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How Should We Conduct Ourselves During Meals?

Chapter 6 from How to Live a Holy Life

by Metropolitan Gregory of St. Petersburg (1784-1860)

Never begin lunch or dinner, or finish them, without fervent prayer to the Lord God as, unfortunately, very many Christians of our time do. One cannot but marvel at how these Christians have reached such a condition of soul that they can both start a meal and finish it without a fervent prayer to the Lord God. For it is precisely the Lord God Who supplies us with all our food. Granted, we ourselves also worked to obtain our food, but what would all our work amount to if the Lord God did not give us His blessing—if, for example, He did not bestow the proper warmth, moisture, wind and sun on the fields and gardens that we have cultivated and sown? Absolutely nothing, as, of course, everyone knows. Besides, it is precisely the Lord God Who furnishes our food with nourishing properties, and our bodies with an ability to use these nourishing properties for our bodily health. What would happen to us if the Lord God had not given nutritional quality to our food? Then no matter how much of even the most nutritious food we consumed, we would not gain bodily strength, and therefore would be able neither to carry out our daily bodily functions nor to continue life itself. Then none of us would remain alive. On the other hand, what would happen to us if the Lord God took away from our stomachs the power of digestion, if only for two weeks? Then even the most nourishing food would not nourish us, but exhaust us and lead us into illness or deprive us of life itself. For experience bears witness that sometimes the healthiest food can be harmful.

Our meals should always be moderate. All the saints, who customarily watched strictly after themselves, say with one voice: 1) that very little is needed for satisfaction of our bodies; 2) that our bellies by themselves almost never know moderation; 3) that our bellies sometimes demand food even when they have had more than enough, and 4) that therefore to maintain moderation it is best to cease consumption of food when the urge to eat has still not completely subsided. St. John Chrysostom gave an excellent rule for observing necessary moderation in food: “Eat just enough to alleviate your hunger.” Another holy teacher said “You should not eat whatever you want , but eat what you have, and in a way that after eating and drinking, you still feel an urge for food.”

Speaking of food, the saints very forcefully observed that lay people should consume very little, and that for monks, widowers, and widows it is best to completely avoid foods that are filling, stimulating, indigestible, good-tasting, or sweet. Good-tasting or sweet foods because we very easily overindulge in such, and nutritious, stimulating, or indigestible foods because these in particular stir up the bad tendencies of our flesh, and because while using them it is almost impossible to restrain and destroy these tendencies. Food is, however, necessary for the body. We should not refuse the body necessary food. On the one hand, we need to satisfy the natural demand of nature that we support our health and bodily powers, which are necessary for satisfaction of various needs of body and soul. On the other hand, while lacking food necessary for the body, we may stir up against ourselves an enemy, who perhaps otherwise would not even think of being our enemy.

At meals, especially dinner, never consume food immoderately or to excess. Our food is a gift from God, and all gifts of God, being divine, should be received reverently, decorously, with the fear of God, and consumed only for the purpose for which they are given. Our food is given to us for not for satiety, but for satisfaction.

Satiety is extremely harmful for our body, because stomach disorder, corruption of the blood, various diseases of the body, and premature death are in great part a result of excess or intemperance. Doctors, experience, and the Spirit of God attest to this. For excess of meats bringeth sickness... by surfeiting have many perished, says the Wise One (Ecclus 37:33,34).

Satiety is extremely harmful for the soul. Whoever overindulges in food or drink is incapable of spiritual exercises and can neither pray nor reflect on anything divine, because excess in food draws a person into laziness, sleepiness, idleness, idle talk, ludicrous behavior, and a great multitude of impure thoughts and desires. And for inflammation of anger and love of pleasure it often plays the same role as oil poured onto fire. In general, whoever overeats does not have the true God, but his own flesh and its desires. Therefore, whoever overeats is capable of violating even the holiest obligations and is prepared to commit the most vile acts. Whoever has observed himself and those close to him to any extent needs no proof in this regard.

During lunch and dinner never say anything sinful. Because to insult God at the same time as you are eating His gifts, when it is especially necessary to feel and show gratitude to God, is the vilest ingratitude. But unfortunately, during lunch and dinner many carry on the most impious conversations: they defame, condemn, mock each other, especially absent neighbors, tell suggestive jokes, give themselves up to ludicrous behavior, speak disrespectfully of the faith, of various sacred subjects relating to the faith, and so on. Such conduct over lunch and dinner is extreme ingratitude to the Lord God. Guard against it in every way possible.

During lunch and dinner one should say or listen to something edifying: from sacred history, from the lives of the saints, from natural history revealing God’s wisdom and goodness, from spiritual teachings, and so on. Because at the table a person becomes somewhat sluggish and sleepy from food, true Christians try during meals principally to remember death and the dread judgement more vividly in order to keep themselves in a God-pleasing spirit, inaccessible to any depravity. Because it often happens that poorly cooked food may be served, the saints, to keep themselves in such a case from off ending, usually imagined immediately that all of us, by our sins and by our constant insult to God, are unworthy not only of what is now being offered, but even of pigs’ swill. And then they consumed a certain amount of the food offered as if it had been cooked properly. Whoever consumes his lunch and dinner thus, that is, moderately and with gratitude to the Lord God, is acting as duty demands, in a righteous and God-pleasing manner. Perhaps in his home there will not be abundance, but at the same time there will never be complete poverty. The Holy Prophet David says, I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread. On the contrary, the righteous man often finds himself even in such a position that He is ever merciful, and lendeth (Ps. 37:25,26), that is, every day he sustains the poor and provides them with something. And so, whoever does not have his daily bread should examine himself attentively and dispassionately to determine whether he prays for his daily bread to the Lord God before his lunch and dinner and whether he labors for his daily bread. Whoever either does not pray to the Lord God or does not labor should not be surprised if he does not have his daily bread: he will reap what he has sown. If any would not work, neither should he eat, the Apostle Paul says (II Thess. 3:10).

From How to Live a Holy Life, by Metropolitan Gregory of St. Petersburg (1784-1860), pp. 86-89. Published by the Printshop of St. Job of Pochaev, Holy Trinity Monastery, 2005. Excerpt posted with permission. Purchase today from Uncut Mountain Supply! Posted on 10 Mar, 2006 (n.s.).

Other chapter topics include: How Should We Conduct Ourselves in the Morning? In Relation to the Lord God? In relationship to other people? In Some of the Most Common Situations of Life?: Happiness, Misfortune, Wealth, Poverty, When People Praise Us, When People Speak Evil of Us, In Illness, etc. How to Protect Ourselves from the Harmful Effect of Bad Example. How Should We Conduct Ourselves in Our Daily Work? During Rest After Lunch? In the Evening? Before Sleep? During Sleeplessness at Night? The Most Important Thing Concerning Prayer. How Should We Spend Sundays?