Daily Meditations on the Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter 41

To be read: March 21, July 21, November 21

From holy Easter until Pentecost, the brothers dine at the sixth hour and take supper in the evening. 2From Pentecost through the whole summer, if the monks have no work in the fields and the excess of the heat does not interfere, they shall fast on Wednesday and Friday until the ninth hour. 3On the other days they dine at the sixth hour. 4If they have work in the fields or the heat of the summer is great, the Abbot may decide they should maintain the sixth hour for dinner, 5and so let him manage and adapt everything that souls may be saved, and that what the brothers do, they may do without having a reasonable cause for grumbling. 6From the ides of September until the beginning of Lent, they always dine at the ninth hour.  7During Lent, however, until Easter, let them dine in the evening. 8But let Vespers be said at a time that they will not need lamp-light during their meal, and that everything can be finished while it is still day. 9But let the mealtimes always be arranged so that, whether dinner or supper, everything is done by daylight. 

It is hard for us to imagine, in our culture of plentiful abundance, that there was a time when one meal per day was the norm.  Nevertheless, that was the practice in the monastic movement of the early centuries, and it apparently reflected the culture around them.  A substantive mid-day meal sufficed for the day.  Benedict, however, in celebration of “holy Easter” called for two meals during Eastertide.  At all other times of the year there was but one, and the time of day that the meal (or in Easter, meals) were served depended on the observance of the Work of God.  Benedict designated the times for the Divine Office and now he prescribes the times for the meals.  The hours of light in the day, and the climate changes affected these decisions.  So, for example in the Summer months from Pentecost until Holy Cross Day (September 14), the one meal was served at Noon, except on Wednesdays and Fridays, when it was held until after the service of None, “to observe the fast”.  In the Fall and Winter, the meal was served after None.  And in the penitential season of Lent, the meal was held over until after Vespers.  With the Divine Office and the meals thus determined, the monks’ work and study schedules must fit in around these communal events, for “nothing is to be preferred to the Work of God” (RB 43:3).  But in all these things the Abbot is exhorted to “manage and adapt everything that souls may be saved, and that what the brothers do, they may do without having a reasonable cause for grumbling.”

All of this seems quite impossible for our own day.  It is hard to imagine most modern Americans taking only one meal a day.  For many in the secular working world, schedules are adapted to taking meal breaks during the work day.  And family schedules are often set based on when the members of the family can reasonably sit down together.  It is important that we think about the discipline of eating and what role it plays in our daily lives.  We would do well to reflect on the relationship between eating and praying, between eating and the discipline of the moral life, between eating and caring for one another in community.  St. Paul gave a clarion warning in his letter to Philippi, saying, “Brethren, join in imitating me, and mark those who so live as you have an example in us.For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, live as enemies of the cross of Christ.Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself” (3:17-21).  How easy it is to make food an idol, our belly a god, and to allow our minds to be set on earthly things.  

For modern cultures, in spite of all the focus on wholistic thinking and natural living, most people do not associate any relationship between eating and praying.  But our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit, and as St. Paul encourages us, we are to “present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1).  We can honor God by caring rightly for the body that He has given us.  It is only a loan, for “our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body…”

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