From The Sayings of the Desert Fathers:
Someone asked Abba Agathon, “Which is better, bodily asceticism or interior vigilance?”
The old man replied, “Man is like a tree, bodily asceticism is the foliage, interior vigilance is the fruit. According to that which is written, ‘Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit shall be cut down and cast into the fire’ (Matt 3:10) it is clear that all our care should be directed towards the fruit, that is to say, guard of the spirit, but it needs protection and the embellishment of the foliage, which is bodily asceticism."
I like this analogy very much. And isn’t it true? Doesn’t filling our stomachs with food, and making our physical lives as comfortable as possible, lead to complacency and sloth? It is hard to pray on a full stomach, I have found (too often!).
It seems to me that we are so much weaker, physically, in modern times than our Desert Fathers were. They took physical hardship almost for granted. For us, we have to intentionally put a pebble in our shoe to induce some physical trial into our lives! For them, and for many people before our times of electronic gadgets and labor-saving devices, there were many physical hardships that were just a part of daily living.
Hmmm…This leads my thoughts off on a tangent. The priest whose homily I heard at Sunday Mass gave an amusing example that reflects this somewhat. He said he was in his kitchen in the rectory, admiring how beautiful it was, with the lovely fridge, the big microwave, and the beautiful cooking utensils his associate priest had recently purchased. “Fr. M cooked something, and it was good, and I was meditating on our beautiful kitchen,” he said.
But then he said he realized that none of those beautiful appliances were worth much without electricity. He is from Africa, and he told us that “in Africa, we don’t always have electricity, so we know how to cook with firewood.” He was amused that someone had recently told him a story about camping with some children who found cooking over a campfire to be novel and sort of magical.
And he added that our spiritual life is like this, too; without Jesus as the “power” behind our spiritual life, all of our “utensils” are worthless.
So… two good thoughts: bodily asceticism protects the spirit; and our prayers are not worth much without faith in Our Lord.