St John Cassian On Keeping the True Fast
by St. John Cassian
How food should be taken with regard to the aim at perfect continence.
IT is a very true and most excellent saying of the Fathers that the right method of
fasting and abstinence lies in the measure of moderation and bodily chastening;
and that this is the aim of perfect virtue for all alike, viz.: that though we are still
forced to desire it, yet we should exercise self-restraint in the matter of the food,
which we are obliged to take owing to the necessity of supporting the body. For
even if one is weak in body, he can attain to a perfect virtue and one equal to that
of those who are thoroughly strong and healthy, if with firmness of mind he
keeps a check upon the desires and lusts which are not due to weakness of the
flesh. For the Apostle says: "And take not care for the flesh in its lusts." He does
not forbid care for it in every respect: but says that care is not to be taken in
regard to its desires and lusts. He cuts away the luxurious fondness for the flesh:
he does not exclude the control necessary for life: he does the former, lest
through pampering the flesh we should be involved in dangerous entanglements
of the desires; the latter lest the body should be injured by our fault and unable
to fulfill its spiritual and necessary duties.
Of the measure of the chastisement to be undertaken, and the remedy of fasting.
THE perfection then of abstinence is not to be gathered from calculations of time
alone, nor only from the quality of the food; but beyond everything from the
judgment of conscience. For each one should impose such a sparing diet on
himself as the battle of his bodily struggle may require. The canonical observance
of fasts is indeed valuable and by all means to be kept. But unless this is followed
by a temperate partaking of food, one will not be able to arrive at the goal of
perfection. For the abstinence of prolonged fasts--where repletion of body
follows--produces weariness for a time rather than purity and chastity.
Perfection of mind indeed depends upon the abstinence of the belly. He has no
lasting purity and chastity, who is not contented always to keep to a well-balanced
and temperate diet. Fasting, although severe, yet if unnecessary
relaxation follows, is rendered useless, and presently leads to the vice of
gluttony. A reasonable supply of food partaken of daily with moderation is
better than a severe and long fast at intervals. Excessive fasting has been known
not only to undermine the constancy of the mind, but also to weaken the power
of prayers through sheer weariness of body.
That abstinence from food is not of itself sufficient for preservation of
bodily and mental purity.
IN order to preserve the mind and body in a perfect condition abstinence from
food is not alone sufficient: unless the other virtues of the mind as well are joined
to it. And so humility must first be learned by the virtue of obedience, and
grinding toil and bodily exhaustion. The possession of money must not only be
avoided, but the desire for it must be utterly rooted out. For it is not enough not
to possess it -- a thing which comes to many as a matter of necessity: but we
ought, if by chance it is offered, not even to admit the wish to have it. The
madness of anger should be controlled; the downcast look of dejection be
overcome; vainglory should be despised, the disdainfulness of pride trampled
under foot, and the shifting and wandering thoughts of the mind restrained by
continual recollection of God. And the slippery wanderings of our heart should
be brought back again to the contemplation of God as often as our crafty enemy,
in his endeavor to lead away the mind a captive from this consideration, creeps
into the innermost recesses of the heart.