The First Afflictive Thought – Food

The teaching on the afflictive thoughts or vices which we have received is handed on through a series of important writers.  Evagrius of Pontus provided a scheme of scriptural texts which could be used to combat the thoughts in his treatise Antirrhetikos (The Combat).  The scheme of the thoughts was taken up by the monastic writer who, in many ways, was a bridge between the wisdom of the east and the emerging monasticism of the west, John Cassian.  Cassian, in his works The Institutes and the Conferences, deals in great detail with the discipline of the renunciation of the thoughts and views this work as essential if we are to progress in any way in the interior life.  Needless to say, St Benedict, who mentions Cassian’s Conferences in his Rule, must have been aware of his teaching on the thoughts and so expected his monks to know it also.  And the great monastic teacher of the east, John Climacus, in his treatise on the training of monks, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, while critical of Evagrius, offers the thoughts and teaching, and expands on them.  In various ways the Cistercian Fathers reflect on the vices and the necessity of the ongoing work needed to address them and move them aside.  And in our own times Sr Mary Margaret Funk osb has reclaimed the ancient teaching and presented it to a new audience with a new lucidity. 

In Evagrius and Cassian and John Climacus it’s clear that the movement of a thought has a form, an anatomy, as it presents itself to me.  First, the thought rises and I’m aware of it in my mind and consciousness.  Then there is the possibility that I interact with the thought rather than simply allowing it to pass or dismissing it or replacing it with another thought.  If this interaction develops I assent to the suggestion which the thought makes and I act.  In the case of an afflictive thought, the repeated interaction and action leads eventually to captivity – my conversations with the thought become shorter, and I move to action ever more quickly.  Sooner or later my capacity to struggle with the thought and reject it and its consequences diminishes, so that without much opposition I consent each time.  The end point of this is that I am, in a sense, consumed by the matter of the thought – I become my thought.

Of course,this is the very thing that we want to happen when we are dealing with virtuous thoughts, thoughts which lead to good and truthful living, thoughts which direct me to God and to the service and love of neighbour.  But it is the very path which we want to avoid if we are dealing with an afflictive thought or vice.

The first afflictve thought – food – in many ways provides the basis for the teaching and practice which we need to learn for the other thoughts.  We should not be surprised that the desert fathers gave teaching on the struggles which their disciples had with food:

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 days 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 this royal road, which is light.’

Much is revealed to us here about managing the food thought.  In short we might say that we avoid the excesses of the food thought by discerning and making decisions around frequency, quality and quantity – when to eat; what to eat; how much to eat.  Again, we ‘re told that Abba Poemen said: ‘There are three things which I am not able to do without: food, clothing and sleep; but I can restrict them to some extent.’

We recognise the necessity and goodness of food for us – it’s a gift which blesses us, but which we so often take for granted and use wastefully.  The decisions around our use of food allow us to develop the virtue of discernment, which St Benedict regards as the mother of all virtues. Above all, Abba Poemen’s advice to us cannot be ignored – we must train ourselves in the royal road which is the practice of moderation:

  • Not too often, yet not too infrequently
  • Not always too rich in quality, but neither poor in quality
  • Not to excess, be it too much or too little.

The question of fasting from food (and indeed, from any other good thing) needs to be given thought.  We never undertake fasting – abstaining completely from food – without good reason.  Fasting cannot be an end in itself, but rather is a means which allows us to reset and refocus on something else.  Essentially, to fast is to eat attentively and in a discerned way. It helps us to avoid the extreme of overeating and gluttony.  And it is a tool which we offer up as part of our sacrifice for some other good. St Benedict recommends it as a tool for good works.  But there are times when feasting is appropriate – to celebrate a moment of importance in someone’s life, or in the life of a family or community.  The Church does it through the calendar of liturgical events – those moments in the Church’s life, like the celebration of Our Lord’s Nativity at Christmas and his Resurrection at Easter are times when we, both individually and as a worshipping and consecrated community, should rightly celebrate and feast.

Perhaps the training around the first afflictive thought is more than ever appropriate today, when so many suffer and express their suffering and struggle through their use of food, in terms of all extremes.  Food can, for many, feel like both an escape and a terrible burden – and it is not easy to move those burdens aside. And we cannot ignore the fact that, though we for the most part do not have to think about our next meal and so take the gift of food for granted, a great swathe of our brothers and sisters cannot exercise discernment and choice about their eating, since they have no food.

St Benedict and the ‘Liturgy of the Common Table’

As we would expect, Benedict takes care in his Rule to legislate for the meals of the community.  We can learn much today from his approach. It’s probably fair to say that in his day, when Europe was in turmoil and the advancing German tribes made sure that the Italian peninsula was a place of war and need, the ready availability of food could not be relied upon.  So he makes sure that the monastery should be self-sufficient, producing by and large the food which the community will eat. But what is even more surprising is Benedict’s attitude to how those in community should take the common meal. We might say that he proposes what amounts to a ‘liturgy of the table’ which, in ways, parallels the ‘liturgy of the oratory’.  Those who serve ask for a blessing and pray before they take up their service. The weekly reader does the same – and indeed is chosen as if he were intoning the psalms or antiphons,so that his reading should edify the listeners – and all must give their full attention to what is read, taking their meal in silence, listening, and allowing nothing to break that reverential atmosphere.  Just as those who commit some fault during the common prayer must make satisfaction by receiving a punishment so also community members might be deprived of the right to eat the meal with the others. And the meal and the distribution of food and drink takes account of individual needs and weaknesses and so is eminently person-centred. Benedict, in the one chapter, notes that those who are late to prayer or the meal can be punished.

So, Benedict asks us to consider that the food which we receive and the meals which we share are moments of consecration.  We enter into a place and time which is set aside from our usual business and we join those with whom we live and work in a common, grateful action.  In this, Benedict must surely reflect the fact that Christ himself sat down at table, shared meals with friends, with those who followed him, and even with the Pharisees who criticised him.  Thus, Benedict is conscious, from his own Christ-centred standpoint, that when a community comes together, in prayer or at table, Christ is truly present, and where Christ is present community has the possibility of existing.

This is a concrete invitation to us who are losing or have lost a sense of and the practice of taking meals together.  When meals are hurried, grabbed, deliberately consisting in fast food, turned into business meetings (the working breakfast!), and taken, even in a single family household at different times and in different parts of the one house, we lose the value of our eating and time together.  And how many of us begin a meal by asking a blessing on our food and those who have made it, and end it by thanking God for the gifts he has given us?

The food thought, both in our struggle to make moderation our usual discerned way and in the opportunity it gives us to acknowledge God-Present, is a wonderful first step in our journey to move aside the afflictive thought and make virtuous living a real possibility.

-Part of our ‘Afflictive Thoughts’ series-

Other posts…

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