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 ...