Saturday, May 24, 2014

CHAPTER 39: On the Quantity of Food

Allowing for the weaknesses of different persons, we believe that for the daily meal—both at noon and in the evening—two kinds of cooked food should be sufficient; so that he who perhaps cannot eat one, may make his meal of the other. And if there should be fruit or vegetables available, a third dish may be added. Let one pound of bread be sufficient for the day.  If the work has been especially hard, the abbot may decide to add something, if he thinks fit.  He should be careful though not to be excessive, lest his monks be burdened by indigestion. For nothing is so contrary to Christians as overindulgence, as our Lord says: “Beware lest your hearts become drowsy from excess” (Luke 21:36).

            Nothing affects morale quite like food.  And here again, our holy father demonstrates the sort of wisdom you might expect from a Christian who has his head screwed on straight.  The physical and the spiritual are inextricably linked in his mind; and you can hardly expect a house full of men to be prayerful if they are all running around grumpy with hunger.  For that reason, Saint Benedict allows for two types of food; he wants his monks to enjoy their meal and not merely scarf it up like beasts at a trough.  A good meal, like any other good thing, is a gift from God.  And because it’s good, it can be a prayer—like fasting. 
On the other hand, a house full of fat, sloppy monks is also something he wants to avoid.  More than that, actually.  He fears it.  In fact, he warns against overindulgence no less than three times in the course of the rule.  Why?  Because “The belly,” in the words of Saint John Cassian, “when filled with all kinds of food, gives birth to seeds of thoughtlessness; and the mind, choked with the weight of food, cannot possibly hope to guide and govern thoughts” (Institutes, Book 5).  So Benedict provides for enough, but not too much food.
Granted, young folk need more food than the rest of us, but they also tend to take things to extremes.  I remember when I was seventeen, I came back from surfing all day and ate a loaf of bread.  I remember this because I can still see my father standing in the doorway to my bedroom holding the empty bread bag in his left hand, a look of utter astonishment on his face, saying over and over: “You just ate an entire loaf of bread.  You just sat down at the kitchen table and ate an entire loaf of bread.  A loaf…of bread.”  He wasn’t angry, just awestruck.  So here’s another way that the Rule can come in pretty useful: if we learn to accept every meal as a gift from God—even the occasional loaf of bread—then we may be less tempted to overeat, or over-diet, or become overly obsessed with how such-and-such a food is likely to effect our bodies.  In every way, this is the healthiest attitude to have.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

CHAPTER 38: The Weekly Readers

    While the brethren are eating, someone should read aloud from a book. But the reader should not be just anyone who happens to wander along; let the one who is to read begin on Sunday and continue for the whole week. After Mass and Communion let him ask everyone to pray for him that God may ward off the spirit of pride. And let the following verse be said three times by all in the chapel: ‘Lord, open my lips that my mouth may declare your praise’(Psalm 51.15), and so having received the blessing let him begin.
   While he is reading, the deepest silence should be kept so that no whispering or voice is heard except that of the reader alone. But let the brethren help one another to the various dishes, so that no one need ask for anything. Thus, when a monk wants something, let him request it by means of a sign of some kind rather than a sound.

    Silence is so important to monks that they don’t even talk while they’re eating.  Instead, one of them reads from a book while the others quietly have their meal.  Saint Benedict even stipulates that the brethren should use sign language rather than whisper when they need something.  In my monastery, we have special signs for milk, water, bread, butter, starch, salt, pepper, and so on.  The sign for water is three fingers.  The sign for starch is a closed fist.  We even have a sign for ketchup, which we make by dragging the right forefinger across the left wrist.  It’s weird, but it works.  And it shows that we really mean it when we say that silence is precious.

    The weekly reader, on the other hand, talks all the way through the meal, because that is his job.  He needs to be careful, though, because that much talking can be an occasion for all sorts of sin, particularly pride.  This is a common struggle for ministers of all sorts; because there can be a real temptation, when you’re good at something, to take credit for it—or worse yet, to put yourself at the center of your ministry.  Have you ever watched a priest say mass like he was hosting a talk show (“Well hello, everyone!!!!  How are we all this morning!!!!  The Lord be with you!!!!!”).  Every sentence has to have at least two exclamation points at the end of it.  (Lift up your hearts!!!!  Let us give thanks to the Lord Our God!!!!!)  Years ago, I belonged to a parish where the cantor sang every hymn like he was Frank Sinatra.  The whole experience became an exercise in frustration, because liturgy isn’t about entertainment, and it isn’t about us.  It’s about God, and redirecting our gaze toward Him.
   When the minister himself keeps inserting himself between us and God, we get angry.  So a good minister (like a good musician or a good writer or a good teacher...) knows in his heart that the ministry comes first—the message, the music, the story comes first—and the minister’s personality takes a far distant second.  Granted, this is hard to do because we can only speak from our own experience.  But if we pray hard, the Holy Spirit should make up for our weakness.
    Mother Theresa used to refer to herself as “God’s pencil stub.”  She didn’t deny that she was doing great work, but she gave credit for that work to Holy Spirit, Who held the pencil.  “Will the axe boast over the one who swings it?” said the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 10:15).  You may be sharp, but give credit where credit is due.  And if you want your creation to last, don’t build it around yourself.  Build it around Christ.

Friday, May 9, 2014

CHAPTER 37: The Very Old and the Very Young

Although human nature is of itself drawn to feel compassion for the elderly and children, still, let the decree of the Rule make provision also for them. We should take into account their natural weakness and let the full strictness of the Rule not be kept in respect to food, but let there be a tender regard for them, and let them eat before regular hours.

One of the really formative experiences of my life came to me during my freshman year of college when I signed up for a class called “Feminist Literature.” I figured I it was a good way to get some introductory English credits and meet chicks at the same time.  It wasn’t.  But I did learn a lot about Literature and a lot about feminism, partly because when I realized I wasn’t going to hit it off with most of my classmates, I decided to get my kicks by sitting in the front row and taunting the professor.
In spite of this, Doctor Brown and I actually got along pretty well.  But the real turning point came one sweltering spring afternoon when the air conditioner gave out and Professor Brown asked me to open the window.  In a lecture hall full of women, she asked me, the only man, to open the windows.  I could see she was setting me up, so I made a big show of it.  I stretched out my shoulders, worked the cricks out of my neck, and right as I passed by I said, “Why don’t you let the man take care of this.”
A deep hush settled over the lecture hall, and Professor Brown put her hand on my shoulder and she said, “No, why don’t we let the stronger of us take care of this.  Incidentally, that happens to be you.”  Not surprisingly, when class ended, she asked me to stay behind.  I said, “So I guess when the going gets tough, all that feminism goes out the window…literally.”  (I’d been rehearsing it all class.) 
And she answered, “No.  As a matter of fact, feminism and chivalry are two sides of the same coin.  These conventions exist so that men will know their place.  You hold the door open, you throw your coat over the puddle or help me with my coat precisely because you are physically stronger.  And chivalry is one way that we as human beings create a society where the weak and the strong coexist in harmony.  Where it isn’t just every man for himself.”
So I said, “But I thought we were equal.”
To which she answered, “Equal in dignity; but not equal in ability.  I’m smarter than you are.  You’re stronger than I am.  Therefore I condescend to teach you, and you condescend to open the window for me.  This is how we build a society where diversity of persons is respected and the strong do not exploit the weak.”
In a monastery, just like in any truly civilized community, the strong look out for the weak.  But here’s the catch: the monastery isn’t just any community, it’s a spiritual community; and if we are to take Jesus at his word, then the weak and the poor have a spiritual advantage over the rest of us.  We protect and care for them because ironically, they are the most powerful men in the monastery.

Friday, May 2, 2014

CHAPTER 36: Sick Monks

Before and above all things, we must care for the sick, so that truly they may be served as Christ is served, for he has said, "I was sick and you visited Me" (Mt 25:36). And "As long as you did it to one of my least brethren, you did it to Me" (Mt 25:40). But let the sick themselves also consider that they are served for the honor of God, and let them not grieve their brethren who serve them by unnecessary demands. These must, however, be patiently endured, because from such as these a more bountiful reward is gained. Let the abbot's greatest concern, therefore, be that the sick suffer no neglect. 

      Saint Benedict shares Christ’s concern for the weak and sick.  He recognizes that within any given community, these ‘little ones’ will always be in need of attention, and that the community may well be tempted to ignore them.  Instead, says Saint Benedict, we should look after them first.
     In any community, but particularly among younger folk, there is a tendency to shun those who stand out as weak or strange.  It goes back, I’m sure, to that ‘pack instinct’ that kept us humans alive for so many thousands of years.  Weak members slow down the herd and make it vulnerable to predators…survival of the fittest and all that.
     But get this: we aren’t animals.  We not only look after the weak; we love, protect, and honor them as Christ’s special presence among us
     And so the sick aren’t merely to be tolerated they are to be preferred.  I've often wondered what it would be like to receive a letter like Saint Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians.  What do you think was their reaction when he kicked off his letter with "You're not too bright, and you don't have much class, but God loves you precisely because no one else does”?[1]  As a Corinthian, I’d have to question whether I really wanted to be part of this group.  After all, when you’re picking teammates, who ever starts with the smallest, weakest, and least experienced?  Yet this appears to be the way God Himself operates (think David and Goliath, Jacob and Esau, Israel and Egypt…).  So to be a good Christian, it actually helps to be classless, helpless, foolish, weak, and despised.  If none of those labels apply to you, then I guess you’re just unlucky.

[1] Literally, “Consider your own calling, brothers. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something,”(1 Corinthians 1:26-28).