articles every week, or do I want to stick to my original idea, and make it more like a personal journal, explaining the battles with my own ‘demons’? I’ve gone for a compromise. Some posts will be ‘theological’ in content and tweeted. Whereas others, like this one, will be more of a personal nature, and marked ‘personal journal’ .

I’m naturally a very private person, despite having a public persona through my other blogs. Few of my friends know how I cope on a day to day basis with my elderly parents, including my mother’s terminal lung cancer, which has been added to all her other illnesses including type 2 diabetes. She has never smoked and never drinks – my father calls her “the world’s only Greek Orthodox puritan”. She tells me time and time again that her ill-health and especially her cancer are down to obesity. What’s more – she is right!

Obesity is a killer. Among other things it can cause  heart disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis and certain types of cancer. It is not to be taken lightly (excuse the pun). Having tried everything – some things more enthusiastically than others and still just on the right side of forty I realise that it is now or never.  This overeating thing controls me, subconsciously. It could be something as small as an extra sandwich a day, but add that up over weeks and months and it equals serious pounds. It seems to me there has to be a better way; this better way is found within the tradition of our Church. Of course, the Church isn’t a weight-loss program, yet this and many other things could be one of the positive side-effects of ‘Orthodox Therapy’ .

I’m certainly convinced that I would be on a much more even keel, bodily and spiritually, if I attempted to attain even in a small  degree of what is called nepsis.  This is part of my search here.

What do secular approaches have to say? Can they help us?  I think some of these ideas should also be explored. The Orthodox priest and psychologist, Fr. George Morelli, has already made important links with the idea of mindfulness. Recently Fr. Alexis (Trader) of Karakallou has released a book exploring Church tradition and CBT( Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy).I can also  see some merit in the 12 step movement (see Abbot Meletios’ Steps of Transformation – an Orthodox Priest Explores the 12 Steps)  echoes of which are found in the recent convert Norris Chumley who wrote Praying away the pounds, and found that much of what he wrote a decade ago in  The Joy of Weight Loss  fits in with many of the things he learnt and discovered when producing a documentary on the contemporary practice of the Jesus Prayer. These were later written up in his book Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer. These look to the idea of a spiritual emptiness being the cause of the passions

So I’m taking a leap – by attempting this project… sometimes personal… sometimes academic.

I’m not an expert in any sense of the word … this is my own personal experiment, and a work in progress as are we all.

Wish me Godspeed on the way … and feel free to share your own experiences and comments.

Welcome!

Posted: 04/08/2011 in Gluttony, Vices

There is more about the concept of this blog on the About page.

The first of the vices that I shall be exploring is the vice of gluttony. To start off our thinking about this I’ve added the excellent article by Frederica Matthewes-Green, written some years ago.

To Hell on a Cream Puff

Posted: 03/08/2011 in Gluttony, Vices

by Frederica Mathewes-Green

first published in Christianity Today, Nov 13, 1995

Click image to see artist's page

Artist: Diane Morgan

It’s hard to know just how to take an invitation to write about gluttony. “We thought you would be the perfect person,” the editor’s letter read. Gee, is it that obvious? I thought, alarmed. “No, no,” I wanted to protest, “that’s not really me. It just these horizontal stripes.”
But, if I’m honest, I have to admit that it is me. It’s most of us. Food is an intoxicating pleasure, and it appears superficially like an innocuous one; it’s not one of the bad sins, like adultery or stealing. We wouldn’t do that; gluttony is different. All it does is make you soft and huggable. It’s the cute sin.

But gluttony is not about pleasing plumpness; our inclination to associate it with external effects alone shows how reluctant we are to confront the sin-in-the-heart. The impulse to gluttony is a sign of being out of harmony with God’s provision and creation, and can disrupt the spiritual lives of people of every size. External dimensions are no predictor of internal rebellion.

Previous generations of Christians knew this. Overindulgence in food didn’t just lead to thickened waistlines and arteries; it led to spiritual disaster. These words from a nineteenth-century Russian monk, Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, build to an alarming crescendo:

“Wise temperance of the stomach is a door to all the virtues. Restrain the stomach, and you will enter Paradise. But if you please and pamper your stomach, you will hurl yourself over the precipice of bodily impurity, into the fire of wrath and fury, you will coarsen and darken your mind, and in this way you will ruin your powers of attention and self-control, your sobriety and vigilance.” (The Arena, Holy Trinity Monastery Press, 1991)

If that doesn’t make you take a second look at your second helpings, nothing will.

The key word in the passage above is “self-control.” Gluttony is not wrong because it makes you fat; it’s wrong because it is the fruit of self-indulgence. Gluttony says “Gimme;” Jesus says “Come to me.” When we come to him we give up all claims to be coddled; we come to shoulder our own rough cross. The path to the buffet table and the path to sanctification lie in opposite directions.

Anyone who has tried to diet knows that the will to eat indulgently is surprisingly strong and unruly. Plans to eat reasonably and with an eye to good health may look very attractive on Sunday night, when sketched out on a full stomach. (Oh yes, and we’ll get up early every day to jog, too.) About 3:00 Monday afternoon, however, it’s a different story. The stomach that was placid and amiable has become a bucking, rebellious pony, with a defiance that was never evident until it was made to wear a bridle. Dieters are often shocked at how deep-seated and ungovernable is their compulsion to eat unrestrained; facets of unconverted wilfulness, never suspected, are being brought to light. What makes gluttony such a hard sin to break?

Of course, food is pleasurable; that alone can make a sin enticing. But while some pleasures can be relinquished with a melancholy pang, the attempt to discipline food sins prompts a ferocious, angry resistance. Something more is going on here. The urge to overindulge in food is powerful because it is linked to a desire for power. A complex net of submerged assumptions teaches us that food grants some limited, but tangible, control over the exterior world. We bite the Apple (or the doughnut) because we have heard a whisper, “You shall be as gods.” This plays out in various ways:

1. Emperor Baby. Eating is the first pleasure. Researchers have found that, if amniotic fluid is sweetened, unborn babies will gulp it more greedily. For a newborn, many sensations are unpleasant or frightening, but food, glorious food, is a constant and dependable comfort. Controlling access to food, crying to be fed and winning the reward of sweet warm milk, is the first task of newborn life. No wonder we retain to adulthood a zeal to gather as much good, sweet food as we can grab; it was the first job we ever had, and it felt like an urgent one indeed.

“I don’t think it’s fair that they changed the rules,” my husband said one day, looking forlornly at the ends of his belt; they would no longer quite meet in front. “I can remember a time in my life–in fact, it lasted quite a long time–when people were constantly saying, ‘Look how big you’re getting to be!’ and ‘My, you’re becoming such a big boy!'” He tried once more to make the belt ends meet. “Now that I’ve gotten really good at it, suddenly they changed the rules. Suddenly it’s not such a good thing.”

His whimsical protest conceals a grain of truth. The baby that focuses all its attention on getting food soon grows to be a child that is praised for eating, indulged with treats, and admired for getting bigger. Not only is getting food our first job, not only is it intrinsically pleasurable, but it’s a talent for which most of us are praised throughout our childhoods. When did they change the rules?

2. I have the power. A related aspect of the desire to overeat is that it is a straightforward way to demonstrate power. Life is complicated and fraught with compromises, unmet desires, and nettling disappointments. We can’t make other people do right. Friends, neighbors, spouse, children all may resist our will, but, darn it, that chocolate cream pie is going to know who’s boss.

Overeating can become a secret, habitual way to reassure yourself that you are not powerless, that you can subdue and conquer as much food as you choose. Viewed in this light, anorexia has the same root as gluttony: a desire to demonstrate control. Women starve themselves to prove that they are the Empresses of Ice Cream, weilding a scepter of iron rejection where a plumper sister might choose the tactic of conquering by consuming.

3. Squirrel away. A related impulse is the need to hoard. Perhaps a cream pie this perfect will never cross my path again; it’s only wisdom to tuck away as much as possible before the waiter clears the plates and we must part forever. Hoarding food discloses our need to establish ourselves as independent resources, free from dependence on God. There is an intrinsic mistrust of his ability to provide, though he owns the cream pies on a thousand hills.

4. Boredom. A constant stream of pleasant sensations coming in helps keep more troubling self-confrontation at bay. The continuing work of repentance is life-long, and comparatively less jolly than a bag of gumdrops; those gumdrops may be just enough to keep us distracted one more day. Bishop Brianchaninov, cited above, insisted that an evil of gluttony was its ability to dull the mind. The Rev. Pat Reardon, a Pennsylvania pastor, says, “When people ask me why God seems so distant, I ask them: How much TV have you been watching? What thoughts are you allowing into your mind?” We could add: and how much idle junk food do you allow in your pantry?

5. Big. The title is clumsy and forbidding, but Fat is a Feminist Issue delivers a startling insight. Author Susie Orbach writes that many dieters self-sabotage because they fail to realize that “Compulsive eating is linked to a desire to get fat…Many women are positively afraid of being thin.” This strikes as howlingly counter-intutitive, but Orbach’s research is intriguing. She has women imagine themselves in a social situation; they are to envision every detail of dress, posture, whom they talk with, how others react to them. Orbach has them imagine themselves in the same situation, but immensely fat; then she has them repeat the exercise, but imagine themselves of ideal slimness.

In a culture where slimness equals beauty, women have powerful reasons to want to be thin; but, surprisingly, when they imagined it they found they didn’t enjoy it. Slimness was associated with being “cold and ungiving,” “self-involved,” burdened with others’ expectations, the object of unwanted desire from men and uncomfortable jealousy from women. The fat self, on the other hand, was relaxed, free from unwanted sexual attention and the need to compete, and able to talk comfortably with others.

But, most importantly, the fat self was bigger. This goes without saying, so it’s easy to miss what saying it implies. One woman put it this way: “The fat in the situation [was] making me feel like a sergeant major–big and authoritative. When I go through the fantasy seeing myself thin, what immediately strikes me is just how fragile and little I feel, almost as though I might disappear or be blown away.”

Men have as many reasons as women do–maybe more–to want to be bigger. Our attempts at self-control in eating fail, in part, because part of us really doesn’t want to risk shrinking. We want to be big.

A “Bizarro” cartoon by Dan Piraro ran in our local newspaper. Piraro showed an enormously fat man looking into a refrigerator, while a smaller man stood nearby, holding up a finger of admonition. “You are what you eat,” the scolder said. The fat man replied, “Good. That makes me omnipotent.”

One of the crueler tricks of temptation is that it exacts painful dues while failing to deliver the promised pleasure. A really clever temptation can impose the very opposite of what was promised. This is the case with gluttony. If overeating is about gaining power, the stomach may indeed feel a gratifying, temporary dominance–but the overeater is more likely to feel ashamed and out of control. Overeating may be an assertion of power, but the classic confession is: “I have no will-power.” Far from establishing the glutton as a master, it exposes him as a slave.

This is not a slavery merely to self; it is worse than that. St. Paul speaks of those “whose god is the belly” (Phil. 3:19), and St. John Climacus, seventh-century abbot of the monastery on Mt. Sinai, writes of “that clamorous mistress, the stomach.” Those who succumb to gluttony experience themselves, not as rulers, but as helpless prey. Prey, indeed, we are; this is not just a matter of deficient self-control, but of slipping under another’s control, into another’s trap. “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (I Peter 5:8). It is in the nature of evil to consume, and those who feast wantonly become themselves morsels.

C.S. Lewis, in his beloved The Screwtape Letters, has the senior devil write to his nephew: “To us a human is primarily food; our aim is the absorption of its will into ours, the increase of our own area of selfhood at its expense. But the obedience which the Enemy [God the Father] demands of men is quite a different thing…We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over.”

When Screwtape’s nephew finally fails in his mission, the senior devil gloats in a fashion that any glutton would find chilling: “I think they will give you to me now; or a bit of you. Love you? Why, yes. As dainty a morsel as ever I grew fat on.” This last letter is signed, “Your increasingly and ravenously affectionate uncle, Screwtape.”

“He is full and flows over,” Lewis’s devil wrote. The flowing over by which God would fill us extends from Genesis to Revelation. He does not merely decline to devour us, he feeds us. Eden was planted with “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Genesis 2:9); in the New Jerusalem there is “the tree of life, with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month” (Revelation 22:2). In the Song of Solomon we sing “He brought me to the banqueting house” (Song of Solomon 2:4) and at the end we hear “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9). We are invited to ask, “Give us this day our daily bread.” He feeds us; safe in his pasture, we will not become food. The task is learning to eat the food he gives, in the measure he gives it, for our whole lives consist in learning what he meant: “I have food to eat of which you do not know” (John 4:38).

Satan came to Adam in Paradise; he came to Christ in the desert. He came to two hungry men and said: eat, for your hunger is proof that you depend entirely on food, that your life is in food. And Adam believed and ate; but Christ rejected that temptation and said: man shall not live by bread alone but by God. By doing this, Christ restored that relationship between food, life, and God which Adam broke, and which we still break every day. (Fr. Alexander Schmemann, “On Fasting at Great Lent,” St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1969)

“Which we still break every day.” How to restore that relationship? Mastering gluttony is a tricky task, because you can never be sure you have arrived. With the broader sins, you can swear off the behavior and know with certainty at the end of the day that you either kept your promise or did not. The thief does not wonder whether or not he stole. The person struggling with homosexual longing either went out and picked up a date, or spent the evening in beseeching prayer. With some sins, there’s not much gray area.

With gluttony it’s almost all gray. You can’t simply swear off eating, and learning to eat aright seems such a slippery, indefinable goal. The standards we concoct for ourselves seem to mock us. Sallie Tisdale wrote of dieting: “Eating became cheating. One pretzel was cheating. Two apples instead of one was cheating–a large potato instead of a small, carrots instead of broccoli…Diets have failure built in, failure is the definition. Every substitution–even carrots for broccoli–was a triumph of desire over will…I saw that the real point of dieting is dieting–to not be done with it, ever” (Harper’s Magazine, March 1993).

Yet overcoming gluttony must mean getting a handle on our intake of food, and Christians through the ages have discovered various helps. For example, St. John Climacus, the seventh-century abbot mentioned above, gave his monks specific, concrete advice (though he admitted that “As we are about to speak concerning the stomach, as in everything else, we propose to philosophize against ourselves. For I wonder if anyone has been liberated from this mistress before settling in the grave.”)

“He who fondles a lion tames it, but he who coddles the body makes it still wilder,” St. John warned. But he cautioned against excessive discipline, criticizing one who advised taking only bread and water, “To prescribe this is like saying to a child: ‘Go up the whole ladder in one stride.'” St. John recommended, rather, varying one’s discipline: “Let us for awhile only deny ourselves fattening foods, then heated foods, and only then what makes our food pleasant. If possible, give your stomach satisfying and digestible food, so as to satisfy its insatiable hunger by sufficiency, and so that we may be delivered from excessive desire.”

Learning to eat rightly usually means, in our modern age, dieting. But dieting can merely be a substitute of one of the Seven Deadly Sins for another: forsaking Gluttony, we fall into Vanity. Christians have, from the earliest times, wrestled with the temptation to misuse food, but the weapon they used wasn’t dieting. It was fasting.

Many Western Christians, particularly Protestants, think of fasting (if they do at all) as a tool for intensifying prayer; Richard J. Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline, says that “The central idea in fasting is the voluntary denial of an otherwise normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity.” Narrow-focus fasting like this can powerfully enhance intercession, repentance, and other spiritual undertakings.

There is a broader use of the discipline in the history of the church, however: regular, corporate, extended fasting, as a means of broader spiritual growth. The earliest existing Christian document outside Scripture is the Didache, or the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (dates vary; perhaps as early as 70 AD). The Didache reminds believers that the Jews fast on Tuesday and Thursday–remember the Publican in the temple: “I fast twice a week” (Luke 18:12). But it doesn’t say, “So avoid that foolishness, because we don’t need it.” No, this earliest of church-discipline texts instructs that Christians should fast as well, but on Wednesdays (the day of Judas’s betrayal) and Fridays (the day of the Crucifixion).

Doesn’t this veer uncomfortably close to salvation by works? Southern Baptist minister Dallas Willard writes in The Spirit of the Disciplines, “We have simply let our thinking fall into the grip of a false opposition of grace to ‘works’ that was caused by a mistaken association of works with ‘merit.'” This confusion means that we don’t know how to live spiritually pure, healthy lives; we don’t know how to harness the power that made Christians of other ages spiritual giants. “Faith today is treated as something that only should make us different, not that actually does or can make us different. In reality we vainly struggle against the evils of this world, waiting to die and go to heaven.”

Willard proposes that we take seriously the disciplines of the spiritual life: “Disciplines of Abstinence” (including solitude, silence, fasting, chastity, and sacrifice) and “Disciplines of Engagement” (like study, worship, service, prayer, and confession). If we want truly changed and empowered lives, we must be as self-disciplined, and as constant in our disciplines, as an athlete. Willard says that it’s not enough to be like the boy who, admiring his baseball hero, imitates the way he holds his bat. The athlete did not win success by holding the bat a distinctive way, but by living a fully disciplined life.

Willard is not the first to use this analogy, of course; St. Paul wrote, “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air, but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (I Corinthians 9:24-27).

Fasting is a key, not only to overcoming gluttony, but to other self-discipline as well. Willard writes: “Since food has the pervasive place it does in our lives, the effects of fasting will be diffused throughout our personality. In the midst of all our needs and wants, we experience the contentment of the child that has been weaned from its mother’s breast (Psalm 131:2).”

This psalm had always puzzled me; it was only in researching this article that it came clear. I had seen the contentment of a nursing child, and wondered why the psalmist didn’t use that image. I believe the point is this: the weaned child has learned to be satisfied with another food. We do not live by bread alone.

While the discipline of fasting has gone through seasons of use and disuse in the West, Eastern Christians have maintained it consistently. In fact, from the date of the Didache to this, Eastern Orthodox Christians still abstain from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays. In the weeks before Easter, Orthodox heighten their fasting; for those seven weeks they eat no meat, fish, or dairy products. It is a rigorous discipline, one eased by the knowledge that millions of other Orthodox around the world are fasting at the same time. It is not seen as a way of earning salvation or anything else; the recurrent metaphors are of “exercise” or “medicine” for the soul.

In the midst of Lent, I spoke with several Orthodox Christians about the experience of that discipline. Because several had previously been members of other churches, they were able to contrast this extended, corporate discipline with individual, one-day fasting. Among the comments:

“There’s definitely strength in numbers.”

“Because it’s not just intensely focused on one day or one prayer need, it can spread through all your life and change you.”

“We all fast together, just like we all feast together. It wouldn’t be fun to feast by yourself.”

“The first year I did this, it was like ‘Let’s hurry up and get through this and get to Pascha [Easter], get back to regular eating.’ Now its more like a chance to get back on track, to try to bring the rest of the year up to this mark of discipline.”

One woman had been Orthodox for all her 86 years. She said, “My mother taught us as little kids to thank the dear Lord for the opportunity to have this fasting. I feel like it cleanses my body. I look forward to it every year.” In fact, many Orthodox I talked with agreed: somewhat to their surprise, every year they look forward to the Lenten fast. An athlete, on arising in the morning, may look forward to going for a jog.

Is regular, corporate fasting for only one unfamiliar corner of Christendom? The benefits have been described and valued by brothers and sisters in the faith for two thousand years. There’s nothing to prevent a congregation, or a Bible Study group, or even a circle of prayer partners, from attempting such a project. The discipline could be tailored to particular tastes, or could merge with the ongoing fast of those around the world who follow the ancient custom of giving up meat on Wednesday and Fridays. Only by testing can believers discover whether it bears fruit for them. Taking on fasting means pursuing self-discipline through some irksome trials, an ability many modern-day Christians can well afford to learn. But heed St. John’s advice: don’t attempt too discouragingly much at once; don’t try to go up the whole ladder in a single step.

The law of the jungle is “Eat or be eaten.” Indulging in gluttony seems like a private vice, a “cute sin,” a matter between only the tempted diner and the eclair. But undisciplined indulgence in the pleasure of food costs us more than we dream: coarsens and darkens our minds, ruins our powers of attention and self-control, of sobriety and vigilance. It hobbles and confuses us. It makes us prey for another Eater.

The one who bids us to His marriage supper will not devour us, in fact he promises to feed us. But there is more; he does not feed us only with the good things he has made, or even the goodness of supernatural food like manna. He feeds us his very self. It is this other bread we must learn to eat, not “bread alone” but the Word of God himself. At the Communion table this becomes, not just theory, but a true encounter–a feast that binds hungry sinners together, and links us to the One who alone can feed our souls.

“Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will life forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh…Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:48-51, 53).

“Lord, give us this bread always!”

©Frederica Mathewes-Green