As many of you know, I spent last week fasting at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. It was a rich experience, physically and mentally, and I’m glad I did it. This is my report. First, I’ll give an overview of the trip. Then I’ll talk about the more physical and mental aspects of the fast and the overall ascetic experience.  And then a few general impressions and concluding thoughts.

You may be disappointed to learn that I didn’t take any pictures, but it just didn’t seem appropriate. It wasn’t a spa. (And if you ever go, don’t expect a spa-like experience.) But I’ve grabbed a few pics that were already on the net, and those will do. For the same reason, I won’t be blogging about everything in the experience. And, of course, I need to save something fresh for the book. [more]

Overview of the trip

I flew into Louisville on Monday night, my birthday, and spent the night at a Howard Johnson near the airport.  That was an ascetic experience in its own right.  I arrived a night early because I wanted to get a good night’s sleep before entering the monastery.  Catching the first flight out of NYC the following morning would have meant a 4:30 am wake-up, getting probably 3 hours of sleep — and I knew that sleep was going to be challenging at the Abbey, since I planned on attending “the hours”.  Vigils started at 3:15 am every morning (if you can call that morning), followed by Lauds at 5:45 am, Terce at 7:30 am, and Sext, None, Vespers throughout the day, ending with Compline at 7:30 pm.  The monks still live by the seasons, and the times for the hours change throughout the year.  Each of the hours is a formal session of prayer in the church, lasting about 20 to 35 minutes each, adding up to about 2.5 to 3 hours per day.

On Tuesday morning, I met my fellow travelers at the airport and drove south towards the Abbey.  We stopped for lunch in Bardstown at a local diner called Mammy’s Kitchen — my last meal before entering my fast.  I ordered a double cheeseburger, wrapped in lettuce, extra pickles, and a glass of water.  After finishing, I realized I should have ordered two of those, gorging a little beforehand.  As it would turn out, it was good that I didn’t — gorging in your last meal before a fast is generally considered a bad idea.  (Whether this is based on the idea that most people would typically be gorging on sweets and excess carbohydrate, not protein or fat, I don’t know.)

We arrived at the Abbey soon after.  A sign greeted us where the parking lot ended and the path to the Abbey began: “Silence beyond this point.”  This wouldn’t be the last sign reminding us instinctively chatty humans to shut the hell up.  The Abbey was plastered with reminders:  “Silence is spoken here.”  “The porch and gardens are places of silence.”  Monasteries and movie theaters — both struggling to persuade people that silence is, in fact, golden.  

We were greeted by Father Damien, the monk on duty to deal with retreatants.  (A word on nomenclature: monks who are ordained priests are referred to as ‘Father’, monks who are not ordained priests – as many aren’t – are referred to as ‘Brother’.)  I had been interested in going barefoot the whole time, but was unsure whether that would be allowed, so I asked Father Damien: “I’ve read about how going barefoot is part of the monastic tradition, and was wondering if it would be acceptable to go barefoot here.”  He laughed (all of the monks who I heard speak were quick to laugh) and kindly responded, “Not in our Abbey’s monastic tradition.  We wear sandals or shoes, and ask that you would do the same.  But thank you for asking.”  This, I have to say, would be emblematic of the week — I tended to be more interested in the physical aspects of ascetism (or the joint nature of body and mind), and the monks tended to focus on mental and spiritual ascetism.

We found our rooms and unpacked.  The rooms were simple — cleaner than the Howard Johnson, but less luxurious.  (And the artwork on the walls had a slightly more religious design motif going on.)  And thus began a series of days that involved attending the hours, reading (in the gardens, in the library, in my room), thinking, exploring the monastic grounds open to retreatants (fairly extensive), and attending meals where I ate ice water and watched other people eat food.  I was not silent the whole time, nor was anyone I observed, including the monks (at a minimum, they chanted, sang, and prayed at the hours).  I’ve concluded that it’s nearly impossible to be silent for long stretches when in the company of other human beings.  It’s easier for a hermit in the desert to be silent than a monk in a monastery.

Then I attended my first hours.  To an outsider, the hours is perhaps the most arresting aspect of the monks’ life: chant-like recitations of the Psalms, singing, and formal ritual.  It was a sight to behold.  The prayers, songs, and chants are noteworthy in their own right, but I was entranced by the monks’ entrance and exit to each of the hours: uncoordinated, each individual taking his own unpredictable path, coming from a different part of the grounds and arriving at his own place, at slightly different times — but all moving at the same speed, slowly and deliberately, and resolving to the same predictable formation, before adjourning again, seven times a day — like water molecules cooling and coalescing into ice, only to melt away again.  And just as constantly as Winter’s freeze and thaw in Spring. 

Fasting and the Ascetic Experience

I chose to fast strictly for three days.  That meant no food (liquid or solid), no juice, no cayenne pepper, no tea, no coffee, no caffeine, no medications, no supplements, no nothing.  Just water.  (And, of course, whatever the government puts in the water.)  Previously, the longest I had fasted was about 24 hours, so I was a little apprehensive.  (I had intended to do a 2-day fast over the past few weeks, but I never found the time.)  That said, I fast for a full 24 hours on a fairly regular basis (between every two weeks and a month, most recently), and I have very little sugar in my diet, so I knew that my body is accustomed to burning my own body fat as fuel.  I’m no stranger to ketosis.

Here’s the headline: it was easier and less unpleasant than I thought it would be.  When the three days were done, I could have just kept going.  Yes, there were moments when my thoughts fixated on the food to come, but I wasn’t dying to break my fast and devour the closest potentially edible food-like substance.  My hunger was almost entirely absent, my brain felt fine (though different), and I felt healthy.

Here are my physical observations:

  • My skin felt amazing.  Never has my facial skin felt so healthy.  You know how sometimes you feel like you shouldn’t touch your face with your fingers, because it will make your face more oily?  Well, I just wanted to touch my face because it felt so damn healthy, and whatever was happening, I didn’t have the slightest concern that touching my face would result in pimples or anything like that.  (I’ll note that I don’t wash my face with soap at all, nor do I moisturize, and only rarely do I specifically wash my face with water, other than drying off from the shower.)
  • My sinuses completely cleared up.  My sinuses are my canaries in the coal mind when it comes to inflammation.  A few beers and they get slightly inflamed.  But I really can’t remember my nasal passages and breathing ever being so clear.
  • I felt a little cold at times.  My body was clearly conserving energy.  I wasn’t severely cold though.  Just enough that I decided to throw on a sweatshirt a few times.
  • Initially felt awake and alert, but then meditative.  I felt awake and alert on the first day, and part of the second.  I did quite a bit of reading throughout the experience, and even wrote a fair bit on the second day.  That said, by the end of the second day and the third day, my alertness downshifted into a more meditative state.  I wasn’t drowsy, per se, but my mind lost the desire to work on complex tasks that people like to do when they’re alert.  I wanted to zone out a bit more.  Stare at the leaves moving in the breeze.  Look at the colors of pebbles on the path.  Enjoy the sun shining on my face.  Yes, on the third day, it felt like a mild high.
  • No headaches, no light-headedness, no shaky hands, no grouchiness.  Despite not being able to cut out caffeine in advance, I didn’t have any caffeine withdrawal symptoms.  Apparently, I’m not overdoing it, which is good.  I didn’t have any sugar withdrawal symptoms either.  I assume that in this respect, my experience would diverge substantially from anyone who has a more typical diet.
  • Slightly bad breath.  But not as bad as the really bad morning breath people get when not fasting.
  • Inactive.  On the first day, a few hours after eating, I went for a long-ish run and explored around in the woods.  (And got completely lost, trespassed multiple times, and startled some horses that could have easily killed me out of fright.)  But I had no desire to exercise or move much on the second and third days.  I definitely didn’t feel like hunting any wild beast in order to feed myself.  In fact, even going on some long walks was tiring, and I lagged behind a few others who weren’t fasting.  My body didn’t want me to move very much.  That said, I wouldn’t say that I felt sleepy.  Inactive, but not sleepy.  (Though I did take some ill-advised afternoon naps that made it harder to sleep at night.)
  • Not overwhelmingly hungry.  My hunger decreased through the fast — not increased.  Day one was my hungriest day.  But my hunger quickly subsided after that first and second missed meal.  I had no problem falling asleep at night (at least, due to being hungry).  My thoughts generally weren’t fixated on food — though sometimes they were.  I had a few stomach grumblings.  I didn’t attend breakfast any morning, but I attended all other meals and just read a book and watched everyone else eat.  If putting myself in that situation had required intense discipline to resist eating, I wouldn’t have gone to the meals.  (I can resist anything but temptation.)  But I had a clear purpose for why I was fasting, and my hunger wasn’t intense.  I had a very odd experience of enjoying looking at food.  I wasn’t tempted to eat it, but somehow I could enjoy simply looking at a banana, knowing that it existed, and that one day I would eat one again.  Like I said, very odd.
  • Time passes more slowly.  This is fine if you’re in a pleasant setting, and can just chill out.  But if you have tasks that you can’t accomplish weighing on your mind, you might feel like you’re on a trans-Pacific plane flight where you can’t get comfortable and can’t sleep.  
  • Lower libido.  Significant decrease in sexual desire.  I’m sure part of this had to do with the context, particularly on the first day, but even so, I had a room to myself and I was there for three days.
  • Didn’t poo.  Not once for three days.  It was me and Mammy’s lettuce-wrapped double cheeseburger, together as one, all week long.  Only after I broke my fast did my body say it was okay to move my bowels.  No discomfort at all or feelings of bloatedness.  Very little gas.
  • Weight.  I wish I could tell you that I weighed myself before and after, but I didn’t.  Probably lost 3-5 pounds.  Drank plenty of water (but I didn’t force myself to drink water if I wasn’t thirsty).
  • Breaking the fast.  **Whenever you fast, it’s very important to only gradually return to food.**  Do not gorge yourself on your first meal, particularly processed and sugary food.  I had a banana and a pack of sardines.  Neither would have been my top choice, and to be honest, neither tasted particularly good.  Perhaps that should come as no surprise, given the total absence of a banana-sardine pairing on any menu, in any restaurant, in the entire world.  Even so, I was surprised that I didn’t enjoy the first few bites of the banana as much as I thought I would.  My stomach was indifferent, almost stand-offish, to it.  Also, it’s best to break fasts communally, with other people, but due to some travel logistics, I didn’t get to do that.  So the breaking of my fast was a little disappointing.
  • Who should NOT fast.  Children and pregnant women are ill-advised to fast.  All of the religious traditions I’ve read about exempt them from fasting.  And people who are sick or unaccustomed to fasting shouldn’t just jump into a long fast unless they’re sure they know what they’re doing.

All in all, I found this three day fast to be a worthwhile experience, and I recommend that you try it some time.  For fasts longer than a day, I would strongly recommend doing it at a time and a place when you don’t have responsibilities or distractions, and can have a little space.  Finding a cause for a longer fast (a charity, a tribute, a goal) is also an effective way to overcome any initial temptations, and get you to the point where it becomes easier.  Worth noting: modern people who do not find a reason to fast, never voluntarily will.

Fasting was the primary ascetic experience at the monastery, but there were other ascetic aspects.

  • Sleep.  The sleep patterns from attending the hours felt very odd, particularly waking up at 3am for Vigils.  That said, I enjoy getting into a routine that is more in sync with the sun.  (The monks go to bed with the sun…they just wake up way too damn early on the other end.)
  • Barefoot.  As mentioned, this was a bit of a disappointment.   However, I did go for a lovely barefoot run, wore more authentic minimalist sandals than most of the monks (I saw a pair of Birkenstocks), saw one of the monks at one service who arrived barefoot, and heard from Brother Paul about the Nigerian Trappist monks (one of whom was visiting) who go barefoot all the time and have big, wide, and healthy feet.
  • Standing.  Some of the monks choose to stand in their pews, when they have the option, leaning against a high back.  They kind of have “standing pews”, not unlike standing desks, which work just as well standing as sitting.  I built two standing desks during the week, one in my room and one in the dining room, simply by putting a stool on top of a table.
  • Silence.  Like I mentioned above, it’s hard to keep silent when surrounded by other people.  It’s so easy to slip into just whispering a little bit, especially for simple logistical communication, like “I’ll meet you downstairs in the cafeteria.”  Or, “Don’t forget we’re meeting with the Abbot at 11am.”  Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, it cuts against human nature to be completely silent for long uninterrupted periods.
  • Hair.  Hair, a sign of individual expression (and health), was always cut short.  Often shaved, many “buzzed”, and only one of some forty that I would call a normal length traditional male haircut.  No long hair at all.  Many beards.  And a LOT of male pattern baldness.  This could have been due to the fact that 1) all of the monks were 40 and older, and most were 60+, 2) everyone had a short haircut, and 3) we looked down on them from a balcony.  But it was frequent enough to make me wonder if there’s something hormonal going on there, in terms of the type of person attracted to the contemplative life, or something causative in the life itself.
  • The Trappist Diet.  As for what the monks eat, I’m going to save that for another post.  I also got to speak with five of the monks, either at special meals (they generally eat separately from the retreatants) or special meetings.  I’ll share how I talked about an evolutionary approach to health, sans Darwinian evolution.

General impressions and concluding thoughts

A few general impressions…

  • Fasting was a critical part of my experience.  I find it a little hard to get spiritual or meditative sometimes.  Without the fasting — a mechanism for the body to influence the mind — my experience would have been less rich.
  • Fasting has been in long decline in the Christian tradition.  In most Catholics, it’s reduced to eating fish on Fridays.  Most Protestant don’t fast.  Supposedly, fasting has made a small comeback among Evangelicals.  Mormons still fast once a month.  (Note which denominations are growing the most.)  The monks I spoke to about fasting certainly knew about it, but I didn’t get the impression that it was a core aspect of the modern monastic experience.  That said, their food was spare, and at least one monk (of the five I spoke to) fasted every Wednesday and Friday on bread and water only.  But the monks weren’t particularly interested in the body, so the entire health angle of fasting was of little interest.  I found this disappointing.
  • The contemplative life seems hard to outsiders, and is in decline, but the monks seem like jovial people.  Like I said, the ones I spoke with were quick to smile and laugh.  But monasteries in general are in global decline.  There are 40 some monks at Gethsemani, down from a more typical 100 or so to run the place, and down from a peak of 300 and some in the 50s and 60s when Thomas Merton was there.
  • I shared some thoughts with the Abbot on how to increase recruitment.  My basic suggestion, which I’ll share here, is that they need to incorporate physical ascetism with their mental ascetism, and make it physically much harder.  Yes, harder, and less accommodating.  Create a year-long Hermitage, which would not require a commitment to enter the monastery, that is physically and mentally grueling, and make it Navy SEAL tough.  Shaved head, no name, no shoes, rough hard-spun clothing, silence, isolation, physical labor, cold exposure, and Zen-like, “yes, Sensai” shit.  Maybe even some weapons training.  Right now monks are very low testosterone people leading low testosterone lives.  (Incidentally, the words to the Psalms they chant are often off-the-charts high testosterone — the Lord will destroy our enemies for all eternity type stuff — a very odd contrast.)  But they have this rich tradition of bad-ass ascetic hermits that is going untapped.  A Hermitage would probably attract high T guys, but that’s a good thing.  It would be like doing a modern day vision quest for warrior-monks seeking to control and channel their testosterone.  And I’ll bet the end result would be more novices of all types.  You should have seen the look on people’s faces as I was describing this to the Abbot in the Abbot’s private study.  Hey, every millennium or so it’s time for a new branch to break away and re-dedicate.  Maybe it’s time. 
  • The monks were welcoming to people from all walks of life.  That is part of their rule – St. Benedict’s Rule – to welcome all-comers to the Abbey.  And it is also part of the legacy of Thomas Merton, who was known for his interfaith outreach, particularly to Eastern Zen and Buddhist monastic traditions (see photo of visiting Buddhist monks at right).  When I spoke about health and food, I heard more than one reference to vegans (which they endearingly mispronounced “vay-gans”).  Not everyone there was Catholic, and I saw a few crunchy-looking folks wearing peace symbol necklaces in addition to more straight-laced looking religious types.
  • Support local foods at Gethsemani Farms.  The monks support themselves by making foods, including cheese and bourbon fudge.  As they say: To a Trappist, work is a form of prayer.  They are good people, who lead simple and peaceful lives, close to the earth, and welcome all.

Many thanks to Father Damien, Brother Paul, Father Patrick, Brother Allen, Father Elias, and all the other monks at Gethsemani for a memorable and moving experience.

I leave you with a few quotations from Thomas Merton.

 

“No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees.”

“I cannot make the universe obey me. I cannot make other people conform to my own whims and fancies. I cannot make even my own body obey me.”

“The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.”

“A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying Him. It ‘consents,’ so to speak, to His creative love. It is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree.” 

“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.” 


29 Responses to “Fasting with the Trappists: An adventure in asceticism”

  1.  Great post, very interesting and I can’t wait for your book! Loved the recruiting tips that you gave the monks. Christianity is a religion that eschews the body and embraces the soul or mind so it is very doubtful that they will incorporate physical training, though. 

    The quote from Thomas Merton quoting the "winds in the pines" is interesting. There is an Okinawan karate kata called Matsukaze which translates into "Wind in the Pines" and is from a poem by Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of modern karate.

    • Leigh says:

      "Christianity is a religion that eschews the body and embraces the soul or mind so it is very doubtful that they will incorporate physical training, though."

      This is true only of certain modern interpretations of Christianity.  In ancient Catholic & Orthodox traditions, the human being is made of a total integration of body and soul.  The body is not a "temporary" housing for the soul – the body is immortal, and only separated from the soul for the period between death and the Resurrection.  The body is meant to share eternity with the soul, and will at the end of the temporal age.

      The tradition of manly monks is long in these two faiths.  As recently as the 1940s, several of the monks of Gethsemani moved to make a new monastery in Georgia, and built the stone church there with their own hands.  The extreme changes in many US & European monasteries in the 60s & 70s are responsible for the end to their growth.  There are, however, several orders of both men and women, cloistered and non-cloistered, which are experiencing rapid growth.  These are the ones which have remained faithful to the uniqueness and wholeness of religious life.  The Dominican Sisters in Nashville and the Benedictine brothers in Clear Creek are two such examples.  The Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist in Michigan were recently featured on Oprah.  These orders, as well as the Catholic Church in general (look to South American, Asia, and Africa, not to the dying West, for examples), are experiencing vibrant growth.  They are manly men and womanly women who seek to serve God and man in the fullness of body and soul.

      And as said elsewhere, the Catholic faith is in no way mutually exclusive with evolution or any other theory of how the world began.  As Bl. John Paul II said, faith and reason are two wings on which truth takes flight.  Both are paths to the same truth. 

      Primal mama to five

  2. Spencer says:

    Actually, I’m a protestant and I’m not really dogmatic about creation. I take the view that there is not enough information on either literal biblical creation or whether God used evolution . So really I just take it as it doesn’t matter. If somebody proves to me that God used evolution, then I’ll believe it. It somebody proves to me the six day thing, then I’ll believe that. It is kind of like the argument of whether the sun revolved around the earth, or the earth around the sun that a occurred a while ago. Also, I know many protestants who believe in evolution, though there is generally some hostility towards those they say they believe that.

  3. Catharine says:

    Just want to mention that many devout Catholics believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution. We are not required to believe in "new Earth" creationism AT ALL. Believing in evolution is officially and completely acceptable within the Church’s teaching. Some Catholics are Bible-based creationists to be sure, but, again, it is not required by the Church. Yer thinkin’ of some Protestants. Anyway, so you probably could talk to the monks about the evolutionary aspects of the paleo philosophy.

    The funny thing is that they make a lot of un-paleo food at Gethsemane, which they sell to the public. I have to confess to sending many a wheel of their cheese at Christmastime…at least I stay away from the Bourbon fruitcake and fudge!

  4. Melissa says:

     Perhaps most Christians in the US don’t fast, but fasting is alive and well among the Orthodox (300 million Eastern and perhaps 200 milliion Oriental). You might enjoy the segment 60 minutes did on the ancient monestary of Mt. Athos

    • Joseph Rice says:

       yes, in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, fasting is still a regular rule, including the Eucharistic fast, which last from midnight until the celebration of Divine Liturgy in the morning (roughly 11 hours).  our fasting is more abstention from certain foods on most days, although food portions are to be smaller.  there are a few days (Holy/Good Friday, Eve of Theophany, Feast of the Beheading of the Forerunner) where a strict fast is required.

  5. Andrew says:

    I had intended to do a 2-day fast over the past few weeks, but I never found the time.

    Never found the time to fast?  Sometimes I’ll find myself on a fast because I don’t have time to eat.  I get why people like to plan out their fasts, but unplanned fasts have made me not as reliant on food to function, which is mostly a mental thing anyway.

    **Whenever you fast, it’s very important to only gradually return to food.**

    If I were a hunter gatherer and I had to go without food for 3 days I probably wouldn’t think to gradually wean myself back onto food.  Then again, I’ve heard about someone giving a starving homeless man a hamburger, who scarfed the hamburger and promptly died, but that’s probably an extreme case.

    • M Miller says:

       I believe cases of anorexia are supposed to be treated gradually, and the same thing  was the case with holocaust survivors. (I don’t know why this is the case.) While a three-day fast might be extreme relative to most of our experiences, it probably doesn’t need to be handled quite so delicately. I ended my fast with a huge meal and, while I had never felt so full (or satisfied), I didn’t experience any other difficulties. 

  6. Steve says:

     I think spending time at a monastery or similar get away would be beneficial to all of us chained to computers and cars.  I visited the Sivananda yoga center outside of Montreal for a few days which was like a monastery.  http://www.sivananda.org.   They had early morning and evening satsangs where everyone chanted, sang and meditated.  The food was all vegan without caffeine but I did have a terrible caffeine withdrawal headache compounded by headstands!  The lodgings at the Ashram were very spartan with some hindu religious art.  Unlike the monks however, the yogis did emphasize the need for physical exercise.  I felt very refreshed and rejuvenated after my time there.  Perhaps your suggestions of revamping the monastery could also incorporate the yogic practices of an Ashram.

    Also thanks for the inspiration to fast.  I’ve only been skipping breakfast and lunch but will need to stretch it out further.

  7. I really like your ideas "on how to increase recruitment". "It would be like doing a modern day vision quest for warrior-monks seeking to control and channel their testosterone." A lot of people seek and would benefit from that kind of training.

    Getting into the body and not just being in the head is essential for us to evolve spirituality, that’s what we’ve all forgotten. Most religions say the body is evil. We are here to learn to push the limits of our existence and that includes the body.  I suspect that you saw so much male pattern baldness, because of the imbalance, not just of hormones, but also of simply being fully present in the body. Chicken or the egg, which comes first?

    • Kelly says:

      Maybe I missed something? I’m confused by all these comments about how monks need badass training. Why? Fathers, brothers and sisters (sisters are equally less femenine) who have answered the calling take vows of chastity and poverty with the purpose to serve God through some sort of service to the community. From my perspective educated in Catholic schools, service usually includes education or helping the poor. It’s an unselfish lifestyle that focuses on spiritual growth and outreach and minimizes physical needs. I don’t understand how physical training is an important part of the equation.

      • Nance says:

         Kelly, 

         

        Thank you for saying something I was thinking, but thought it would be rude to bring up. Monks — all Catholics — see the body as a temporary housing for the soul, to be respected and cared for but not obsessed over. We all die, after all. What’s more, the silence and asceticism of retreats is supposed to focus your mind on God, not your bowels. That look of horror on the Abbot’s face may well have been dismay at how thoroughly you missed the point, John. Please submit this section of your manuscript to someone outside your circle for a careful reading.  You could easily come off looking like a fool.

        • Kelly and Nance,

          I think we are often led into some confusion in this matter by not being able to read the Bible in its original languages.  There is no Biblical basis for the idea that the body is a temporary housing for the soul, and in fact burial rites have always been so important in Christianity because of the emphasis on the bodily resurrection that lies in the future.  In Genesis, God breathes his spirit into Adam’s nostrils and Adam becomes "a living soul."  There is no record of God giving Adam a soul after creating his body, nor of Adam’s soul pre-existing and awaiting the creation of his body.  The Greek word translated as "soul," (psyche) is also translated as "life" in some Biblical contexts and "self" in others.  It’s adjective form, psychikon, is often translated as "natural."  For example, Paul uses "soma psychikon" (a body of soul) and "soma sarkikon"  (a body of flesh) interchangeably, and says that they will be sown in incorruption whereas a soma pneumatikon (body of spirit) will be raised in incorruption.  If the body is one thing completely distinct from the soul and does nothing but act as a container for it, how can there be any such thing as a "soma psychikon" (where the adjective form of "soul" is used to describe "body")?

          The early fathers of the church did accept some of the terminology of the Greek pagan soul-body dualism, but with strict limitations on it, insisting that neither the soul nor the body in and of itself could be the true person, but that the true person is a unit of body and soul.  The body, to them, was not a temporary container of the soul, but an integrated part of the person.

          Chris

        • John says:

          Kelly and Nance, the Abbot didn’t have a look of dismay on his face at all. It was the other people in the room. He’s suffering from a lack of recruitment, and monasteries around the world are shutting down. I absolutely agree that their vocation is one of spirituality, peace, and charity, and should remain so. But they’ve lost some aspects of the original asceticism found in the earliest Christian monks and mystics, particularly in Egypt — “the Egyptian Fathers”, people like St. Anthony the Great. These guys didn’t ignore the body, like many monks seem to do today, they actively denied the body. Which is a big difference. There’s also a long tradition of a more “high testosterone”, as I refer to it, vocation — the Knights Templar. So it’s not so far fetched a notion. Not that I’m even Catholic! Thanks for your thoughts.

          • Kelly says:

            I appreciate you clarifying your perspective and I suppose I got a little off track from your blog theme. There’s no doubt that the Catholic church is in decline, at least in the US, and recruitment needs fresh ideas. My own father studied to be a priest in the 60s. Regarding testosterone levels, I think this is something that many priests struggle with. The priest that married my wife and I over 20 years ago shared with us that a part of him desired having a wife, not only for his physical desires, but mostly for the companionship and lifelong partner to share his life with. Several years ago, I heard that he left the priesthood. Of course, the current view in the Church is that priests are married to the Church and God is their partner.

          • Catharine says:

            Actually some priests of the Roman Catholic Church, such as priests in the Eastern Rite (of the Roman Catholic Church), are allowed to marry – and I’m not talking about Eastern Orthodox – but not the ones who are Eastern Rite Catholic priests in the U.S. That would cause a lot of bitterness I guess. What I’m trying to say is that, unlike things categorized as Natural Law such as the ban on artificial contraception, the celibacy of  Catholic priests is a regulation that could be changed and may be some day…it was only made policy around 700 AD. We had a married priest at my last Catholic parish – he was a married Episcopal priest when he converted. It’s very rare and only a few married Episcopal(Anglican) and Orthodox priests are ever allowed to convert and become Catholic priests.

          • Melissa says:

            That is very sad. My priest also left the Catholic church and is now happily married and still a priest… of an Eastern Orthodox church. Orthodoxy has many celibate monks and bishops, but there is a clear and important role for married priests as heads of communities.  

        • It just depends on what you want. Many traditions teach bringing you into your body to have the tools and discipline to be the best human you can be. We are human after all and for many enlightenment is not the point , but to instead be Awake. To be conscious of what we are doing with and through the body. The body channels the soul. The soul does not reside in the body, it is not physical in nature. Therefore the body is the channel through which we are able to act upon this earth and that is a Sacred thing. God is in everything including your bowels, so best to pay attention to them. ;-)

          • Anonymous says:

            John, I appreciate your response, but I do agree with the commenters that you may have somewhat missed the boat about the asceticism thing.  I think that the priests (here, and ancient ones, and even in other religions) achieve physical asceticism by achieving spiritual and mental asceticism first, not the other way around.  What I mean is, walking around barefoot or fasting may definitely put you more in touch with your body and nature and even give you a spiritual, meditative experience…but running around like a ninja warrior probably will not.  Maybe I was mistaken, but what you suggested to increase recruitment sounded more like increased physical and mental discipline, not asceticism?

          • Maggie says:

             Physical training is a critical component for a life of spiritual growth, education, serving the poor, etc.  Mothers and fathers try to stay health and strong to provide for their children.  Priests and other religious workers/leaders also need to be healthy and strong to be effective in their pursuits (serving the poor, teaching, etc.).  In fact, so do each of us – so that we are able to live more full, rich lives, which hopefully includes helping others.  Christian belief that the body is a temporary home for the soul is not an excuse for putting physical health on the back burner.  In embarrassingly over-simplified terms, the healthier/stronger you are, the more "able" you’ll be (even in spiritual growth – it certainly helps if you can breathe well and aren’t sick) and the longer you’ll live.  What matters more is what you do with your health and strength.  Do you use it to help others?  Or, do you use it to have "beach muscles" / look good in the mirror?  Christians believe that doing good acts on earth is a reflection of their belief in God.  Do they think God would want them to make choices to be less able in their work with the poor and live shorter lives?  If the issue is more about ninja-style workouts – then I think this shifts us to a completely different topic: What is the best way to stay physically healthy and strong?  Understanding this is the primary reason that I read this blog and others.  I am still experimenting with different types of training. Priests should be exposed to different types of training too.  Then, let them choose how to stay healthy and strong.  If a priest wants to do a ninja-workout to improve strength, then I support that.

  8. Chris says:

    John:

     

     I’ve also been on a three-day fast (while I was eating SAD), which I broke with a large communal meal where I gorged myself.  No ill effects.  It’s only three days.  The idea that three days without food is some super deprivation that you have to wean yourself back onto food from seems like an SAD idea to me.  Also, I doubt people need to work up to a three-day fast.  I was also told this, but went ahead and did it on a whim without any prep.  No probs.  There are people that go on much longer fasts.  See Fasting and Eating for Health by Joel Fuhrman.  Most of the book is vegan baloney in which the effects of fasting are attributed to going without meat.  However, it does drive home the point that serious extended fast is possible, so probably 3 days is a zilch.  Consider that it takes 2-3 weeks for people to adjust if they go from SAD to Atkins.

     

    Be careful attributing everything to the fast.  I live in upstate NY but went to college outside Philly.  Whenever I was down there, my chronically congested sinuses would clear up.  It could have been Kentucky, not fasting.

     

    My experience with fasting was the same as  your other observations on slowing down, getting meditative, not pooing, enjoying being around food without eating it, etc.  Did you think about the inactivity component in relation to Taubes’ ideas about the relationship of calories and activity?  Interesting, huh?

     

     Your other ideas about manning up the monastic experience seem ill-advised to me.  The Hospitalers and Templars were these types of orders, and they get bad press today.  Plus, your BUD/S novitiate scheme is what some cults do to brain-wash members.  This is not what the monastery wants.   At the time of their peak before Vatican II, when Merton was involved, the Catholics went through a general high-tide period.  A lot of intellectuals (e.g. Waugh, Auden) converted as they were attracted to the deep history of the Aristotelean-Thomistic tradition.  This is also at work today in the virtue ethics movement.  Myths about the Shaolin Temple notwithstanding, contemplation and action are not friends, and orthodoxy is a better bet for maintaining the monastic traditions.

    • Chris says:

      I was just thinking: what is the rationale for getting back onto food slowly after a fast?  It must have something to do with the GI system.  So if you want to experiment with this, buy a 16-scoop size of Miralax and mix it into 4 quart-size containers of G2 Gatorade.  Start drinking one glass every 10-15 minutes until all is gone.  This is equivalent to what they do in a hospital to prep for a colonoscopy.  It will clear out your GI system even more than fasting.  You can experiment with adding food back in slow or fast after this prep.  My experience in the hospital tells me that adding food to a cleared out GI system generally has no ill effects.

  9. Dennis says:

    I think your ideas for increasing recruitment are spot-on.  If my life was on a different path I could totally see myself signing up for something like that.  I’ve been around pretty religious people my whole life and never understood why masculinity and spirituality seem so exclusive. 

    • Jim Arkus says:

      Agreed.  I remember when I first started reading Christian writings I got hooked on the Desert Fathers and thought they were the ultimate badasses.  Then I started going to a local church and it was a bunch of weepy self-help bullshit.  Broke my heart.

  10. Kelly says:

     

    John, How frequently do retreatants visit the Abbey? Is the typical retreatant a single man, or is it typical to find couples there as well? I suppose the typical reason for retreatants to visit the Abbey is for spiritual renewal. Did the rituals and atmosphere have a spiritual affect on you? Thanks for sharing, this is interesting. Kelly

  11. Matthew Miller says:

    Great write up on your experience. I also did a full 72 hour fast and had similar experiences, in that it was relatively easy and I wasn’t incredibly hungry after the first day. I do 24-hour fasts about once a week, sometimes longer and sometimes shorter. My experience did differ in that I began the fast after (sort of) gorging myself, and not on the healthiest of food. I also ended the fast with a huge meal, but of high quality: 1 lb of ground beef, a few strips of bacon, half of a butternut squash, and some other mixed veggies. I’ve never felt so full in my life, but it was very satisfying. Also, I did drink black coffee, about two cups per day. This may have made things easier. Anyways, similar to your experience, the first day was tougher. It could have been because I was coming off of a few days on living a not-so-healthy lifestyle: a friend visited the previous weekend, and so I did little more drinking than usual. Earlier in the week I did a couple marathon paper-writing and grading sessions, and so my sleep wasn’t very good. Also, Wednesday is my day off and I thought it would be nice to take it easy that day, but I think I’d have been better of being out and about doing things to keep my mind and body occupied. Thursday and Friday were easy. I was hardly hungry, I kept pretty busy stayed sharp. I did a LOT of walking (bunch of trips to and from school, as well as a really long walk at the park) and even ended the fast with a quick but intense weightlifting session. I got through it fine, but could tell that my muscle strength and endurance was lacking. The lifting did take its toll on me, as I didn’t feel too fantastic afterwards. Good thing I got to eat right away. I imagine that doing intense exercise earlier on in the fast may have made it more difficult. On a different note, since I am Catholic, I was looking to take a bit more of a spiritual approach to the fast. One of the purposes of fasting, as I see it, is that there is a kind of suffering involved, and this is supposed to remind you of the purpose of your fast, and perhaps also to identify with the suffering of Jesus. But as I said, there wasn’t much suffering involved. From what I understand, on the days on which fasting is recommended, the “fast” consists of reduced meal size and no snacking. I suppose that for most, this is enough to make one suffer. As a seasoned faster, however, I’m not sure that I can get as much spiritually out of fasting. I suppose there are additional ascetic elements that I could add, such as exercise. All in all, it was exciting to expose my body to (relatively) extreme conditions and experience first-hand the incredible mechanisms it has for keeping itself running (relatively) smoothly and efficiently. I’m glad you posted about this ahead of time and encouraged others to join. What’s the next reader challenge?

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