A brother fell hungry at dawn, and struggled with his soul not to eat until 9 o’clock. And when 9 o’clock came, he extracted from himself a resolution to wait till noon. At noon he dipped his bread and sat down to eat—but then rose up again, saying: “I will wait till three.” And at 3 o’clock he prayed, and he saw the devil’s work going out of him like smoke; and his hunger ceased.

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 4.58

We are not told any other details concerning the brother in this story. We can only speculate that perhaps he struggled with gluttony or, at any rate, for some reason had resolved to observe a total fast for the day. Yet, “at dawn” he finds himself hungry. In order not to give in to his hunger, he implements a strategy that I would refer to as “reverse procrastination.”

Regular procrastination puts off work. Whether it is schoolwork, housework, or work-work, most of us find times when we put off doing what we know we need to do. “I’ll just watch this Youtube video first”; “I’ll do it tonight”; “I have two more days to get that done,” we think. And then, when we are down to the wire, we must work feverishly and sacrifice time for other things (like family or friends or sleep), just in order to do our work at, in all likelihood, less quality than we know we are capable of doing it.

Reverse procrastination looks like the brother in this story. Knowing the importance of spiritual work, like prayer and fasting and giving our time, talents, and resources to others (almsgiving), we put off pleasures saying, “Pleasure can wait until 9 o’clock.” And then, once 9 o’clock rolls around, we say, “Why not wait until noon?” When noon comes, we have the resolve to say, “I will wait until three.” By cutting off pleasures for the sake of putting the things that bring true joy first, we simultaneously build greater self-control and find the flame of the devil’s work extinguished within us, reduced to the transient smoke that it always was.

Advent—a traditional period of fasting for Christians—is nearing. For Orthodox Christians like myself, it starts mid-November. For Westerners, a few weeks later. In the meantime, there is nothing stopping us from following the tradition of the early Church and observing a partial fast on Wednesdays and Fridays (no meat or sweets is a good way to start). I have found that in trying my best to observe the traditional fasts of the Church, the spiritual benefits have been well worth what always, in hindsight, seems to be such a small sacrifice after all. And “reverse procrastination” has been a faithful friend along the way (when I haven’t forgotten about it).

Whatever the case, next time you determine to fast or pray or in some other way devote some time to the kingdom of God, tell your desires, “One more hour,” until the day is done, or until, like a vanquished fire, they die out and are revealed to be little more than smoke all along.

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