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Step 14

ON INTEMPERANCE, A BAD MISTRESS, ETC.

1. Having to speak against intemperance, I have on this occasion, as on all others, to speak against myself. For it would be a miracle for a man to deliver himself entirely from the yoke of this tyrant, before he passes through the gate of death into the silent tomb.

2. Intemperance or gluttony may be termed the hypocrisy of our stomach, which, though too full, is yet clamorous for more food; yea, though ready to burst, yet complains that it is dying of hunger.

3. Gluttony is the artful mistress of all kinds of seasoning, and high-flavoured dishes, of every variety of delicacies and good cheer.

4. When we tie a vein, or stop the blood on one side, it immediately flows to another; when this also is stopped, it forces elsewhere a passage; so in like manner, when we extinguish the flame of concupiscence (lust) on the side of impurity, it breaks out into gluttony; and when we suppress the flame of gluttony, it blazes forth in some other passion.

5. Intemperance is a deception of the eyes, by which we fancy that we can devour all that is upon the table, at one repast, when in reality we can but eat a small portion of the viands before us.

6. Repletion from food is the mother of incontinency, as mortification of the appetite is the parent of chastity.

7. He who strokes and coaxes a lion will make it tame and gentle; but he who indulges and flatters the body renders it more cruel and ferocious.

8. The Jew rejoices on Sabbath and festival days, the intemperate solitary on Saturdays and Sundays. He reckons during Lent how long it will be to Pascha, and he prepares many days beforehand that which he purposes to eat on this festival. He who is the slave of his appetite thinks only of the delicious meats with which he may glut himself, on the solemn feasts of the Church. But the true servant of God reflects only on the graces and virtues with which he may enrich himself on these days consecrated to the worship of God.

9. When any guests arrive, he who is the servant of this passion, feels himself moved with charity in their behalf, and takes occasion to gratify his intemperance by keeping them company at table. Thus he would fain hide the indulgence of his sensuality, under the pretense of affording refreshment and consolation to his brethren. He believes it his duty sometimes to relax his austerity by drinking a little wine with them, and whilst he imagines that by this exterior action he is preserving his sobriety, he becomes in effect the slave of gluttony.

10. Vainglory sometimes makes war against intemperance, and these two passions struggle to obtain possession of the miserable solitary, whom they are both anxious to bring into bondage to themselves. Intemperance vehemently presses him to yield to relaxation. Vainglory prompts him to allow his virtue to shine before the world by his frugality and temperance. The prudent solitary carefully shuns both these rocks, and know how and when he can make these two passions work each other’s destruction.

11. When our bodies become rebellious by our overly kind treatment, we must mortify them at every opportunity, and in every place, by the firm reins of temperance. But when they have become peaceable and tranquil, which is seldom, we believe, the case before death, we may then conceal our fasts and abstinences from those towards whom we exercise hospitality.

12. I have seen ancient priests who were deceived by the devil, and who, whilst at table, drinking with young people, not well masters of their conduct, engaged them by their benedictions to take wine, and depart from their ordinary austerity. But if the persons whom we entertain are known by all to be eminent in virtue, we may then remit something of our usual sobriety, keeping, however, ourselves within the strict bounds of moderation. If, on the contrary, these individuals are not careful in their mode of living, we must pay very little respect to their benedictions, particularly if their visit should be at a time when we are obliged to fight for the mastery over the flesh.

13. Evagrius1 being struck by God, imagined himself wiser than all the wise men in the world, as well for the eloquence of his discourses, as for the sublimity of his thoughts. But the poor wretch was miserably deceived; and appeared a greater fool, in many things, than all the fools who had preceded him, but more especially in this ridiculous saying: “when our sensuality desires divers kinds of meats, we must mortify and keep it in subjection by bread and water;” which would be the same thing, as if we should order a little child not to mount step by step, but all the rounds of the ladder at once. In order to refute this pernicious maxim, the following reflection will be sufficient. When sensuality desires divers kinds of meats, this desire, this instinct is in strict accordance with nature. And this is the reason why we should employ every kind of artifice against one of the most artful of our passions. But if we fail, we shall find ourselves engaged in a very dangerous warfare, and in the proximate occasion of our fall and ruin. Retrench or cut back on therefore, at first only such meats as produce obesity; then those which excite the warmth of temperament; and finally such as are delicate and agreeable. But let us give to our stomach if we can, that food which will replenish it, and be easy of digestion; that this fulness may satisfy its insatiable avidity; and that this quick digestion may free us from the pernicious warmth of temperament usually excited by meats more solid, and more difficult to digest. If, indeed, we carefully examine the greater part of those viands (foods) which are nourishing, and which contain much that is exciting, we shall find that they give occasion to, and foster, concupiscence or lustful desire or gluttony.

14. Laugh at the artifice of the devil, who about supper time prompts you to defer your repast later than ordinary, because at noon the following day he will induce you to renounce the resolution which you had made at his suggestion the previous day.

15. The abstemiousness or temperance which is suitable to the innocent is very different from that which is becoming in penitents. For the innocent in their fasting are guided by the motions of concupiscence or gluttony, which from time to time renews against them its assaults. Whereas penitents practice the mortification of the appetite to the very end of life, without ever giving any consolation to the body, without any relaxation of their penance, or truce to the severity of their fasting. The first wish to preserve their souls in a just and proper temperament, but the second are desirous of appeasing God’s anger by their compunction and heartfelt tears.

16. The time of joy and consolation for a perfect solitary is the period when he sees himself delivered entirely from all care and trouble about temporal matters. For the solitary who has still to combat with his passions, the time of his comfort is when he is practising rigorous austerities and encountering violent struggles. For the one who is the slave of his disorderly affections the period of his rejoicing is the time of Pascha, the feast of feasts, the queen of all the solemnities, for then he can indulge his appetite.

17. The intemperate dream during the night of sumptuous banquets and all the delicacies of good cheer. But penitents meditate even in their sleep upon the last judgement and upon everlasting torments.

18. Make yourselves masters of your appetite before it becomes master of you, and before you are placed under the obligation of putting forth great exertion to emancipate yourselves from its tyranny. Those who have fallen into the gulf of sins, which I do not wish to mention, will understand what I mean.

19. Let us check, by the dread of eternal fire, the excesses of intemperance, which sometimes hurries those who are its slaves to commit suicide, and to die not only the death of the body, but the fatal and eternal death of the soul. For if we examine the subject carefully we shall feel convinced that it is intemperance alone which draws upon us such misfortune.

20. The mind of him who fasts is occupied with pure and chaste thoughts during the time of prayer. But the soul of the voluptuary is filled at that holy season with impure and shameful imaginations. Wine and food that overloads the stomach dry up the very source of tears, but the stomach that is parched by fasting produces in abundance these salutary streams of penance.

21. He who pretends, whilst he is the slave of his belly, to conquer the demon of impurity, resembles the man who attempts to extinguish a fire by pouring oil instead of water upon its flames.

22. The mortification of the appetite produces humiliation of heart, whereas the gratification of the palate tends to fill the mind with pride and vanity.

23. Consider in what state you find yourselves in the morning, at midday, and before your evening repast, and you will learn from this consideration the utility of your fasting. You will perceive in the morning, the period nearest to the supper of the previous evening, that you will be still troubled with wandering and dissipated thoughts; towards noon you will be more tranquil, and at the setting of the sun, when you take your repast, you will find your spirit thoroughly mortified and humbled.

24. Check by abstinence the avidity of your appetite, and at the same time curb in the activity of the tongue, which generally spends itself the more freely in useless words in proportion as the body is nourished and strengthened by the abundance of a luxurious diet. Fight manfully in order to overcome this tyrant, and exert yourself by fasting to weaken its opposition. For if we labour in earnest, God will immediately help us by His all powerful grace.

25. When skins are wet they easily stretch and contain much more moisture than before. But when we neglect and leave them dry, they shrink up, and have little or no moisture. In like manner, when the stomach is filled to excess, the bowels are distended; but when, by great restrain, we give them but little nourishment, they shrink up and become empty. Then when the intestines are thus shrunk, they require no longer any food for their support. Thus we become abstemious even by the necessity of nature.

26. Thirst sometimes appeases thirst, that is, thirst sometimes passes away, but it is impossible to drive away hunger by hunger. When it has conquered you subdue it by labour. If you cannot do this on account of your weak health, master it by watching. When you feel your eyes oppressed with sleep apply yourself to manual labour, but when sleep does not oppress you, remain quiet. For as the Scripture says, it is impossible to serve both God and Mammon, so it is impossible to have the mind intent upon labour and prayer at the same time.

27. We may be sure of this, that the demon of intemperance oftentimes takes possession of our stomach, and excites therein so great a hunger and thirst that all the food of Egypt, and all the water of the Nile, could not satiate one individual.

28. When we have taken refreshment this fiend retires to give place to the demon of impurity. Hence he hastens to this foul spirit, tells him the condition in which he has left us, and says to him: “Go boldly and attack without fear such a one, whom I have prepared for your easy conquest. For he has been treating his body well, and will not, therefore, make much resistance.” The demon of impurity then comes smiling to us, and binds us hands and feet in the chains of sleep, during which he does with us whatever he pleases, and troubles our souls with illusions and phantoms, which produce their effects even upon our bodies.

29. It is wonderful to see how the mind, which is immaterial, is sullied and obscured by the body, and how, on the contrary, the same mind, which has nothing in its nature material, is sometimes purified and elevated to the higher regions of spirituality by the very body which is but dust and ashes.

30. If you have promised Jesus Christ, by your holy profession, to walk in the thorny and narrow path of the Gospel, repress your appetite and inclination to gluttony. Listen to these words with attention: “Wide is the gate (of luxuriousness), and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, (through impurity,) and many there are that go in thereat. But narrow is the gate, and straight is the way (of abstemiousness) that leadeth to life, and few there are that find it.”2

31. As Lucifer, who fell from the highest sphere in heaven, is the first of demons, so intemperance is the first of the passions.

32. When you are at table, place before the eyes of your mind death and judgment. For scarcely will you be able to check, even by this means, a little of your gluttony. When you put the cup to your lips, think of the gall and vinegar present to Jesus Christ, your Lord and Master, and you will keep within the bounds of sobriety, or at least you will entertain more lowly sentiments,. and express your feelings in profound sighs.

33. Be not deceived, you can never deliver yourselves from the servitude of Pharao, nor celebrate the Paschal solemnity of heaven, if, during the whole of your life, you do not eat wild lettuce and unleavened bread. The bitter lettuce is the violence and mortification which you endure from fasting. And the unleavened bread is the spirit of humility, which frees you from all pride and haughtiness of mind. Remember, without any forgetfulness, these words of holy David: “But as for me, when they (the demons) were troublesome to me, I was clothed with haircloth. I humbled my soul with fasting and my prayer shall be turned into my bosom.”3

34. Fasting is a violence which we offer to nature; a retrenchment/cutting back of all that can merely gratify the palate; a repression of the ardour of concupiscence; a banishment of bad thoughts; a deliverance from impure dreams; the purification of prayer; the torch of the soul; the guardian of the mind; the illumination of our hearts; the door of compunction; the humble moaning of penitence; an affection filled with joy; the bridle of the tongue; the tranquility of the spirit; the rampart of obedience; the dispenser of sleep; a salutary remedy for the health of our bodies; the mediator of happy peace to the soul, and the serenity of the passions; the blotting out of sin; the gate of Paradise; and a celestial pleasure.

35. Let us interrogate this vice of intemperance as we did the others, and even more closely than the others, since it is the chief of our mortal enemies, the leader of all the other passions; the one which caused Adam’s fall; which ruined Esau; which brought many evils upon the Israelites; which covered Noe with confusion; which disgraced Lot; which inflicted death upon the sons of Heli, and which is the wellhead of all kinds of corruption. Let us ask it whence it derived its birth? What are its own offspring? Which of its opponents tramples it under foot? Which of them gives it the deathblow?

36. Tell us, then, O thou tyrant of men, who purchases them with food as with gold that they may be thy slaves, tell us how thou hast obtained possession of us? What is thy accustomed occupation, when thou hast gained an entrance into our interior? What compels thee to take thy departure? How may we set ourselves free from thy servitude?

37. Irritated by these searching questions, and inflamed with fury, it will thus haughtily reply to us. “Why do you attack me with these reproaches and outrages, since you are my conquerors? Why do you endeavour to separate yourselves entirely from me, since you are bound to me by the very bonds of nature? The quality of the food more or less delicate, is that which opens for me an entrance into the souls of men. Custom is the cause of my insatiable avidity; and that which feeds and nourishes my growth, is the same custom, together with insensibility of mind, and the forgetfulness of death. Why do you inquire about my children? Were I to name them all to you, the sand on the seashore would not equal their number. But notice those whom I brought first into the world, and who thence became my favourites. My eldest son is the incentive to voluptuousness/sensuality; my second, hardness of heart; my third, drowsiness. I send forth a deluge of evil thoughts, which are the sources of all kinds of depravity, and a bottomless sea of secret and detestable impurities. My daughters are idleness, vain and unprofitable conversation, a presumptuous liberty of speech, raillery, buffoonery, contradiction, obstinacy, indocility, insensibility, the captivity and abasement of the mind, ostentation and vanity, a foolish and rash confidence in our own strength, the love of the world, accompanied by inattention at prayers, troubled thoughts, and oftentimes many unexpected and unforeseen evils, which are followed by despair, the greatest and the most dangerous of all misfortunes. The remembrance of sin combats me, without the power to subdue me. The meditation of death wages against me a fierce and most humiliating war; but there is not amongst men any thing that can effect my entire destruction. He who has received the Holy Spirit, implores against me His divine succour, which being united to, and strengthened by, his own prayers, prevents me from producing in him the disorderly effects, which I accomplish in others. But they who have not tasted the sacred delights of this Holy Spirit, being chained down to the earth by the pleasures which I place before them, seek only after the comforts of good cheer, and the full gratification of their sensuality.”

There is need of a masculine courage to overcome this vice. He who has become master of it, has opened a straight path to tranquility of mind, and to perfect continence.


  1. This Evagrius was a disseminator of the errors attributed to Origen. He wrote a work on the religious state, in which these errors were broached.

  2. Matt. vii.13

  3. Ps. xxxiv. 13.



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