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.