Say we have persevered in our endeavour to face our “shadow”, and to dispossess ourselves of superfluous material goods. Say we have even managed to make some headway here, and have not slipped back into “compulsive consumerism”, but have gradually come to live a life of greater freedom from such an addiction. Then, Cassian challenges us to take a closer look at the vessel of our heart. This is what he says to those who have begun to do the real work of facing their evil thoughts:
…[W]e should not believe that mere fasting from visible food can suffice for our [purity] of heart if a fasting of the soul has not also been joined to it, for it has its own harmful foods by which it is fattened. Its food is detraction, and it is delightful indeed. Its food is anger, as well. Envy is the food of the mind, corrupting it ceaselessly with someone else’s prosperity and success. Vainglory is its food. If, then, we abstain from these as much as we are able, we shall well and aptly observe bodily fasting (Institutes 5:21).
The heart needs to fast, according to Cassian. Gluttony has a spiritual counterpart. A true Christian is not one who lives and eats abstemiously, while maintaining the personality of a cynical critic. He is a person who knows his own imperfections and is therefore able to be merciful to others as they struggle with their own weaknesses.
The question, ‘What are we storing up?’ has many layers. Have we noticed pride in our heart, maybe? Anger? Impatience? With searing insight, Cassian says,
Sometimes, when we have been overcome by pride or impatience we complain that we are in need of solitude, as if we would find the virtue of patience in a place where no one would bother us, saying that [our faults] stem not from our own impatience but from our neighbours’ faults. But, as long as we attribute our own wrongdoing to other people, we shall never be able to get near to patience (Institutes 8: XVI).
Here, John Cassian enjoins us simply to own our problems and not pine for an existence free of all annoyances in the belief that under such circumstances our anger and impatience would disappear. Disturbances to our supposed equilibrium do not cause our moral weaknesses, teaches Cassian; on the contrary, they merely expose them. If we were never provoked, we would imagine ourselves to be virtuous, whereas in fact, we simply have not been put to the test.