[Spiritual nourishment]

Dear Donagh,

I was at a weekend with [a group] a few weeks ago, and the word that kept cropping up more often than any other was the word nourishment.  Anyone would think it was a cookery course, but it was supposed to be about spirituality.  I thought it a bit strange because that's a word we never used to hear in religion….  A lot of what they were saying made sense of course, but I couldn’t help thinking that it seemed a bit exaggerated…. I kept thinking of you and what you might say about it.  So here I am passing it by you, and wondering what your comments will be.  Rose

Dear Rose,

I looked up the origins of the word ‘nourishment’: it comes from Latin, nutrix, which means a wet-nurse; nutrix in turn comes from nutrire, to suckle.  When you look at those shades of meaning (it has others), it makes sense that you stepped back a bit.  Spirituality used to be a challenge to heroism, to be ascetical, to do penance, to do justice, to love your enemies, to fast, to pray…. Now, we tend to lean over to the other side, to admiring “all things bright and beautiful.”  That is understandable historically; you can't live on the edge the whole time.  But it’s hard to find a balance. 

Some years ago the key word was ‘growth’ – a word of similar tone to ‘nourishment’.  It cropped up everywhere: if not in the titles of books, then in chapter headings.  Everything was growing.  I used to wonder what had become of pruning?  “Every branch that bears fruit,” Jesus said, “my Father prunes to make it bear more fruit” (Jn 15:1-2).  So, far from being the opposite of growth, pruning is essential to growth.  It is sobering to remember that cancer is growth – growth gone wild. 

Likewise with ‘spiritual nourishment’: everything in the food store may be good to eat, but it may be bad for me; or bad at this time.  Fasting may be the best thing to do at certain times.  It is a kind of pruning.  We don’t hear much about fasting today, but we hear quite a lot about dieting.  Dieting is fasting without its spiritual side. 

We have a complicated relationship with food today.  The best-selling books now, they tell us, are cookbooks and dieting books.  The cookbooks tell you how to cook wonderful meals, and the diet books tell you not to eat them.  I know a couple of people whose dieting would put the Desert Fathers to shame.  Those ancient ascetics, of course, would have called it fasting.  And like my dieting friends, some of them took it to extremes.  But one of them, taking the middle course between extremes, said, “You should eat every day!”  He meant once!  They were tough people.  The Desert Mother Syncletica took the same view.  "There is an asceticism,” she said, “which is determined by the enemy, and his disciples practise it.  So how are we to distinguish between genuine asceticism and the demonic kind?  Clearly through its quality of balance.”  That is sound advice from a very long time ago, the 4th century. 

Jesus and his disciples had a flexible attitude to food: depending on the circumstances, they were able to feast and fast – both.  “John's disciples came and asked Jesus, ‘How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?’  Jesus answered, ‘How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast’” (Mt 9:14f). 

They are all telling us that there is a time for fasting and a time for feasting.  The same, I'm sure, would hold for that ‘spiritual nourishment’ you asked about.  The exclusive stress on ‘nourishment’ is suspect in this age of relentless acquisition.  We need to study fasting.  It is an ancient tradition. 

In the New Testament, fasting in itself doesn’t compel respect: “John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!’ ( Mt 11:18-19) – a warning to keep our eyes open and our minds clear.  The motive for fasting is essential to its meaning.  Fasting is related to almsgiving: it is as much for the benefit of the poor as it is for one’s own spiritual clarity.  This is echoed in early Christian writing: Origen (c. 185–c. 253 AD) blessed those who fasted in order to nourish the poor; St John Chrysostom (c. 347– 407 AD) said that fasting without armsgiving was not fasting at all; and St Augustine (354–430 AD) said that fasting was nothing more than miserliness unless you gave away what you would have eaten.

So when you can't take any more talk of nourishment in that group, Rose, you could slip in a few suggestions about fasting and almsgiving.  It may not be to their taste, but you can insist that historically these items are on the menu.  You could add two more ingredients, but it may be better to wait until Lent. "Come back to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning" (Joel 2:12)!

Good luck, Rose!

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