It may seem strange that the chapter of the Rule we read today (RB 39) is entirely concerned with food, but not food as it is often perceived in contemporary Western society, where it is the focus of TV programmes and endless discussions about superfoods, cooking gadgets and the latest take on traditional dishes, but rather, food as part of the physical and spiritual discipline of the monastery. The two go together, as feast and fast go together, but we often forget that, so accustomed have we become to abundance and to the exaltation of freedom and choice as absolute values. For St Benedict, as for his followers, food is a symbol of something much more important, and its proper preparation, serving and enjoyment are all part of that process of seeking God that is the raison d’être of the monastery.
Chapter 39 is concerned with the amount and type of food, and would probably delight the heart of any fitness-freak today with its insistence on fresh fruit and vegetable and moderation in everything; chapter 40 discusses drink, and allows for moderate use of wine; chapter 41 goes into the times of meals, which are all related to the Easter feast. In chapter 35 we read of the kitchen servers and the qualities they should bring to their task; in chapters 36 and 37 Benedict makes special provision for the sick, the young and the very old. Elsewhere we read of the rituals surrounding eating (e.g. chapter 38) or the punishment of exclusion from the common table (e.g. chapter 24). All in all, this amounts to a theology of food, a domestic liturgy, in which all participate and enflesh, so to say, the rhythm of the Christian year, with its movement through the different seasons and the alternations of fast and feast until we reach the central point of Easter. The monk is not to be weighed down with excess, not to give way to self-indulgence, because he has mind and heart fixed on paschal joy.
For many people, food is just fuel for the journey; for others it is an end in itself. Most of us would probably admit to being somewhere in between the two extremes, caring about what we eat, but not sufficiently to spend all our time in the kitchen or concentrating huge efforts on achieving some sort of gastronomic excellence. Perhaps we can all learn something from Benedict’s approach to food as an essential part of life, to be valued and treated with reverence but not idolised. We become what we eat; we also become how we eat. It would be a useful exercise to spend a few moments today thinking about both those things, and how they relate both to our spiritual quest and to our development as human beings. St Benedict was indeed a ‘foodie’, but perhaps not quite as we understand that term.
Emails: our emails are working again. The problem related to our previous use of Postini as a relayer, but I’m not sure how many emails have been unintentionally returned to sender.