The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert

The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert
The Monastery of St. Paul of Thebes, Red Sea Desert, Egypt (1990)

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

STS. BARSANUPHIUS AND JOHN - Directions in Spiritual Work: Part II

In today's reading, we will continue our reading of the counsels of Sts. John and Barsanuphius.

Sts. Barsanuphius and John lived in the sixth century as fellow spiritual strugglers in Palestinian monasteries and in isolation in the desert. We are blessed today to have a wonderful collection of their teachings on the spiritual life which should be studied by every serious student of the Christian faith. St. Barsanuphius spent some fifty years in his cell, forbidding himself the sight of another person. A great ascetic, he was brought three loaves of bread a week by the monastery purser, but often did not eat even that. St. John was his equal in asceticism and was blessed with the additional gift of prophecy.

The book written by these two fathers contains 850 answers to various questions asked by a wide variety of people. Some were written by St. John, but the vast majority were give by St. Barsanuphius. He did not actually write the answers down himself, but dictated them to Abba Serid. When the saint first began to give his answers to questions, he asked Abba Serid to write it down. Not expecting to retain in his memory all the words said to him by the great desert father, Abba Serid was in a quandary how to write down so many words and expected the saint to tell him to bring paper and ink in order to take dictation as he listened. By his gift of clairvoyance, St. Barsanuphius read the secret thought of Serid. His face became like a flame and he said to Serid, "Go, write it down and fear not. Even if I say innumerable words for you to write down, know that the Holy Spirit will not you write one single word more or less than what I have said, even though you wish it, but will guide your hand in writing down everything correctly and in right order."

Obviously, we cannot put all 850 of their answers in our newsletter, but we will share some of our favorites with you over the next couple of newsletters.

Today, we will look at several wonderful selections on fasting and controlling the appetite, an especially relevant topic now that we are in the period of Great Lent before the Feast of the Lord's Resurrection.


-- About the measure of abstinence in food and drink, the fathers say that one should partake of the one and the other in a measure somewhat less than one's actual need, that is, not to fill the stomach completely. Everyone should establish a measure for himself, whether in cooked food or in wine. Moreover the measure of abstinence is not limited to food and drink but embraces also conversations, sleep, garments and all the senses. Each of these should have its own measure of abstinence.

-- How to establish a measure of food and drink, at less than one needs? Take away about one ounce from the total quantity of bread and other foods. As regards water and wine taken together, take away less than half a cup. If you have attention in yourself and it is not hard for you to drink only once a day, it would be well to do so; if you cannot, drink twice a day, but each time less than you need. At times when thoughts are troubled and at war, even the customary quantity of food and drink should be reduced, that is, food by another ounce and all drink by a cup, so that in all food is reduced by two ounces and drink by one cup.

-- How to establish the needful measure or to find out how much a man should eat and drink? By observing himself over several days in relation to the total amount of food, that is, bread, other foods and vegetables, a man can learn by experience how much food and drink his body requires (to be satisfied without overloading it). This measure he should reduce by one ounce of food and half a cup of drink. And at times of struggle he should reduce it by another ounce and another half cup.

-- What does it mean to abstain according to one's strength? To abstain according to one's strength means precisely to use food and drink as I said, namely: to take slightly less than one needs. The same applies to sleep. But if owing to hardship and exhaustion a man somewhat increases the measure, this will not mean an infringement of the rule: "according to one's strength." You will ask: What should be the measure of sleep? The Fathers set it as half the night. As regards food, stop eating when you would like to have a little more, and in this way always take it in moderation.

-- What does it mean to take food to satisfy a whim, and what to satisfy natural requirements? To satisfy a whim means to want to take food not because the body needs it but to pander to the belly (and the palate). But if you notice that your body takes some foods more willingly than others, not for pleasure, but because it is lighter, then to take it would not be a whim. If the nature of some demands sweet food, the nature of others -- salt food and the nature of yet others -- acid food, that is not a whim. But to be particularly fond of some kind of food and to lust for it is a whim -- serving gluttony. If you wish to find out whether you are addicted to the passion of gluttony, you can find it out in the following manner. If food captures your thought (so that you cannot resist it) -- you are a glutton. If you are not possessed by it and partake freely of all kinds of food to the extent your body requires it, you are not a glutton.

Another sign of gluttony is to have a craving for food before the appointed time. This should never be allowed, unless there is some valid reason for it.

-- If the passion (of gluttony) does not trouble me beforehand but appears when I am taking food, what should I do -- leave off eating or not? If you are having a meal with someone else, do not leave off but, calling on the name of God for help, banish lust and eat a little, bearing in mind that the food will soon be transformed into stench. But when you are alone and hungry, eat bread and some other food towards which you are not drawn.

-- I want to curb my belly and reduce the amount of food -- and cannot. Even if sometimes I reduce it, I very soon return again to the old measure. It is the same with drink. Why is this so? No one is freed from this except a man who has attained to the measure of him who said: "I forget to eat my bread. By reason of the voice of my groaning my bones cleave to my skin" (Psalms 102: 4-5). Such a man quickly succeeds in reducing his food and drink; for tears serve him as bread -- and he finally reaches a state when he is fed by the Holy Spirit. Believe me, brother -- I know a man of such stature; once or twice in the course of a week, and sometimes more often he is transported towards spiritual food, and its sweetness makes him forget physical food. When he is about to eat bread, he is like one fully satiated and has no desire for it; and, when he does eat it, reproaches himself saying: Why as I not always in that state? And so wishes to attain to still greater achievement.

-- How to reach such a state? When all man's thoughts form one whole in God, then the flesh too follows the thought of God and the joy of the Spirit comes to the heart, feeding the soul and strengthening the body, and so fortifies both. Such a man no longer weakens or grows despondent, for from then onwards Jesus becomes his Intercessor and sets him at the door of that place where "sorrow and mourning shall flee away" (Isaiah 51:11). And so the word of the Scriptures becomes fulfilled in him: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matthew 6:21). And what brings a man to such a state is humility.

-- How to distinguish a natural infirmity of the flesh (brought about by abstinence) from one simulated by the demons, and how much food should one eat? About infirmity I should say: if receiving daily food (with the habitual measure of abstinence) the body grows weak -- it is from the demons. In the opposite case (if the measure of abstinence is increased) -- the infirmity is natural. The usual measure of abstinence is to get up from the meal slightly hungry, as the fathers laid down for beginners. Later when a man becomes firmly established in this and in a still greater measure of abstinence, experience will have taught him to know clearly how much he should eat.

-- "Pray for me; I am sorely tired." Those who completely die to the world come to the measure of stature through patience and trials, O beloved brother! The Lord has suffered on the cross. Should you not rejoice in sufferings, the endurance of which leads you to the kingdom of heaven? That you suffer is a good sign. Do you not know what sufferings and temptations become multiplied when the Lord prepares His mercy? And, generally, do not seek bodily ease if the Lord does not grant it to you, for bodily ease if abomination in His eyes. And the Lord has said: "In the world ye shall have tribulation" (John 16:33).

-- How to allot oneself daily food? If you allot yourself daily food in the cell, it will lead you to cares and struggles. Be content with what God provides. "He that walketh uprightly walketh surely" (Proverbs 10:9). END

Kadloubovsky, E., and Palmer, G.E.H., trans., Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, (London: Faber and Faber, 1983, pp. 350 - 355.