Was St Benedict a Foodie?

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.

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Asceticism: True and False

It might surprise you to know that there is a lot of false asceticism about. All that flesh-hating, afraid-of-the-body nonsense peddled by those who are neither ascetic themselves nor wish anyone else to be is seriously misleading. It is behind much of our simplistic ‘fat-is-bad, thin-is-good’, thinking. It makes people miserable when they ought to be happy and, because it is based on a false premise, prevents people from realising that they never can be happy while they subscribe to a lie.

True asceticism has nothing whatever to do with punishment, but everything to do with training and discipline. The Greek origins of the word are enough to show that (askesis means practice, athletic training). It is not to be identified with austerity, although a certain restraint is necessary since what we aim at is mastery over our appetites and any bad habits they may have led us into. St Jerome was very clear-eyed about this, saying that fasting, for example, should not be taken to excess as it is only a means to an end. It is a help towards attaining moral perfection, but it is not perfection itself. We could go further and say that fasting taken to excess is a sin, because it is a misuse of material goods and a profanation of the body, leading to pride, hardness of heart and a host of other evils.

Asceticism is always ethical, both in origin and in scope. There is nothing mystical about it, although some modern writers seem to confuse the two. Nor is there anything sad or heavy about it. Like all exercise, it is meant to invigorate, only for Christians it is a spiritual invigoration that we seek.

The chief asceticisms of the Rule of St Benedict are obedience and the common life, in which the use of time, speech, material goods, food and drink are all regulated. They are disciplines aimed at freeing the monk or nun from anything that might hold them back on the way to God. Self-will, self-indulgence, all the many forms of selfishness we prefer not to admit to, are encouraged by soft living and having no checks on what one says or does. (You do not have to be a moral theologian to work that out — just look at the gossip columns of the Mail Online, for instance, and you can see how sad and empty are the lives of many people who judge their worth by what they own and who walk away from relationships when the going gets tough.) But the point to note about the Benedictine asceticisms is that none is carried to excess. They are part of our training in the spiritual life and, as such, the renunciations they involve should be joyful. Benedict makes that very clear when he writes about Lent and our offering things up gladly, with the joy of the Holy Spirit.

I myself think asceticism began to go wrong when people began to go wrong about religion, mistaking misery for holiness and punishment for penance. Food, instead of being blessed, shared and enjoyed, became a temptation; wine, instead of being a source gladness of heart, became sinful; and once things become temptations and are regarded as sinful, we get them all wrong, too. Maybe we wouldn’t be worrying about an obesity epidemic if we hadn’t decided that food is innately sinful and therefore curiously desirable; maybe we wouldn’t be worrying about our drinking habits if we hadn’t let them run out of control because we associate the pleasures of wine with guilt; maybe we wouldn’t have so many broken marriages if we hadn’t got so confused about love and sex. I could go on, but I might end up indulging in a grumble, if not a rant.

My suggested remedy for many of the social ills that assail us is for the Churches to rethink asceticism and, instead of presenting much of our ethical and moral behaviour as a series of negatives, try to regain something the early Church understood much better. We are runners in a race towards heaven, and we need to get into training. In other words, we need to become true ascetics. The world has more than enough of the fake and phoney kind.

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Whitney Houston and Untimely Death

You would think we would be used to it by now. Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, so many popular singers have died early, often as a result of addictive behaviours involving drink and drugs. In Whitney Houston’s case, there was the added tragedy of drugs ruining her voice long before it would have naturally faded. She had to live with that, day in day out, and who can guess what that knowledge cost her?

In the face of untimely death we are all a little subdued, a little sad. We may not have known the dead person, but we recognize that something is not quite right: the expected order of things has been overturned. The religious among us may whisper something about ‘God’s purposes’ but, whether we have faith or not, we must confront the reality of death. The life we know now must come to an end, and neither the moment nor the manner of it is for us to choose. ‘The Lord gave; the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ True, but let us not forget the grief of those who mourn and reflect on the ways in which society colludes with destructive behaviours. As we pray for Whitney Houston, let us also pray for all who are in thrall to drugs, alcohol or anything else that limits human freedom and dignity.

 

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