Blogging Benedict: Food

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

It is fitting that today, the second day of Lent, I am blogging about food. For most people, Lenten discipline involves food in some way — giving up chocolate or coffee or alcohol or all sweet treats; fasting once or twice a week. In the Rule of Benedict, chapter 39, the abbot is to have discretion about the quantity of food to give the monks. They are to avoid over-indulgence.

The idea of discretion is in John Cassian, where it is considered foundational for the ascetic life. Many ascetics go too far and make themselves ill, for example. This is not merely theoretical or exemplary but a historical fact. John Chrysostom, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Francis of Assisi all damaged themselves through excessive fasting. Possibly Anselm of Canterbury as well, but I’m not sure (I forget).

For most of us, however, the danger is not excessive fasting but overeating, or, in Cassian’s vision, gluttony, which includes not just too much food but the wrong food or food at the wrong time. Hence why so many of us give up some delectable treat for Lent.

In chapter 40, alcohol also comes up:

We read that wine is not a suitable drink for monks, but since monks nowadays cannot be persuaded of this, let us at least agree to drink sparingly and not to excess, because wine causes even sensible people to behave foolishly. (p. 67, trans. White)

Interestingly, this is close to what Odysseus says about wine in Homer’s Odyssey, that it makes wise men say foolish things. Anyway, this is worth keeping in mind. Sometimes, for those of us with something of a straight-laced past for whom discovering ancient Christianity and the wider tradition has been liberating, alcohol can be a danger. I know some post-evangelicals who say things like, ‘I’m an Anglican because we can drink!’ Well, I’d have hoped the BCP or the poetry of John Donne or something like that would be better reasons to be Anglican. And sometimes, people not only drink to excess but start swapping the same ridiculous stories as those ‘in the world.’

I occasionally wonder if moderation is the harder route, and if it is easier either to be a lush or a teetotaller. Perhaps I’m too hard on everyone else?

Anyway, let us remember the words of Benedict about wine, as well as the Bible, which does, after all, call wine a mocker and strong drink a brawler. Christian freedom includes alcohol. Christian holiness restricts its amount.

Gluttony: Alive and Well

A friend of mine posted a link on facebook to this article from The Atlantic: “The Moral Crusade Against Foodies.” It’s an interesting article that delves into the world of food writing and the gastronomes/epicureans/gourmets/foodies who write about food.

It is a world that fixates on food, the eating thereof, the production thereof, and so forth. Usually in quantity, often unusual. Ultimately, the various problems concerning this lifestyle and mindset that arise in the article are boiled down to coming from the singlemindedness of the foodie.

This is, at a certain level, what gluttony is (the author of the article points this out).

Gluttony is when we focus too much on the appetitive aspect of our person. It is when we succumb to concupiscence concerning the sensual pleasures of food and drink to an unhealthy degree. It is the dethroning of God by Food.

Of course, John Cassian (our old friend) goes farther (he would). John Cassian tells us that gluttony is not merely eating too much or fixating on food but is basically any misuse of food as we seek to live a disciplined life. Primarily he is concerned with monks who eat at the wrong time — ie. too early — or monks who eat the wrong food — ie. not part of the Rule — or monks who eat too much — the common use of the term gluttony.

Given that John Cassian also teaches us that we shouldn’t eat enough to be satisfied, I don’t think we should simply apply all of his teachings on gluttony to our lives. Nevertheless, I think a few thoughts are worth contemplating in this regard.

First, eating at the wrong time. Or even eating too fast, if you ask me. Our bodies are a gift from God, and our bodily state can affect our spiritual state since we are psychosomatic unities.* Eating too fast means we don’t digest properly and sometimes our body doesn’t even know it’s full. It can lead to accidental overeating. Eating at the wrong time is also interesting because we often eat just whenever we (I) feel a little bit hungry — and eat whatever we can get our hands on first, be it a Mars bar, a bag of crisps, or something else unhealthy. Why not hold out against hunger until you’re home and can eat something healthier and cheaper?

Second, eating the wrong food. I eat the wrong food a lot. Soda pop, Mars bars, other chocolate bars, chocolate flapjacks, crisps, chips, other deep-fried items, greasy pizza, salty popcorn, on it goes. Now, I’m not entirely sold out to asceticism. I think we can treat ourselves to tasty, unhealthy food — but only in moderation. A can of pop or a chocolate bar every day, or even every other day, is not treating your body as it deserves. It is surrendering endurance to the easy, tasty, delectable way out. It is not discipline but laxity, surrendering to the appetitive part of your soul. It is, simply put, gluttony.

Eating too much, the third, is standard gluttony. But it can call out to any of us, at an Indian buffet, or a really cheap fish & chip shop, or the deal at the cinema with the gigantic popcorn, or what have you. This is healthy eating 101, though. We don’t need fifth-century monks telling us we shouldn’t overeat. Overeating when combined with unhealthy eating can lead to obesity and ultimately kill you.

But before that, it can kill your soul.

So let’s be more disciplined with our food intake as to when, what, and how much! Maybe our prayer lives and devotional times will pick up. Maybe we’ll hate it. But I’m pretty sure it will be good for us.

*Or noetopsychosomatic?