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The Proper Amount of Drink

Friday, July 19, 2024
Chapter 40

"Everyone has personal gifts from God, one this and another that (1 Cor 7:7)." It is, therefore, with some uneasiness that we specify the amount of food and drink for others. However, with due regard for the infirmities of the sick, we believe that a half bottle of wine a day is sufficient for each. But those to whom God gives the strength to abstain must know that they will earn their own reward.

The Rule of Benedict does not pretend to know the sacrifices that each of us needs to make in life. A tale from the Sufi may explain why, in the face of multiple spiritual disciplines, all of which specify many and sundry exercises as basic to the spiritual life, Benedict avoids this road of defined penances. "How shall we ever change," the disciples asked, "if we have no goals?" And the master said, "Change that is real is change that is not willed. Face reality and unwilled change will happen."

It is so easy to make cosmetic changes in the name of religion. It is so easy to make up rules and keep them so that we can feel good about doing something measurable in the spiritual life. We can fast and fast and fast from food or drink and nothing changes because fasting from food is not what we really need at that moment to turn our hearts of stone to hearts of flesh. We can kneel and kneel and kneel but nothing changes because kneeling is not what we need to soften our souls just then. We can fast and kneel and tithe and nothing changes because we do not really want anything to change.

Growth is not an accident. Growth is a process. We have to want to grow. We have to will to move away the stones that entomb us in ourselves. We have to work at uprooting the weeds that are smothering good growth in ourselves. Benedict doesn't tell us how much to eat. He simply provides the food and trusts us to make a choice to discipline ourselves somehow, someway, so that we do not sink into a mire of self-satisfaction so thick that there is no rescue for our sated souls.

The abbot or prioress will determine when local conditions, work or the summer heat indicates the need for a greater amount. They must, in any case take great care lest excess or drunkenness creep in. We read that monastics should not drink wine at all, but since the monastics of our day cannot be convinced of this, let us at least agree to drink moderately, and not to the point of excess, for "wine makes even the wise go astray (Sir 19:2)."

The Rule of Benedict devotes itself more to the virtue of moderation than it does to the anesthetizing of the soul that can come with mortification. To forego a thing completely is to prepare to forget it. If I never eat another piece of chocolate, I may forget all about chocolate but I may also soon substitute something even more dangerous for its taste: drugs, consumerism, a hardened selfishness. To do something commonly but to do it in right proportion, on the other hand, is to win the struggle with it every day. To have one handful of salted peanuts, one piece of chocolate, one glass of wine in the midst of plenty, one car in a culture that counts its wealth in two-car garages, now that is mortification. Benedict knows that culture dictates the use of many things in life. What he cares about is that we control them rather than allowing them to control us.

However, where local circumstances dictate an amount much less than what is stipulated above, or even none at all, those who live there should bless God and not grumble. Above all else we admonish them to refrain from grumbling.

If Benedictine spirituality understands anything about life at all, it understands the corrosive effects of constant complaining. Complaining is the acid that shrivels our own souls and the soul of the community around us, as well. Complaining is what shapes our mental set. Feelings, psychology tells us, do not affect thoughts. Thoughts affect feelings. What we allow ourselves to think is what we are really allowing ourselves to feel. When we learn how to correct our thought processes, then, we learn not only how to stabilize our own emotions but how to change the environment around us at the same time. What we see as negative we make negative and feel negative about. What we are willing to think about in a positive way becomes positive.

Complaining, in other words, undermines the hope of a community and smothers possibility in a group. The whiner, the constant critic, the armchair complainer make an office, a family, a department, a community a polluted place to be. What we accept wholeheartedly that fails, we can always correct. What we condemn to failure before we have ever really tried to accept it, is not corrected; it is doomed to an untimely and, more than likely, an unnecessary death.

Benedictine spirituality tells us to open our hearts and our minds to let grace come in from unlikely places, without preplanning and prejudgments. "When there is no desire," the Tao Te Ching instructs, "all things are at peace."