March 18, July 18, November 17

For the daily meals, whether at noon or at mid-afternoon, it is enough, we believe, to provide all tables with two kinds of cooked food because of individual weaknesses. In this way, the person who may not be able to eat one kind of food may partake of the other. The two kinds of cooked food, therefore, should suffice for all the monks, and if fruit or fresh vegetables are available, a third dish may also be added. A generous pound of bread is enough for a day whether only for one meal or for both dinner and supper. In the latter case the cellarer will set aside one third of this pound and give it to the monks at supper.

Should it happen that work is heavier than usual, the abbot may decide – and they will have the authority – to grant something additional, provided that it is appropriate, and that above all overindulgence is avoided, least a monk experience indigestion. For nothing is so inconsistent with the life of any Christian as overindulgence. Our Lord says: “Take care that your hearts are not weighed down with overindulgence (Luke 21:34).

Young children should not receive the same amount as their elders, but less, since in all matters frugality is the rule. Let everyone, except the sick who are very weak, abstain entirely from eating the meat of four-footed animals.  

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 generally. The extremes of this relationship with food, which could be seen today in the incidence of both anorexia and obesity, are to be avoided. A balanced spirituality is not about unchecked asceticism, nor does it promote the consumption of food as a way of life. Food serves life, life does not serve food.

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 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[1].

This chapter from the rule can also be taken more broadly as guidance for all aspects of life that are prone to overindulgence. To follow al-Ghazali and Cassian’s lead, 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, perhaps 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.

Because it is the practice of not indulging distraction, meditation also helps us with overindulgence. This is because the desire for overindulgence is found at the root of distraction, the same overindulgence that contributes to the over-eating of this chapter and behavioural overindulgence generally. And so, as we meditate, gracefully transcending distraction, the desire for overindulgence is moderated and transformed.        

This chapter shows, 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 harmony, in the ordinary of human life; in all the ways that this practice and development can healthily happen. The Rule of Benedict is practical guidance in the art of moderation and harmony within the context of a God-seeking community – wherever this community may be found.

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. Watch yourselves, so that your hearts are not weighed down by debauchery and drunkenness and the cares of life, and that day comes upon you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon on all those living on the face of the whole earth. (Luke 21:33-36, RNJB)

[1] The Newman Press, 2000, 120.