09 January 2017

The Question of Food and Life in the Hermitage

[[Dear Sister,  I pray that you are well and that your 2017 is shaping up well.

This past week (maybe because it's New Year's resolution time) I've noticed that almost all monastic writings include some word on food and diet. Whether it's the Rule of St. Benedict or the Eastern Orthodox Philokalia, almost all monastic rules and writings make a connection between food and prayer.

For example, I recently read "To Love Fasting: The Monastic Experience" by the highly respected Benedictine monk and hermit Fr. Adalbert de Vogue (he died in 2011). In this book de Vogue adopted the strict diet prescribed in the Rule of St. Benedict. This hermit monk found that doing so transformed his prayer and work life in a very positive manner. It was de Vogue's opinion that the traditional monastic disciplines surrounding food had been ignored in modern times, and that has been a negative development.

As such, I was wondering how a hermit should eat and whether s/he should include some consideration of food in their personal Rule (aside from traditional fast periods in the Church like Lent). I could imagine that food might even be a temptation in the hermitage. For example, I've noticed that when I'm on a monastic retreat meal times becomes a big part of the day for me; more so than they would be in my regular life. I could imagine that snacking could be an easy habit to get into in the solitude of the  hermitage. Any thoughts or insights would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!]]

Always nice to hear from you! Good questions! Few contemporary writers that I am aware of have dealt with the issue of food per se. (The one that comes to mind is incredibly idiosyncratic with a too-narrow and joyless notion of contemplative life and prayer so I wouldn't recommend it --- and won't name it here.) Most speak of fasting and of eating vegetarian or mainly vegetarian as well as in other ways which provide healthy diets without snacking, overindulgence in sweets, and so forth. The comments on the influence on one's prayer is something I am ambivalent about --- not least because it may depend too much on certain experiences in prayer. But de Vogue is someone whose experience and wisdom I would trust so I would like to read what he says about this; I don't remember similar content being contained in his " The Rule of Saint Benedict: A Doctrinal and Spiritual Commentary --- which is one place I think he would have spoken of it. (As you say, de Vogue believes monks should all go back to Benedict's prescriptions and make of the whole of the year a kind of Lent in abstinence and fasting in all kinds of ways.)

A Reminder About St Benedicts Instructions on Food and Drink:

Let's remember that St Benedict's treatment of  the issue of food is quite generous for the time. He allowed at the main meal for two dishes of cooked food in case a person could not partake of one of them. He allowed for a third dish if one of those provided was fresh vegetables or fruits. He allowed for a pound of bread per day (and remember these are hearty breads) and in cases of weakness or illness allowed  meat for the monk in need. Finally (also in chapter 39 RB) in times of extra or more strenuous work Benedict allowed for more food. In everything Benedict was concerned that people had the food they needed to fuel their lives, to be well and strong. Depending on the season (meaning liturgical season) Benedict allowed for either one meal or for both dinner and supper. He required that the evening meal always be finished before darkness and wrote that monks would (in this he was reluctant it seemed) be allowed a "hemina" of wine per day (that is, about half a pint of wine or a quarter of a liter or more per day) with the ability to adjust this when necessary due to the heat of the Summer, etc. In all things however, Benedict was concerned that monks avoid overindulgence.

 It is instructive that Adalbert de Vogue moved to the diet outlined in the Rule of Benedict. Since Benedict allows for mitigations and accommodations in certain circumstances it may be a bit of an overstatement to refer to "strict diet" but perhaps not. It depends on what de Vogue was moving away from. In monasteries where I go on retreat there are three meals a day, breakfast, dinner, supper. The meals are vegetarian (while for Sunday's dinner there is a festal approach to the main meal and sometimes includes broiled salmon!) and beyond that, generally follow the Benedictine instructions. At the same time they are some of the best meals I have ever had because the recipes are creative, incredibly tasty, and healthy. My sense is they were easily digestible as well. What seems to me to be most important is the regularity of the meals and the way they are geared either to breaking one's fast (usually after one has been up and at prayer for several hours), supplying the food one needs for the main work of the day, or providing a relatively light but filling meal which allows for the work and prayer one does once the work day is over and is finished long before one retires for sleep. At times (again, Sunday dinner for instance!) they are also quite festive with talking, laughing, story-telling, questions**, etc.--- a break from several different kinds of "fasting".

** At Sunday dinner after my first week retreat at Redwoods Abbey (then Monastery) the Sisters waited until we had prayed, filled our plates, sat down and settled in. Then all eyes turned to me (it was a little creepy and I had just begun to wonder if I had done something wrong!) and one Sister said, "Okay, we've been waiting all week to ask you this! How and why did you become a hermit??" It was an amazing indication of the importance of silence  and respect for the individual retreatants, but also of the way this "fast" too was broken and a chance to really get to know one another was extended. I answered more frankly and fully than I would ordinarily do (especially I spoke of chronic illness and of reading Merton's Contemplation in a World of Action); my response was listened to carefully and my answer led to more questions, comments by those who knew Thomas Merton personally and had also been influenced by him (there were a couple of Trappist monks present at the Abbey and at this particular meal), the value of solitude and the question of the importance  of community, etc etc. It was a wonderful experience in many ways.

The importance of Meals While on Retreat:

Your comment on looking forward to meals or to them becoming a bigger part of your day is interesting and I suspect that what that has to do with for most people for whom it occurs (and I think it does do that) has less to do with food per se and more to do with expectations, comfort, and gratification. By this I don't mean that most folks are hedonists; rather, I mean that most folks are not used to the silence or the time for prayer which monasteries provide. They are more used to doing stuff than to being, and especially they are not used to giving time over to something that is vague and seems unproductive (like quiet prayer, lectio divina, outright leisure, etc.). But meals are something everyone understands; they are involved with doing (eating) and may also bring one into contact with others in ways time alone simply disallows. What I am saying, badly I think, is that for many retreatants meal times are comfortable, well-understood times of relative normality during a day full of non-activity, "empty time", leisure which is not oriented towards TV etc. and that this is one of the reasons they assume greater importance during times of retreat. More positively I think the retreat prepares folks to truly ENJOY their meals because one eats slowly without distractions. One attends to the food and tends to be in a space where appreciation and gratitude are uppermost. Likewise, to some extent they prepare persons to depend upon God and not turn to food at times when they feel some want but are not in real need of food (like after supper and through the night when the kitchen is closed!!).

Food at Hermitages: Not Really a problem:

In most hermitages I don't think food is a big problem for several reasons, 1) hermits live regular lives unless illness intervenes, 2) poverty does not allow food to become a major expenditure, 3) most days are full and satisfying; snacking is just not an issue, and 4) every hermit attends to fasting as their Rule covers that. (Assiduous prayer and penance is the element in canon 603 that would call for attention to food, sleep, exercise, use of media and other things requiring various forms of fasting and calling for dependence upon God in one's needs and weakness.)  Moreover if a hermit finds herself routinely overindulging it is going to come up with her director or delegate in some way just as would unhealthy habits of sleep, problems related to poverty and access to healthy food, and so forth. How should a hermit eat? The same way anyone else eats --- at least in terms of health and nutrition. Beyond eating a balanced diet with sufficient attention to nutritional needs and matters of health my own sense is hermits (like most religious) will eat pretty simply --- and in this they might eat quite differently than most folks around them.

For the most part they will not eat before prayer periods (though some will have coffee or tea in the morning before or along with some of their prayer and any lectio. For the most part some feeling of hunger and some small measure of actual hunger is an assistance in praying); hermits will ordinarily follow mealtimes with work or exercise (walking, etc.). There will be sufficient time for some noticeable digestion before prayer (early suppers and no midnight or late night snacking is the general rule for those who pray at night and early morning!!) But other than this I don't have any strong feelings on how a hermit should eat. Simplicity, health, nutrition, and eating in a way empowering or allowing (not getting in the way of) prayer and work are keys for me. Avoiding overindulgence in anything (sweets, meals, drink, etc) is also fundamental. In most of these things and others St Benedict's general approach works very well today as it did in the sixth Century --- if only we take seriously the fact that we folks in the first world generally have more than we actually need. This (as de Vogue recognizes I think) is true in many more areas than food and we need to be aware of it. I believe that hermits tend to be aware in the ways they need to be here because they are generally much more comfortable with being dependent upon God in all things in their need and fragility.

Regarding your question on dealing with food in one's Rule, I anticipated that a little in the paragraph above. Still, to be clear, yes, a hermit should deal with food in her Rule --- though probably not extensively (relatively briefly is probably sufficient unless there are special concerns). That is especially true if she has ever had problems with food, if financial poverty means she must eat less well with less access to fresh foods, or if there are health problems that modify the way she approaches meals, between-meal supplements, etc. Otherwise it might be enough to refer to St Benedict's prescriptions in RB39-41 and affirm one will follow this or aspects of it. In the section on fasting one will treat what this means in terms of food (if it applies apart from the Church's own rules for fasting and abstinence). Some hermits are asked to submit financial statements to their bishops showing what they spend on various things during a year. Food would be included so extravagance would show up here as well. One's horarium would also show (indirectly) any tendencies to over value mealtimes and again, the hermit's spiritual director and delegate are apt to have a sense of how well the hermit is actually eating --- and whether, for instance, food is being used in compensation for a reluctance to depend sufficiently radically upon God alone.

I hope this is helpful.