CHRISTIAN WISDOM: Introduction To The Passions, And Disciplines Of The Body by Frederica Mathewes-Green

The Ancient Christian Path of Transformation

Introduction To The Passions, And Disciplines Of The Body by Frederica Mathewes-Green

From: The Illuminated Heart

Illumine our hearts, O Master who lovest mankind
with the pure light of thy divine knowledge,
and open the eyes of our minds to the understanding
of thy Gospel teachings, for thou art
the illumination of our souls and bodies,
O Christ our God.
(Prayer before the reading of the Gospel
Liturgy of St. James, Fourth Century)

In the last chapter we heard Saint Paul say, “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”  That sounds like a fine prescription, but perhaps a little vague.  How would a person begin to grapple with his own mind?  Wouldn’t it be that same fallen mind that was doing the grappling?

And, hey, what about this body that’s always hanging around?  Wherever the mind goes, there it is.  The influence of each on the other is impossible to disentangle.

Even before Anna’s time Christians had begun developing answers to these questions.  To begin with general physical reality, the attitude of the early church was that all material creation is very good.  Yet along with our healthy responses to this world we have some blunted, broken ones that would have us treat it and other people in greedy, selfish ways.  Those impulses are usually called “the sinful passions,” and training and restraining them is the primary spiritual exercise.  When fully converted, the energy of fallen passions becomes power to do the will of God.

The word “passion” can trip us up, because (after the initial romance novel associations) we Western Christians think of passion as a good thing – as a motive for courageous action and dedication to a cause.  Our use here, however, has a different meaning, and the key is to recognize the same root word behind “passion” and “passive.”  Anna would see these recurring sinful impulses – for example, a tendency to blow up when her children have her rattled – as not an action, but a passion, a submission to forces that lead her away from God.  Passions mean loss of self-direction and self-control, a slipping beneath the undertow of mindless impulse.  Though Anna wants to do what is right, the evil she does not want is what she does; she sees that there is another law at war with her mind, making her captive to sin.

That’s how Saint Paul would put it; the next time Anna goes to spend some private time with her pastor, she’ll say something like, “Father George, I did it again.  I was preparing a lamb the other evening and James and Sophia were fighting over a rag doll, and the next thing I knew I was screaming louder than either of them.”

We take responsibility for such failures, but sly forces nudge us toward them as well.  As Saint Peter says, our enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.  Anna believes that such demonic powers truly exist, and that they are ever watching and hoping for opportunities to confuse and capture her.  Anna knows she is born with a fallen disposition to sin, and bears full responsibility for her deeds; passions may not be chosen, but actions are.  However, in the devil she has a fearsome enemy as well, working diligently to destroy her.

It is Satan that God’s wrath is directed against, Anna believes, not us.  While our sins rightly deserve condemnation, God desires our salvation, and his judgment is a blessing, the diagnosis that precedes healing.

The early church understood the Cross primarily as the way God defeated Satan, rather than the way Jesus paid his wrathful Father the debt for our sins.  Those ideas did not take precedence till very much later in the West.  In the early church, God was most often a seeking, saving Father, not an infuriated judge or a demanding creditor.  One prayer from the Vespers service captures the balance: “Unto Thee, the awful Judge who yet lovest mankind, have Thy servants bowed their heads entreating Thy mercy and looking confidently for Thy salvation.”  He is truly the awful Judge, yet because his love is sure we can expect salvation with confidence.

For Anna and Theodore, God’s most constant characteristic is his overwhelming, forgiving love, seen so naturally in human fatherhood, as in the story of the prodigal son.  As long as this analogy of fatherhood underlies other images it sweetens them; no one automatically associates a judge or a creditor with generous, tender affection.  Emphasis on those alternate analogies, however, gradually increased in the Western church in the last thousand years, and our relationship with God came to seem one mostly concerned with legal or financial debt, rather than long-suffering love between parent and wandering child.

The interior of Anna’s church is painted with many scenes of Biblical events, a picture Bible for a time when many are still illiterate.  The image depicting the Resurrection doesn’t show the garden tomb, but the scene out of 1 Peter.  Jesus stands on the broken gates of hell, which are crossed over a black pit.  At the bottom Satan lies bound in his own chains.  Jesus is reaching out to each side, grasping Adam and Eve by their wrists, and pulling them up from their tombs, while the righteous of all generations stand assembled behind him.  On Pascha (Easter) Anna’s congregation sings joyfully over and over.  “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”

This battle between Christ and the evil one forms the backdrop of every believer’s journey to theosis.  Thus, Anna has two enemies to wrestle with: her own sinful passions, and the evil one who is ever alert to exploit them.  As Saint Paul warned, this war is not against flesh and blood but against spiritual forces that wish us destruction.

Fighting this war will require disciplines that involve our whole selves, both physical and mental aspects.  Body and mind don’t, in reality, split as neatly as modern Western people think they do; things that affect the one pretty obviously affect the other, and they are united in ways we cannot comprehend.  By the same token, disciplines of the body can strengthen the mind, and disciplines of the mind, which we’ll examine in the next chapter, can increase bodily fortitude.

Anna and Theodore are part of a worshiping community that has inherited wisdom about how to discipline the body for spiritual growth.  As fitting Saint Paul’s analogy of the athlete, these consist of exercises.  A weightlifter may spend diligent hours pumping iron, but not because he’s preparing in case he someday runs across a group of people gathered in dismay around a barbell.  The muscles he strengthens each day, however, will come in handy if he is suddenly called on to lift a car off a little girl.  In the same way, bodily self-discipline gained through exercises in one test area builds strength to combat temptation in all areas.

The most basic exercise is fasting.  This did not usually mean abstinence from all food, but limiting it in quantity and variety.  In one of the stories of the Desert Fathers, a young monk asks whether he does right in eating one loaf of bread every other day.  He is advised instead to eat half a loaf every day.  Among the Desert Fathers moderation was rule, and someone who went totally without food might be showing off.  While bodily self-indulgence is a danger, self-appointed heroics can be just as poisonous, leading to spiritual pride and even prelest – demonic delusions of grandeur.

The common tradition in the Christian East is to observe fast days by eating no meat, fish, or dairy products, and on stricter days no wine (alcoholic beverages in general) or oil either.  The second-century writer Tertullian cited Daniel’s fare in Babylon as scriptural proof of the spiritual and physical benefits of such a diet.

It should be noted right away that these foods are not restricted because they’re bad or unclean.  “We do not reject, we merely defer” these foods, says Tertullian.  Some religions forbid certain foods as inherently defiling, but that’s not the Christian understanding.  If it were, Theodore and Anna would not begin enjoying them again on the holiest feast days of the year.

When to fast?  The Didache, a collection of spiritual guidelines written possibly as early as A.D. 70, notes that the Jews fast on Mondays and Thursdays (as the Pharisee in Jesus’s parable boasts: “I fast twice a week.”).  “Your fasts should not coincide with those,” it instructs.  “You should fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.”  Both Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria, another second-century writer, mention the Wednesday-Friday custom; Wednesday, because it was the day Judas arranged to betray Jesus, and Friday in remembrance of the Crucifixion.  In addition, fasting came to be observed during several longer periods of the year, for example, the six weeks of Great Lent before Easter.

Considering such a discipline can seem overwhelming to Western Christians today.  As with other spiritual disciplines, it is important to do what one can, and not undertake too much in a burst of hubris.  Physical exercise is a marvelous thing; it can strengthen and reshape the body in amazing ways, and grant extraordinary health.  We sometimes see heroic athletes in their sixties and seventies completing marathons.  I’m not going to be one of them.  I am middle-aged, plump, and seriously uncoordinated.  There are limits to the amount of exercise I can do, and if I tried to exceed them I would reap both injury and despair.

Likewise with physical disciplines like fasting.  They are meant to strengthen the Christian, not break him.  At Anna’s church, Father George teaches that each person should go toward the common standard as best for his physical and spiritual health.  In private counseling he helps individuals find their balance between challenged and overwhelmed.  And no peeking at how somebody else is keeping the fast, he tells them sternly.  That’s none of your business; it’s between them and God.

“If you are able to bear the Lord’s yoke in its entirety, you will be perfect,” says the Didache.  “If you are not able, then do what you can.  And in the matter of food, do what you can stand.”

Anna and Theodore have advantages in that they were both blessed to grow up in Christian households, and have kept the fasts since childhood.  They have even come to welcome the beginning of a longer fast, knowing the spiritual housecleaning that takes place during such times.  Also, in a culture that has only a limited number of foods, they paradoxically face fewer temptations.  It is presumed that on Wednesdays and Fridays there will be an extra helping of lentils, and no olive oil for dipping the bread.  James and Sophia are old enough to keep the fast with their parents, but little Mary still gets some dairy curds with her dinner.

But Anna and Theodore’s greatest advantage is that they are part of a worshiping community where everyone is keeping the fast, or trying to.  Worshipers can encourage one another, and can share spices or food combinations they’ve discovered that keep things from being too wearisome.  When the time for feasting comes, they feast wholeheartedly and share from overburdened baskets the very best meats and cheeses they can gather.

Also, we shouldn’t underestimate the help the couple gets from knowing Father George.  He is a wise old man now, a widower with grown children, and has been serving in this community for decades.  The congregation is small enough that he knows everyone personally and, by now, thoroughly.  He meets regularly with each one to hear what particular struggles need attention or advice, helping them apply scripture, repent honestly, and receive God’s forgiveness.  Little James is getting old enough now to begin going to talk with Father George himself, and he’s a little nervous about it, since it was he who lunged away from his dad one Vespers and knocked over a candle-stand.

Fasting from food isn’t the only kind of bodily discipline; during fast periods others abstain from entertainment, luxuries, new clothing, or other purchases.  All unmarried people are charged with the very difficult fast of abstaining from sex.  Because this is so challenging and strenuously purifying, the church treats those on this path with special honor.  Even married couples will try to “live as brother and sister” sometimes in order to turn more fully to prayer, a practice Saint Paul mentions.  In all these things, the support of the community is a very great help, and for the lone modern Christian the road will be tougher.

It might sound as if the principle here is that the body and its desires are an impediment or snare, and by opposing them regularly we can learn to transcend them.  One day, we hope, we’ll shed these prisons of mud and yearning and fly up to Heaven as aery sprites.

That’s a common view, but it’s not what early Christians believed.  They would say that the problem is not with the body itself, nor with its natural desires, which tend toward health till we distort them.  Our bodies are a part of the creation God pronounced “very good,” and Jesus demonstrated God’s blessing on the human body when he became incarnate.  He made the blessing more emphatic when he was resurrected, not as a mere spirit, but in a scar-marked body capable of eating fish.  He sealed the blessing in the Ascension, taking that body into the very courts of Heaven.

No doubt about it: We’re going to have these same bodies forever, though in some transfigured form we can’t now imagine.  Our bodies are blessed, but we don’t know how to live harmoniously in them.  We drive them like vehicles, use them like tools to dig pleasure, and in the process damage them and distort our capacity to understand them.  Fasting disciplines help us quiet these impulsive demands, so that we can better hear what they need and how they are meant to work.  It is a turning toward health, a way of honoring creation and preparing for eternity.

Fasting is a good way to begin to corral the impulses of the body.  But what about the wandering mind?

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