Charity, Fasting and the Commandment of God

Below is a story from the desert fathers relating Lenten fasting  and Christian hospitality.  It is an ancient 4th Century story from a time before a 40 day Lenten Fast was decreed by the Church or followed by all monks.   In the story, these desert monks, known for their extreme rigor, themselves decide to keep a week long fast before celebrating Pascha.  Once they established this as the community rule, they expected everyone to follow it for that is what love demands of us who live together as Christ’s disciples.

“Once two brethren came to a certain elder whose custom it was not to eat every day. But when he saw the brethren he invited them with joy to dine with him, saying: Fasting has its reward, but he who eats out of charity fulfils two commandments, for he sets aside his own will and he refreshes his hungry brethren. They made a rule in Scete that they would fast a whole week before celebrating Easter. But it happened that in that week some brethren came to Abbot Moses, from Egypt, and he cooked them a little vegetable stew. And when they saw the smoke coming up from his cell, the clerics of the church that is in Scete exclaimed: Look, there is Moses breaking the rule, and cooking food in his cell. When he comes up here we’ll tell him a thing or two. But when the Sabbath came, the clerics saw the great holiness of Abbot Moses, and they said to him: O Abbot Moses, you have broken the commandment of men, but have strongly bound the commandment of God.” (Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert, pp 77-78)

The Word of God
We see in the story the wisdom of the desert fathers – rules were meant to serve the community, but the community doesn’t serve the rules.  We are reminded of Christ’s own words to those in His day who had determined Sabbath rules rule humans:  “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath; so the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath”  (Mark 2:27)  and  “And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7).  The rules are in themselves not God, and there are legitimate reasons for setting aside the rules at times – especially as an act of love for others.   The rules are meant to help maintain community love, peace, concord, and unity.   But even as important as those goals are, there still may be godly reasons for setting the rules aside in order to practice love for others.

The fasting rigor of these monks is obvious in the story: though Abbot Moses cooks for his guests not a gourmet meal but only a little vegetable stew the other monks are outraged that he has violated community rules.

In the end love and wisdom rule the hearts of the monks.  They understand that Abbot Moses had followed a greater commandment: the commandment from our Lord to love one another.  The rules of fasting, even if determined by the community or set by canon law, are still rules of humans, not from God.  They are essential rules for helping humans to live in community, but they belong only to the fallen world.  For if we all lived by our Lord’s commandments to love one another as He loved us, to love God  with all heart, soul and mind, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, then we would have not need for merely human rules to govern our behavior and our communities.