Jason Alexander.blog
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Virtue is Found in the Middle

“It is an old saying that extremes meet,” writes John Cassian in The Conferences. Cassian was a disciple of Evagrius, and is credited with introducing the West to the wisdom of the desert. This maxim refers to the Aristotelian idea that virtue is found in the middle; existing at either end of a spectrum can ultimately become harmful. As followers of the “via media,” Episcopalians ought to be familiar with this notion.

In this particular passage, Cassian is concerned with the extremes to which some monks take their habits of fasting. He offers two examples. There was once a monk whose refusal of food became so severe that he didn’t even eat on Easter Day, a mandatory feast in the Christian tradition. His fellow monks became concerned and tried to intervene, but the poor, emaciated monk stubbornly continued to refuse his daily portion and tragically starved to death. At the other end of the spectrum, another monk, who could not bear limiting his diet to the meager portion of two biscuits a day, would fast for a day or two, hiding his biscuits until he had a meal of several biscuits he could eat all at once in order to feel the momentary satisfaction of fullness. This monk eventually left the desert behind and returned to the city–also a tragic loss within a community that had learned to recognize the emptiness of worldly pleasures.

Cassian’s point is that a monk’s focus ought not be on achieving “greatness” at the practice of fasting (or meditating, or silence, or exercise, etc.). It also ought not be on finding ways to cheat oneself out of enjoying the long-term fruits of a spiritual commitment. Rather, Cassian encourages cultivating what he calls “discretion,” or spiritual common sense. Fast when it’s time to fast, feast when it’s time to feast, and cut yourself some slack when you get those two mixed up from time to time. Virtue is found in the middle.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, I hope you will feast. Two biscuits won’t nearly be enough! When it comes to your prayer life, keep at it. Missing a day or two (or more) doesn’t mean it’s time to quit the journey. A healthy sense of discretion reminds us that God is always available to us, ready to meet us where we are.

This post is part of the Desert Prayers Project. Learn more at desertprayers.com.

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