Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Everyday Life: Meals

1 For the daily meals, whether at noon or in mid-afternoon, it is enough, we believe, to provide all tables with two kinds of cooked food because of individual weaknesses. 2 In this way, the person who may not be able to eat one kind of food may partake of the other 7 and that above all overindulgence is avoided, lest a monk experience indigestion. 8 For nothing is so inconsistent with the life of any Christian as overindulgence. 9 Our Lord says: Take care that your hearts are not weighed down with overindulgence (Luke 21:34). RB 39:1-2, 7-9

People often come to the monastery with an odd idea of what monastic life is like. Visions of strict asceticism seem to dance in their heads. They come and expect cells with plank beds and one daily meal of bread and water. But monastic life isn’t about denial and fasting, it’s about cheese puppies.

Cheese puppies are a dish served occasionally at our monastery. They consist of sliced hot dogs mixed with cheese sauce and relish and baked in hot dog buns. I don’t eat cheese puppies. I can’t stand cheese puppies. There aren’t even any ingredients in cheese puppies that I like.
The wonderful thing is that Benedict knew there would be monastics like me. He also knew that there would be monastics like Sr. Mary. She loves cheese puppies. She beams when she sees them on the menu and she takes an extra one when they are served. Being a good sister I always offer her mine.

But it is clear that in chapter 39 Benedict knows food isn’t supposed to be a penance, it’s about weakness and community and always being mindful of God who is the source of our food. If cheese puppies were the only thing to eat on certain days I would probably not be fit to live with. I know I’m not mature enough to be able to choke down cheese puppies in silent gratitude, I would moan and grumble and murmur and be envious of Mary as she gloried in her favorite meal. Someday I might be spiritually mature enough to be able to simply eat whatever is fixed while being genuinely grateful. But Benedict did not write for the spiritually mature, he wrote for people like me who are overwhelmed with sadness when they see cheese puppies on the menu.

Perhaps for Benedict it was all about weakness. Monastic life in the 6th century was austere, they didn’t have much. Monks lived simply. They weren’t as poor as some of the people who showed up at their gate with absolutely nothing, but they weren’t the rich who never knew what it meant to feel want. Benedict’s monks were like most people in their society, food wasn’t plentiful it was scarce and couldn’t be wasted.

Scarcity was what made it so hard to come to the table after a long, hungry day when the smells were enticing and the time before the supper bell seemed to drag into eternity. Then, after all the waiting and expectation there it would be, the one food you couldn’t eat even though you were starving. Maybe it was some 6th century version of liver, Brussels sprouts or sauerkraut, something that had the taste, the texture, the smell or the memory that made it impossible to eat. And there it was, the only dish on the supper table and you almost wanted to cry.
Benedict had probably seen this happen. Maybe when he was a young, strong monk who thought he could do anything for the love of God he was defeated by a boiled rutabaga. We don’t know.

But he knew how important food was, how important it is to have enough, not too much, but enough. So at Benedict’s table there is plenty of bread, the heart of their diet and when the garden is producing there are tender young vegetables. And there are two cooked dishes. There is enough. Not always the same amount, but enough for the workers doing the heavy work in the fields to have more. One size did not fit all, food was about what each person needs and not the needs of the kitchen or the schedule or the group. Not too much, but enough so that everyone can eat and not be hungry or frustrated or beat themselves up because they just can’t eat what is set before them.

But Benedict also says something remarkably prescient that takes us beyond the details of the supper table to the needs of our souls as well as our bellies. “For nothing is so inconsistent with the life of any Christian as overindulgence. Our Lord says: Take care that your hearts are not weighed down with over indulgence.” (Luke 21:34) RB 39:8 Ours isn’t a culture of scarcity but one in which we are drowning in abundance, scarcely able to breath as we are sucked beneath the riptide of affluence. “Enough” isn’t our problem, too much is our problem. But Benedict’s scripture quotation gives us a hint and a wake-up call.

The quotation from Luke’s Gospel isn’t about some poor fool who ate too much at the banquet and suffered from the first century’s lack of antacids. Luke is talking about being ready for the coming of God. The sentence Benedict quotes ends “…and that day catch you unexpectedly like a trap.”

The provisions in the Rule for enough food are so that people can focus on the spiritual journey and not the journey to the snack cupboard. Benedict is worried about weakness. In his weakness of the monk who can’t eat what is set out before him cannot focus on God, he is too busy being miserable and hungry. We know our weakness very well today. We are so busy with our banqueting, our dieting, our cholesterol, our calories and carbs, that we walk into a trap. The trap is our focus on the food alone, not the God who gave the food with love, the one who served it in love, the person who worked to produce it who needs the work of Christian justice or the plants and creatures who were sacrificed to make it happen.

Food in the Rule is about “enough” because we aren’t spiritual athletes who can fast for days or even give up our favorite deserts for Lent. We are people who struggle and need help and constant reminders and accommodations. For Benedict food is simple and plain and enough so that we can focus on the coming of the day of Lord, that day which is every day of our lives.
I still cringe when I see cheese puppies on the menu. But there is always another cooked dish, we are blessed with many home cooked dishes and produce from our garden, and thanks to Benedict’s wisdom I can rejoice with Sr. Mary as I eat something else and together we give thanks to God.

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