Abba Evagrius said: “A wandering mind is strengthened by reading, and prayer. Passion is dampened down by hunger and work and solitude. Anger is repressed by psalmody, and long-suffering, and mercy. But all these should be at the proper times and in due measure. If they are used at the wrong times and to excess, they are useful for a short time. But what is only useful for a short time, is harmful in the long run.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 10.20

When one reads early Christian responses to Jewish practices like Kosher diet or Sabbath observance or circumcision, especially that of St. Paul, perhaps, one can get the impression that he contradicts himself. At some points, he says that so long as someone does these things with a good conscience, it is pleasing to God. At other times, he talks about how none of these things have any spiritual profit. I think this saying from Abba Evagrius gives us some insight into what that early Christian perspective really was about: prudence.

Christians have all sorts of practices of their own that might be seen as equally external and arbitrary. But Evagrius is clear that the proper attitude, form the perspective of Christian asceticism anyway, is that all these things are to be regarded as indifferent in themselves and only good or bad depending on their use. They are means to an end, not that end themselves. This, in fact, was a common Stoic teaching appropriated by early Christians, including perhaps even St. Paul (I think so, at least).

Thus, the law is “holy and just and good” (cf. Romans 7) … when viewed through this relativistic lens. The problem is when these practices (not to be confused with commandments, though it can apply there to some extent as well) are viewed as unbending absolutes. Indeed, some Christians in the first century viewed Kosher eating, the Sabbath, and circumcision in exactly that way. These are those St. Paul refers to as Judaizers.

This is a temptation for any religious person, I think. Evagrius, on the other hand, makes prudence the only absolute of our practice. Reading, meditation, prayer, fasting, work, solitude, almsgiving: “all these should be at the proper time and in due measure.”

Now, I think people should pray every day. But beyond that these things are truly flexible. Keeping a regular rule is really important for internalizing the benefits of our practice, but even that regular rule can itself become an obstacle if absolutized. The liturgical calendar of the Orthodox Church (of which I am a member) not only has times for fasting but also times for feasting, like right now! It’s Christmas! No fasting allowed! Eating and drinking? Yes, please.

These things, after all, have their place as well. God gives us life and breath and provision, none of which we do anything to earn, all of which is grace to us. Proper feasting is an extension of thanksgiving.

So take a break and raise a glass of wine (if it is prudent given your relationship with alcohol). Christ is born! Let us glorify him! Let us feast and celebrate the new year.