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The Proper Amount of Food

Thursday, July 18, 2024
Chapter 39

For the daily meals, whether at noon or in midafternoon, it is enough, we believe, to provide all the tables with two kinds of cooked food because of individual weaknesses. In this way, the person who may not be able to eat one kind of food may partake of the other. Two kinds of cooked food, therefore, should suffice for all, and if fruit or fresh vegetables are available, a third dish may also be added. A generous pound of bread is enough for a day whether for only one meal or for both dinner and supper. In the latter case the cellarer will set aside one third of this pound and give it to the community at supper.

Chapter 39 is a chapter on generosity and trust that flies in the face of a tradition of stern and demanding asceticisms. Benedict of Nursia never takes food away from the community. On the contrary, he assures himself that the fare will always be ample and will always be simple but pleasing. These were working monastics who needed energy to toil and peace to pray. Benedict decides that food is not to be the penance of their lives.

Everybody needs something in life to make the rest of life doable and uplifting. The important thing in the spiritual life is that while we are creating penances for ourselves to build up our moral fiber we are also providing possibilities for ourselves to build up our spiritual joy.

Should it happen that the work is heavier than usual, the abbot and prioress may decide--and they will have the authority--to grant something additional, provided that it is appropriate, and that above all overindulgence is avoided, lest anyone experience indigestion. For nothing is so inconsistent with the life of any Christian as overindulgence. Our God says: "Take care that your hearts are not weighted down with overindulgence (Lk 21:34)."

Exceptions. Exceptions. Exceptions. The Rule of Benedict is full of rules that are never kept, always shifting, forever being stretched. Only two Benedictine principles are implied to be without exception: kindness and self-control. The abbot is to make exceptions always; the monastic is never to take advantage of them or to lose control, to slip into dissipation, to fail to keep trying to keep the mind in charge of the body. Soft living, slouch-heartedness, a dried up soul is not what gives life meaning. It is stretching ourselves that keeps us supple and keeps us trim. We believe it about the body. We are inclined to overlook it in the soul. Let them have what they need, the Rule says, but let them forego what they don't so that they can run through life with their bodies unburdened and their souls unsurfeited. It is good, clean living that Benedictine spirituality is about, living that keeps us young in heart and sharp of vision, living that has something for which to strive.

The young should not receive the same amount as their elders, but less, since in all matters frugality is the rule. Let everyone, except the sick who are very weak, abstain entirely from eating the meat of four-footed animals.

The meat of four-footed animals was not part of the monastic diet because it was thought to heighten the animal facet of human nature. In a society whose philosophy was highly dualistic and whose world separated out neatly into things that were of the spirit and things that were of the flesh, the consideration was a serious one. Monastic life was about higher things and nothing was to be allowed to interfere with that.

The question for the modern world has seldom been what effect diet has on spirit--though interest in the field is certainly growing--but we have come to some conclusions about other things. We do know that colors, weather, light, environment, all affect the spirit. Too much of anything, we have discovered, can weigh us down. Each of us needs to fast from something to bring ourselves to the summit of our spiritual powers. The question is whether or not we have lost a sense of the value of fasting or do we simply fill ourselves, glut ourselves, without limit, without end, with the useless and the disturbing?