Diet, Discipline & Faith
In other parts of our society, we see the growing attraction to various forms of a “spirituality of well-being” divorced from any community life, or to a “theology of prosperity” detached from responsibility for our brothers and sisters, or to depersonalized experiences which are nothing more than a form of self-centredness. [Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium), p. 73].
When we profess to follow a particular religion, we often accept its laws restricting our diet and nutritional standards. Whether they consist of fasting, abstinence from meat or drink, or rituals of purification, we observe dietary practices that test our resolve and commitment to the faith we profess.
Serving God requires that we incorporate into our arsenal every possible resource available to us. This includes our food. If we are trying to attain Divine awareness, we will eat and abstain from eating in ways that maximize such spiritual development.
Both the body and the soul must be prepared and purified to attain spiritual heights. Limited food consumption, deprivation of bodily pleasures and avoidance of irreverent acts are traditional exercises for achieving higher states of piety.
Washing and cleansing the body as part of religious ceremonies are external, while restricting passions and appetites are internal. When we so purify ourselves, inside and out, we become spiritually distinguished, and in better condition to commune with God.
For I am the Lord your God: ye shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and ye shall be holy; for I am holy: neither shall ye defile yourselves with any manner of creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. For I am the Lord that bringeth you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy. [Leviticus 11:44-45].
Restrictions in diet and purity of food are traditional ingredients of spiritual nutrition. From ancient times, scriptures have described dietary restriction in venerable terms. Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims are all required to fast. The vegetarian diet observed by Hindus manifests commitment to a way of life regulated by faith. Prescribed eating practices are daily obligations of Buddhist monks.
There is no Sastra [Scripture] superior to the Veda. There is no person more worthy of reverence than the mother. There is no acquisition superior to that of Righteousness, and no penance superior to fast. [Mahabharata, Book 13, Section, XVI].
Fasting by Moses, Elijah, Elisha, and by Jesus is exalted to an act of sublime nobility and grandeur. Fasting Ramadan witnesses the Muslim’s submission to God. Likewise, restricted food consumption by Daniel is praised and commended.
Indeed, the entire concept of “kashrut” (kosher) reflects the sacred nature of eating and the need to regulate our diet. Observance of kashrut reminds the believing Jew that a special relation exists between the Jew and God. Whenever Jews sit down to dine, they affirm their choice to observe God’s diet and proclaim their belief.
This is the law of the beasts, and of the fowl, and of every living creature that moveth in the waters, and of every creature that creepeth upon the earth: To make a difference between the unclean and the clean, and between the beast that may be eaten and the beast that may not be eaten. [Leviticus 11:46-47].
Apathy of Affluence
Affluence harbors apathy. It breeds contempt of the spiritual life. It makes us neglect our awareness of God.
O young man! Good health lies in giving up the quest for good health. Affluence lies in giving up the quest for affluence. The remedy lies in giving up the quest for the remedy. The whole of the remedy consists in submission to the Lord of Truth (Almighty and Glorious is He), in cutting material ties and repudiating overlords as far as your heart is concerned. [Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jilani].
With our basic physical needs met, we grow arrogant, concentrate on enjoying worldly amusements, and forget our need of God. We gravitate to a diet of overindulgence and grow spiritually fat and lazy.
To follow Jesus means learning to arrange my life around those practices that will enable me to stay connected to him and live more and more like him. In short, this is just another way of defining a spiritual discipline. A spiritual discipline is any activity that can help me gain power. [John Ortberg, Growth].
God provides a cure for this malady, which we sometimes construe as punishment. We do not like the taste of abstinence and complain for having to take it.
We seek enjoyment from the world, from what we see, feel and taste. Buying blindly what the world displays, we cannot perceive what God offers.
We fail to measure spiritual blessings and to appreciate fully Divine provisions. We rush to consume what our cravings demand, and discard what God presents, rejecting Divine promises and refusing guidance.
If you don’t feel strong desires for the manifestation of the glory of God, it is not because you have drunk deeply and are satisfied. It is because you have nibbled so long at the table of the world. Your soul is stuffed with small things, and there is no room for the great … Between the dangers of self-denial and self-indulgence is the path of pleasant pain called fasting. [John Piper, A Hunger for God].
Survival of the Fattest
Ironically, our culture continues to associate dietary restrictions with righteousness and piety. As a corollary, sin, lust and greed continue to be associated with detrimental conduct and uncontrolled appetites.
Restricted food intake and a diet of pure foods remain as important today as they were in biblical times, but for secular reasons.
In evolutionary terminology, humans realized early in their development that uncontrolled consumption of food and drink is detrimental to health. An undisciplined diet invariably opens the gates to physical excesses and passions that are individually and communally harmful.
But I think that the very thought processes of materialistic affluence … are ultimately self-defeating. They contain so many built-in frustrations that they inevitably lead us to despair in the midst of “plenty” and “happiness” and the awful fruit of this despair is indiscriminate, irresponsible destructiveness, hatred of life, carried on in the name of life itself. In order to “survive” we instinctively destroy that on which our survival depends. [Thomas Merton, Witness to Freedom, Ch. 2].
Diet of God
The more attention we give to eating, the greater the difficulty we have exercising restraint. Further, if we combine eating with another pleasurable activity, such as watching television, attending a sporting event or enjoying a social gathering, discipline becomes even more difficult.
When the pleasure that food provides becomes a primary source of gratification in our life, it is likely we are suffering spiritual deficiency.
To savor the delights of our spiritual palate, we discard all that is superfluous. We focus on the Eternal Absolute, seeking to enjoy, with heart and mind, the blessed reality of God’s Presence.
Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created. From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it … so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, long rather than short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only what is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created. [St. Ignatius, Principle and Foundation].