Food and Generosity

Fr. Adrian Burke, OSB
Thursday, June 10, 2021

For the daily meals ... it is enough we believe to provide all tables with two kinds of cooked food because of individual weaknesses."    Rule of St. Benedict 39.1

I've spent a lot of time and energy writing about spiritual values so important to our Benedictine way of life. As a result, I've spent a lot of time in the Prologue and first seven chapters of the holy Rule.

I've decided to check out a more "remote" part of the Benedictine rule to see what its author presents for our consideration in these "lowlands." Spiritual values are always present in the mundane concerns any community must consider when organizing their common life, like food!

Food matters - meals are important. Shared meals lie at the heart of family life. Food is, of course, one of our most basic needs, along with fresh water and clean air, but as human beings, we also need a sense of security, shelter from the elements, and love.

The sharing of food within our families or communities should build up and sustain essential components for a fully human life, so as to nourish not only the bodies of each family member, but also sustain and strengthen the shared web of relationships within which we can grow socially, develop spiritually, and hopefully thrive.  

St. Benedict takes for granted that meals are an essential component of family life, and he does consider his monastic community to be a family - with a "father" (abbot) and brothers - which is why he includes in his Rule a chapter on "the proper amount of food" to be provided at meals (RB ). 

Hidden in the ordinariness of the subject matter, one can discover an important value in the Benedictine way of life: generosity. St. Benedict wants at least two kinds of cooked food provided at the main meal each day. He allows that dinner can either be served at midday or midafternoon, depending on the season of the year and the kind of work needing to be done. His was an agrarian society, so farming was the primary seasonal work he had in mind and, because that's so, he wants the food provided at the main meal to be generous.

Two kinds of cooked food, plus, he writes, "if fruits and vegetables are available, a third dish may be added," and, as if that weren't enough for these boys, a "generous pound of bread" is to be provided for each monk each day, to be divvied out, "whether for only one meal or for both dinner (main meal) and supper (the evening meal)." And though the Rule allows that only the sick who are very weak should eat the meat of four-footed animals - by any accounting, this is a lot of food, even if neither beef nor pork is on the menu!

St. Benedict is quite generous in supporting his monks within the community structure. Happy monks are faithful monks, and his generosity toward the brothers with regard to meals might go a long way to balancing out the hard work and prayer, and the rigors of obedience and discipline required to live a harmonious and stable life together under one roof.

Benedict implies that grumbling can sometimes be justified, but Benedict wants no grumbling at all in his monastery, least of all justifiable grumbling, and so he tends to the basic needs of the monks with great diligence and a plentiful measure of generosity.