While I was undergoing chemotherapy from November of 2001 to May of 2002, I did a lot of reading. Much of what I read was for pleasure, but the books I read for instruction, well, they changed my life. In fact, if not for them, I would never have become a Nutritionist and would never have even thought of starting a Blog (Now you know who to blame!).
Father John Cassian, a priest who lived in the 4th century, probably had the biggest impact on me. In his text "On the Eight Vices", the section entitled "Control of the Stomach" was nothing less than divinely inspired. Yet it was brilliant in its simplicity. Discussing some of the even-earlier church Fathers, he says "They have not given us only a single rule for fasting or a single standard for eating, because not everyone has the same strength; age, illness, or delicacy of body create differences. But they have given us all a single goal: to avoid over-eating and the filling of our bellies." His main point is that food is to be eaten in so far as it supports our life. In other words, "eat to live, don't live to eat". He then links the "sin of gluttony" with other "sins", saying, for example, that "no one whose stomach is full can fight mentally against the demon of unchastity. Our initial struggle therefore must be to gain control of our stomach." I like how he links weakness in one area of our lives with weakness in another. It makes sense. Being unable to control our appetite is a symptom of a larger problem, leading, more than likely, to lack of control in other areas of our lives, as well. Conversely, controlling what you put in your stomach makes it easier for you to be able to fight off the other temptations that come your way.
Regarding prayer, Cassian warns that if we have eaten too much, we are unable to guard our thoughts - primarily we have a hard time keeping our restless impulses at bay, or restraining our minds from shameful fantasies. Can anyone relate to this? I could! I always used to find my mind wandering whenever I really made an effort to pray. Either that or I would start yawning and have to fight off falling asleep. All because I was weighed down with heavy food. An early 5th century monk named Neilos the Ascetic summed it up pretty well: "Gluttony", he said, "destroys everything good. Once it gains the upper hand, it drives out self-control, moderation, courage, fortitude, and all the other virtues".
Entering a fasting period is a great time to take control of your appetite. As I go through this Lenten period, I challenge you, whatever denomination or religious affiliation you are, to take this time to lighten your load - diet-wise. You don't have to do it for the full 54 days, but try cutting heavy foods out (read "meat" or at least "fatty foods") for as long as you can and see how you feel. If you are someone who prays or meditates, see if eating lighter doesn't help you to find spiritual clarity as well. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by the results...
Until next time, happy and healthy eating!
(Note: Quotes are from The Philokalia, Volume One, pages 73-4, and 239. The Philokalia are ancient spiritual texts that were translated from the original Greek in 1979. They were written primarily as instructions for those who had sought the Monastic life, but if they are read carefully, are full of wisdom for those of us in the secular world as well)