The Times for Meals
From Easter to Pentecost, the monastics eat at noon and take supper in the evening. Beginning with Pentecost and continuing throughout the summer, the members fast until midafternoon on Wednesday and Friday, unless they are working in the fields or the summer heat is oppressive.
On the other days they eat dinner at noon. Indeed, the abbot or prioress may decide that they should continue to eat dinner at noon every day if they have work in the fields or if the summer heat remains extreme. Similarly, they should so regulate and arrange all matters that souls may be saved and the members may go about their activities without justifiable grumbling.
The Rule of Benedict divides the year's meal schedules into four parts. From Easter to Pentecost there are no fast days and the meals are taken at noon and before sundown. After Pentecost, Wednesdays and Fridays are fast days, as they were for all Christians of the period, and the meal, probably the only meal of the day was to be delayed, the Rule mandates, until about three o'clock. But the law is no sooner made until Benedictine spirituality raises its fresh and liberating head again and softens the prescription with "unless." Unless it would be too hard to do. Unless they are too tired to wait. Unless the day is too hot to add one more difficulty to it. Then, the abbot or prioress and only the abbot or prioress may decide to mitigate the Rule, to change the law, to allow the relaxation. And that is the issue. It is the abbot or prioress who decides what the change will be, not the individual monastic. Life, in other words, is not of our own choosing. The vagaries of life are not under our control. Circumstances change things and real spirituality demands that we be prepared at all times to accept them with faith and hope.
It isn't that Benedictine spirituality is meant to be lax, it is that it is meant to be sensible and it is meant to be serene. What is the use of making up difficulties when all we really have to do in life is to learn to bear well what must, under any circumstances, be borne.
From the thirteenth of September to the beginning of Lent, they always take their meal in midafternoon. Finally, from the beginning of Lent to Easter, they eat towards evening. Let Vespers be celebrated early enough so that there is no need for a lamp while eating, and that everything can be finished by daylight. Indeed, at all times let supper or the hour of the fast-day meal be so scheduled that everything can be done by daylight.
The third period of the year, from September 13 to Ash Wednesday, was the period known as "the monastic Lent." Here, Benedictine spirituality called for a measure above and beyond the norm. To do simply what was required was not enough. Benedictine spirituality called for extra effort in the development of the spiritual life. It is an interesting insertion in a Rule that otherwise seems to be based on exceptions, mitigation, differences, basic Christian practice and the law of averages.
Indeed, Benedictine spirituality is clearly rooted in living ordinary life with extraordinary awareness and commitment, a characteristic, in fact, that is common to monasticism both East and West. As the Zen Masters teach: "One day a new disciple came up to the master Joshu. 'I have just entered the brotherhood,' the disciple said. 'and I am anxious to learn the first principle of Zen. Will you please teach it to me?' he asked. So Joshu said, 'Have you eaten your supper?' And the novice answered, 'Yes, I have eaten.' So Joshu said, 'Then now wash your bowl.'"
The first principle of Benedictinism, too, is to do what must be done with special care and special zeal so that doing it can change our consciousness and carve our souls into the kind of beauty that comes from simple things. It is so easy to go through life looking feverishly for special ways to find God when God is most of all to be found in doing common things with uncommon conscientiousness.