Monday, June 16, 2014

CHAPTER 41: At What Times the Monks Should Eat

From holy Easter until Pentecost, let the brethren eat at noon and have supper in the evening.  If they have work in the fields or the heat of the summer is great, the noon meal may have to be earlier. Let the abbot provide for this; and so let him manage and adapt everything that souls may be saved, and that what the brethren do, they may do without having good reason to grumble.  During Lent, however, let them eat in the evening only. 

     There it is again.  Grumbling.  But this time with a twist.  Benedict shortens the fast because he doesn’t want to give his monks “good reason” to grumble.  Food, of course, is one of those things that folks love to complain about more than anything.  And for good reason.  It’s hard to be holy and grumpy at the same time.  If you’re fasting, that’s one thing.  If you just don’t have enough to eat, or you’ve been choking down the same slop for days on end, things are likely to go south in your personal life.  As Virginia Woolf said in her essay, A Room of One’s Own, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well”.
     So this raises the question: Can there ever be a good reason to grumble?”  Apparently so.  I know that around Saint Louis Abbey, the mood is especially grim on turkey-burger nights.  But a good reason doesn’t make the grumbling less wicked.  In fact, one might argue that grumbling for good reason is even worse than grumbling for a bad reason—precisely because it’s true.
     In fact, if you think about it, justifiable grumbling is more likely to spread, less likely to stop, and far more likely to hurt someone’s feelings.  How often have you heard someone preface an unkind remark with: “I’m not telling you anything I wouldn’t tell him to his face.”
     Listen, pal, just because you’d say it to his face doesn’t mean you should say it behind his back.  My advice is that if you have to say something bad about someone, you should at least make sure it isn’t true.[1]

[1] Of course, then you’re grumbling and lying.  But from the perspective of the one grumbled against, I’d rather you said something I can deny…

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

CHAPTER 40: Of the Quantity of Drink

Saint Paul says that "every person has his proper gift from God, some this, and some that”(1 Cor 7:7). We are reluctant, therefore, to dictate the quantity of food for others. However, allowing for the weakness of the sick, we think one hemina of wine a day is sufficient for each. But for those who are strong enough to abstain completely, let them know that they will have their special reward.  We read that wine is not at all proper for monks, yet because monks in our own times cannot be persuaded of this, let us agree at least to drink in moderation; because "wine makes even wise men act like fools”(Sir 19:2).  But in poorer places where they cannot afford wine, let the monks who live there bless God and not grumble. This we charge above all things: that they live without grumbling.

    The exact measure of the hemina is a topic hotly debated by monks all over the world.  It could be anything from a glass to three quarters of a gallon.  But one thing is certain: wine meant something entirely different to monks of the Middle Ages than it does today.  For starters, it wasn’t entirely recreational.  Wine made dirty water drinkable.  So it was actually rather hard to survive without it.  Nonetheless, I find it amusing that Benedict tried—and failed—to talk his monks out of recreational drinking.
    I operate under no illusions when it comes to teenage alcohol consumption, but for the purposes of this commentary, we may do better to use the analogy of video games or internet usage.  It is entirely appropriate to use either or both in the course of a day.  But like alcohol, the computer can become addictive and soul-destroying; and one must be capable of doing without.
    I have a friend who claims he once spent thirty-six straight hours playing “World of Warcraft,” breaking only for bathroom and pizza runs.  Honestly.  This can’t be healthy.  We have to set limits for ourselves, and if we can’t meet those limitations by virtue of our own self-discipline, we may need to enlist the help of friends or family.  One of my students invented an ingenious solution to his late night gaming:  every evening at 6pm, he would hand the computer cord to his dad.  When his laptop battery ran out, he knew he had reached his limit.  It wasn’t very good for his laptop, but it was good for his soul.
   Oh!  And did you notice the bit about grumbling?  It will turn up in the next chapter too.