Food and Drink

I like the fact that we reread St Benedict’s chapters on food and drink and the times of meals during Lent. They remind us that we are, all of us, dependent on eating and drinking for our survival — and that we can be surprisingly picky and difficult about what we eat and when. In the monastery we have a lively sense of the meal as sacramental. However, my years as monastic kitchener (cook) taught me that, no matter how holy and observant the community, the sense of sacramentality disappears from view remarkably quickly if the food on offer is not to somebody’s liking! Today, when soup kitchens and food banks are a feature of British life in a way they have not been since the Depression, our attitudes to food and drink need examining.

We are often told that we face an obesity crisis. At the same time, eating disorders wreck the lives of many, especially the young. Alcoholism and binge drinking (not to be equated) wreck many more. Dieting is now a recognized ‘industry’, and the current popularity of ‘fasting’ diets seems to make nonsense of the religious fasting of Lent. Or does it?

As always, motivation is key. If I don’t eat because I am too poor to buy food, my hunger is more than just a challenge to those who could supply my need. It is a condemnation of those could help but don’t. If I don’t eat because I want a slimmer waistline, that is a morally neutral act (provided I am not underweight). If I don’t eat because I am making some small sacrifice of food or drink as a gesture of love towards the Lord, that is potentially a good act. I say potentially, because we all know how easy it is to become proud of our ability to control our appetites. Fasting isn’t about control, it is about love, giving.

St Benedict is well aware that fasting in the monastery needs the support of the Rule to be effective. We do not choose for ourselves what we do; there is a common standard laid down by the superior. For some, that will mean doing less than they would like; for others, doing a little more. It’s an old-fashioned word, but mortification of the will is a better offering than some picayune ‘sacrifice’ of a potato or two. ‘What I want is love, not sacrifice,’ says the Lord. What a pity we so often forget that or use it as an excuse for doing nothing.

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Food, Drink, Love and Hate

A few days ago a friend confided that her daughter had anorexia; a few days before that, another friend confided that his son had ‘a major drink problem’. Too fat, too thin, too much, too little: our relationship with food and drink manifests itself in our bodies but goes deeper than that. We know that under/over eating is not just a question of quantity, it has to do with all kinds of things our conscious mind may not be able to grasp. So too with alcohol: a great gift, but for some a terrible curse. How do we make sense of the pain and suffering these things cause? Can we, in fact, ‘make sense’ of something that seems so negative, that makes us hate our bodies?

Lent can be a particularly hard time for people who struggle with food/alcohol issues. For many the concept of fasting has been reduced to dieting, and control is something entirely negative. Our culture isn’t very kind to those who can’t meet its demands. I wonder whether we need to reassert the goodness of what God has created and encourage people to love their bodies instead of hating them? That’s harder than might appear. Very few of us are a ‘perfect’ shape or weight, but does that really matter? Look at a crucifix and you will see yourself as God sees you: someone so infinitely beautiful and precious that he gave his very life for you. The trouble is, anorexia and alcoholism have their own inner logic that defies reason. The argument falls flat.

Ultimately, unless we have some professional skill that can be of service, I think all we can do is to pray and to love. My own personal decision has been to offer my fasting this Lent not just as a penance for my sins but as a plea for the healing of all who suffer from food/alcohol related illnesses.

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