Benedict in this chapter takes again the path of the wise spiritual guide in re-emphasising the ‘middle way’. This time it is in our relationship with food. In monastic spirituality our relationship with food is one of practicality and moderation. The choice, preparation, and consumption of food are not to be statements of status or a product of egoism. The extremes of this relationship with food, which could be seen today in the pervasiveness of both anorexia and obesity, are to be avoided. Benedictine Christianity is not about unchecked asceticism nor does it promote the consumption of food as a way of life. Food serves life and life serves God.
The great Islamic theologian, jurist, and mystic Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111) is another spiritual guide to embrace the wisdom of this middle way. In his On Disciplining the Soul and on Breaking the Two Desires one of the two desires treated is gluttony (the other is sexual desire). Al-Ghazali names gluttony as foundational to all disordered desiring; if gluttony is moderated, al-Ghazali maintains, then it follows that all other desires can be as well.
John Cassian (360-430’s), when speaking of gluttony in The Institutes, also highlights its foundational nature:
The stomach that has been fed with all kinds of food begets the seeds of lasciviousness, and the mind that is suffocated and weighed down by food cannot be guided by the governance of discretion…Too much food of any kind makes it stagger and sway and robs it of every possibility of integrity and purity. (120)
The scripture passage used in this chapter comes from the Gospel of Luke (21:34). It is in the context of staying awake and being alert for the return of the Son of Man: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly…” (NRSV).
This chapter from the Rule can be taken more broadly as guidance for all aspects of life that are prone to overindulgence. To follow the lead of al-Ghazali and Cassian, and indeed the words of Jesus in Luke, to be in a state of moderation regarding food is to be more aware of how overindulgence can pervade life. How many of us overindulge worries, confusing worry with love?
With our minds and hearts ‘captured’ by other things, we can miss the moments in which Divine Love is drawing us into being people of now – the only occasion for love and loving. It is interesting that the New Jerusalem translation of Luke 21:34 uses the word ‘coarsened’ rather than the words ‘weighed down.’ A heart coarsened by the over indulgences of life is a heart that is roughened and hardened by these things. It is a heart that is not growing in the openness and suppleness that the experience of love and divinity in the moment can bring. The way we treat our bodies affects our hearts.
This chapter shows us, as the Rule in general keeps showing us, that Spirituality is not an ‘aside’ to life, something split from the everyday of people and activities. The spiritual life itself is the practice and development of balance, of harmony in the human life, in all the ways that this practice and development can healthily happen. The Rule of Benedict is practical and compassionate guidance in the art of moderation and harmony within the context of God-seeking community (wherever this community may be found).
How then, can this invitation to moderation be relevant for us today? Where, in the practical of our lives, do we overindulge? Perhaps we justify a lot of TV time as a way of relaxing and unwinding from the stress of each day. We may then, in time, discover that at least some of this time could be spent with partner, children, friends (our community). We could also be meditating.
It could also be that we find ourselves overindulging the company of others (the extravert bias) or perhaps the company of ourselves (the introvert bias). Often overindulgence in something is an avoidance of something else. The extravert avoids the anxiety of facing the inner life, while the introvert avoids the anxiety of the social group. The middle way invites the development of a balance between the inner and outer of life.