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.