A quick recap:
We began the series by learning about happiness described as having ‘purity of heart’ – that state of inner freedom where we are able to leave behind negative thoughts in order to embrace the good.
The early desert mothers and fathers identified eight ‘negative thoughts’, which hinder this purity of heart; Eight Thoughts afflict all of us to varying degrees, and which ruin our sense of well-being and happiness.
The second ‘Thought’ is Gluttony
The early desert fathers and mothers noticed that when they went off to focus on prayer in the desert, food was ‘one of the main items looming large in their minds.’ (p73).
- I’m guessing we’re all eaten something within the last 24 hours.
- Some of us have probably even been thinking about dinner during this service.
- Food is an essential, massive part of our daily lives.
- But it would seem that most people, for most of the time (me included) don’t make much (if any) connection between food and our spiritual life.
The use of food begins with a thought:
“I fancy a coffee, a biscuit,” whatever… and off we go.
But we often don’t notice that thought.
The wisdom of the monastic tradition says that to notice that thought is the starting-point for learning how to be spiritually switched on, aware, attentive, because it’s an awareness of your mind, body and thoughts: how the whole lot are functioning.
This is so key to our lives that the abbot suggests, ‘Disorderly thoughts about food are a common source of unhappiness in this world of plenty. Controlling these thoughts is a key step on the spiritual journey.’ (p73).
It’s no accident that some of the key moments of make or break in the Bible have to do with food.
Think of the beginning – Genesis 3, in the garden of Eden,
- where people are offered a right and wrong way of eating,
- until a demonic force comes along and suggests ignoring that.
- The result is that someone eats badly, and there are terrible spiritual consequences.
Then there’s the beginning of Jesus’ ministry,
- where after his baptism he spends 40 days in the wilderness.
- That time was crucial to Jesus, because it’s where that he made space and time to listen to God, to discover who he was, and what his mission would consist of.
- How? His time was spent in prayer and fasting.
- Distraction was minimal.
- But then comes the first of his three temptations, and it’s to do with food. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.”
- But here, as he would do repeatedly, Jesus succeeds where his predecessors (in this case, Adam) failed.
The climax of Jesus’ ministry also involved food,
- when among his followers he took bread and wine,
- and shared them out. “Here is my body; here is my blood.”
- it’s a meal the church continues to this day, as a way of sharing with the Lord, and proclaiming his presence among us.
The right use of food in the bible is a running theme.
Note the important bit in that sentence: “the right use of.”
It’s easy to think we should defeat gluttony by going to the opposite extreme: eating almost nothing; negatively rejecting food.
It’s easy to think that’s what the church expects of us. And perhaps that’s because certain kinds so-called spiritual practices have arisen in the history of the church which look just like that.
But any wise spiritual teacher (as any wise dietician) would tell us, that’s not what it’s about. The wisdom of the monks and nuns calls us to look for the happy medium.
As one teacher said, “The extreme of fasting comes to the same end as overeating does.”
Discretion was recommended as the mother of all virtues.
And although fasting has always been seen as a key step towards spiritual fulfilment, monastic fasting doesn’t mean starving ourselves.
Much to the delight of some friends I’ve taken on monastery trips in the past. One man actually thought we were going to be served bread and water. What a pleasant surprise he had when we were served roast dinner and cider because it was a feast day!
The monastic way of fasting is about eating modestly and only at set times, and the aim is to prevent food thoughts dominating life. (p79). That’s not to deny that fasting, when done sensibly and thoughtfully, can be a great help towards growing spiritually.
To be obsessing about either extreme is seen as disorderly thoughts about food – starving yourself is no more virtuous than gorging yourself.
‘The fast-food culture tempts us to ceaseless food consumption, and food on the run at home invites us to do our own thing without reference to others.’(p80)
The monastic tradition wants us to be aware of eating and not eating, choosing both thoughtfully.’ (p81)
It’s like the method of prayerful reading called lectio divina we learned about last year. Think of how we speed-read and skim texts, which is probably the norm for most people today as there’s so much to read on paper and on screens of various sizes, available at all times.
But lectio divina is about reading slowly, prayerful, like sucking a boiled sweet to get the flavour, taking in the words carefully with attention.
The monastic wisdom encourages us to take that same approach to food.
The simple and vital act of eating each day
Rather than doing it without thinking, it can become an area of our lives into which we allow God to come into our thoughts and actions.
If we’re somehow able to think about God and build our friendship with Jesus every time we eat, that could radically alter our lives and way of thinking.
Paul wrote to the Philippians (chapter 3:19-20) about those enemies of Christ who treat their stomachs like gods:
‘Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.’
- Every meal we eat is an opportunity to remember our citizenship in heaven.
- With each mouthful we can be thankful to God.
- Every meal is an opportunity to grow as a disciple of Jesus.
As well as being a means to enhance our vertical relationship (with God), food has something to do with enhancing our horizontal relationships (with each other) too.
In a monastery everybody eats together, and St Benedict greatly emphasised hospitality: being prepared at all times to welcome the stranger and feed them in the name of Christ.
Abbot Christopher writes about the opportunity we have in our families to eat together in a similar way, or to form groups of friends with whom we might share a meal together in order to promote friendship and common values.
‘When we use our food for kindness and hospitality, we use it in such ‘a way that opens life into virtue, so that happiness is found in the dimension beyond pleasure.’(p86)
Sermon by Rev. James Pettit on Sunday 25th September 2016