Abba Cassian also said: “We came to another old man and he invited us to sup, and pressed us, though we had eaten, to eat more. I said that I could not. He answered: ‘I have already given meals to six different visitors, and am still hungry. Have you only eaten once and yet are so full that you cannot eat with me now?'”
For Orthodox Christians like myself, the season of Advent has come (beginning November 15). Advent is a period of fasting leading up to the feast of the Nativity, better known as Christmas. In the United States, however, there is a significant bump along this road to Christmas: Thanksgiving. This year, not only does Thanksgiving day interrupt the fast, but I attended a conference last weekend (beginning last Thursday) that was catered with all sorts of wonderful, but non-lenten foods and drinks. So I didn’t really get to begin. On top of that, Sunday night Kelly and Brendan and I went to my mother’s to have a local family Thanksgiving. Tomorrow, we are driving down to Indiana for Thanksgiving with Kelly’s aunts and uncle and grandfather. Before too long, everyone will be having Christmas parties (before Christmas, of course, rather than during those twelve days afterward set aside for, you know, celebrating Christmas). I am starting to wonder if I will get an Advent at all this year….
However, sayings like this one from Abba (John) Cassian are always a comfort. Abba Cassian and his friend (probably Abba Germanus) traveled all throughout the Egyptian desert, seeking wisdom from the many monastic communities and hermits that had gone there seeking a more spiritual life. In this story, they meet an unnamed old man who teaches them about the true meaning of fasting.
They came to him seeking wisdom, but what he offered them, two aspiring ascetics in their own right, was somewhat scandalous: food, after they had already eaten. The old man, however, meets Cassian’s refusal with an appropriate reprimand: “I have already given meals to six different visitors, and am still hungry. Have you only eaten once and yet are so full that you cannot eat with me now?”
Cassian’s problem was that he was confusing a means (fasting), albeit abundantly useful and nearly essential, with an end. The point of fasting is not fasting. The point of fasting is to cultivate self-control, virtue, and communion with God who “is Spirit” (John 4:24). However, his idealizing of fasting caused him to lose sight of this end. Here before him was a wise and godly old man, created in the image of God, who was doing something virtuous, offering him hospitality. Saint Syncletice, if I’m not mistaken, said something similar that pertains to this: when we are offered food that would break our fast and take it, what we do is doubly virtuous: it denies our own wills and accepts the love of another. And that, on top of the gift of food itself (which is more than enough), is a great reason to give thanks.
I am thankful for the wonderful conference, a great time with family this past Sunday, and the coming holiday in Indiana. All of these things are wonderful and I owe my gratitude to those who make them possible, God himself most of all. But I have another reason to be thankful: in accepting this love and denying my own will to keep the fast, I cultivate virtue, which is sweeter than any earthly delicacy. And for that, too, I am truly thankful.