A Little Whimsey for Monday Morning

No doubt you would much prefer one of my ‘aspirationally learned’ expositions of chapter 31 of the Rule of St Benedict, The Kind of Person the Cellarer Should Be, which we are re-reading now, but I am going to disappoint you and share a little monastic whimsey instead. In due place to forget one’s wisdom is sweet, says Horace, and who dare disagree?

Last week, having much that was better to do, I decided to take the community on a culinary world tour. With the monastic oven out of action and two feast days to accommodate, it was a challenge. I limited myself to what we had in the freezer or the store cupboard, and here are the results.

SUNDAY — ALL SAINTS

We began in France, with pan-seared sea bass in a lemon, lime and caper sauce, with Lyonnaise potatoes. No pudding could be managed after that!

MONDAY

Monday saw us in the Maghreb with Shakshuka and home-made flatbreads. We grow a lot of herbs and a neighbour often gives us eggs from their hens, so this was easy-peasy.

TUESDAY — ALL SOULS

Back in France, Normandy region, for pork loin chops with caramelised onions and pears, mashed potato and wilted cabbage. This tasted better than it looks. It really needed a grill to finish it off properly as those little pieces of cheese should be golden brown. We live and learn.

WEDNESDAY

Off to Hungary for a vegetarian goulash with tarragon and horseradish dumplings (made from vegetarian suet, of course); served with a dollop of Greek yoghurt, spring onions and a chunk of almost-French baguette. Guaranteed to provide plenty of inner heat in cold weather!

Thursday saw us in Erewhon/Everywhere for a garlicky chicken and sausage casserole — comfort food for a nun having cataract surgery earlier in the day. Nothing to see here, just a mixture of odds and ends from the freezer and the vegetable basket, with lots of Lautrec garlic given by a friend and a slight Spanish touch in the use of pimentón.

Friday is a fast day with us, so we travelled in time rather than geographically: All Our Yesterdays Soup (i.e. made from left-overs), with a choice of home-made wholemeal bread and cheese or wholemeal bread and tuna, followed by an apple from the garden.

SATURDAY

‘One we made earlier’. Saturday quickly span out of control, so an Italian lasagne pulled from the freezer and served with salad fitted the bill. Even in a monastery it can be difficult to cook ‘properly’ but batch cooking for the freezer is a great help.

Some readers may have given up at this point but others will recognize that food, its preparation, service and sharing, plays an important part in the Rule of St Benedict and in Christianity generally. Our most important act as a community is the celebration of the Eucharist. By extension, meals in a monastery are never purely private, individualistic affairs, because of their eucharistic character. The ritual with which they are surrounded, the blessings and the readings, are a sign of the role they play and the way in which they connect the bodily reality of our lives with the spiritual. The cellarer, as we are reminded in RB 31, must never misuse food to exert control over others nor allow any material thing to be treated sloppily or carelessly but show reverence and forethought. It is probably whimsical of me, but perhaps there is something there for all of us, including those negotiating agreements at COP26.

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Compassion not Condemnation

No one who reads today’s section of the Rule of St Benedict, chapter 27 On the Abbot’s Special Care for the Excommunicated, can feel easy about condemning others. Again and again, Benedict advocates patience, reaffirmation of love and support for the wobbly one, and is reminded of the example he himself must follow, that of the Good Shepherd who carried the straying sheep back to the flock on his own sacred shoulders (RB 27. 9, a telling addition to the gospel narrative). The emphasis is not on what the excommunicate must do in order to be reintegrated into community but what the abbot and community must do.

How often do we demand that another person change, show repentance or remorse, conform to our standards of acceptable behaviour and become what we require them to be? It is an arrogance that goes beyond the individual. We have seen something of the same in the run-up to COP26. Most people in the U.K. agree that caring for the environment and being good stewards of natural resources are important, but the methods adopted by Insulate Britain, for example, to force attention on their case have had a mixed reception. There has been a clashing of rights which reflects a clash of interests. At COP26 itself, the division in interest between rich and poor nations has been stark at times. Those of us living a comfortable life in the West don’t really know what it is like to live with sea levels just two metres below our country’s land mass and, as one delegate put it, no hill to run to if they rise.

Only a very wise person, or a very foolish one, would claim to know how to solve the challenge of climate change, but we must do the best we can. When dealing with those who are unconvinced, or whose self-interest is apparently opposed to our own, we need all the qualities an abbot must show when confronted with disruptive behaviour in an individual: patience, support, readiness to act. Above all, we need to show compassion rather than condemnation, a willingness to listen and, where we can, compromise.

Over to you, but, please, no angry rants. They won’t be published.

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