Diet For a Large Soul
Desert fathers specialist Benedicta Ward notes that monks were forced to order their dress, sleep, sexuality, and eating because of "the nature of life in the desert," (that is, the severity of the conditions), and because they longed to be "free to feed on the word of God without distraction by appetite." To get a feel for early asceticism, especially fasting, and how it affected the daily lives of monks, we've included a portion of Ward's introduction to The Lives of the Desert Fathers: The Historia Monachorum in Aegypto, translated by Normal Russell, (Cistercian, Kalamazoo, 1980, p. 23-25). (The Historia Monachorum in Aegypto is a late fourth-century journal of seven Palestinian monks who traveled to Egypt to learn from the monks living there).
Some of the monks ate very little, like John of Lycopolis who ate only a little fruit each day and Pityrion who had a light diet of a little corn-meal soup each day. At Bawit it was customary to keep the canonical fasts of Wednesday and Friday, days of complete abstinence from food, in memory of the Passion of Christ, but on other days a meal in the evening, usually after Communion, was the norm. Older monks might eat very little simply because of age, but the custom observed by the travelers seems to have been as in this story:
"Abba Joseph asked Abba Poemen, 'How should one fast?'
"Abba Poemen said to him, 'For my part, I think it better that one should eat every day, but only a little, so as not to be satisfied.'
"Abba Joseph said to him, 'When you were younger, did you not fast two days at a time, Abba?'
"The old man said, 'Yes, even for three and four and the whole week. The Fathers tried all this out as they were able, and they found it preferable to eat every day, but just a small amount. They have left us this royal way, which is light.'"
By the time Cassian came to Egypt (in the late 300s), this custom seems to have become universal, and the visitors from Palestine observed that this was already the case. They were given food when they arrived at a place, but usually the monks ate a light meal at the ninth hour of the day.
It was not only the frequency of eating that was restricted but also the kind and quantity of food. The quality of food in the desert was, of necessity, not noticeably poorer than that of the average peasant; indeed it might be better. A comparison that delighted the monks was that between the sophisticated food eaten by Arsenius at court and the poor fare he had in the desert.
One story, in various versions, contrasted this with the experience of the average peasant-turned-monk, who was asked, "What was your food in the fields and what wine did you drink?"
"I ate dry bread and, if I found any, green herbs and water."
This is precisely the diet described in the Historia Monachorum for the hermits the visitors encountered or heard of: dried bread and green herbs. The bread, paxamatia, consisted of small loaves, about 12 ounces in weight, which could be taken into the desert and stored indefinitely. To this salt might be added when the loaves were soaked again to make them edible, and only the most austere of hermits regarded that as a luxury. A hermit might cultivate a small garden, but any vegetables he grew would be for visitors. It seems from the Historia Monachorum that the vegetables were salted in brine to preserve them for future use.
In the monasteries, some cooking was possible, and at Nitria the visitors saw fresh bread. The Pachomian monks ate soup, as well as olives with bread, as did the disciples of Helle. The merchant who gave away beans and lentils to the monks at his conversion does not seem to have had his gift rejected, while it was said of Apollo that he did not eat lentils, as if this were unusual.
Water was the usual drink and in this account that is all the visitors were offered, though elsewhere in this literature wine is mentioned as not being forbidden.
The dry parched air of the desert, the amount of salt in food, the brackish water, are all reflected in the visions and fantasies of the monks. What they dream about is fresh, juicy fruit, and from such dreams one obtains a very clear if oblique light on the fasts of the hermits.
What were their luxuries? Grapes, which would be passed from hand to hand in wonder; figs, sometimes monstrous figs that were held to be the real fruits of paradise. Apollo and his first disciples were given an exotic gift one Easter, from the hand of an angel:
"Things which do not grow in Egypt: fruits of paradise of every kind, and grapes and pomegranates and figs and walnuts … and honeycombs, and a pitcher of fresh milk, and giant dates, and white loaves still warm."
The milk that is fresh, the bread that is warm, the honeycomb, the only source of sugar for the ancient world, and above all the soft, delicious fruits. When Patermuthius and Macarius each dreamed themselves into paradise, the first thing they did was eat, and it was of fruit, "rich and many-colored" fruit; that was the real reward.
For more information on this topic, see:
From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers
The Twelve Books of John Cassian on the Institutes of the Coenobia
Copyright © 1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Christian History.