Chapter 39: The Proper Amount of Food

1 For the daily meals, whether at noon or in mid-afternoon, it is enough, we believe, to provide all tables with two kinds of cooked food because of individual weaknesses. 2 In this way, the person who may not be able to eat one kind of food may partake of the other. 3 Two kinds of cooked food, therefore, should suffice for all the brothers, and if fruit or fresh vegetables are available, a third dish may also be added. 4 A generous pound of bread is enough for a day whether for only one meal or for both dinner and supper. 5 In the latter case the cellarer will set aside one third of this pound and give it to the brothers at supper. 6 Should it happen that the work is heavier than usual, the abbot may decide–and he will have the authority–to grant something additional, provided that it is appropriate, 7 and that above all overindulgence is avoided, lest a monk experience indigestion. 8 For nothing is so inconsistent with the life of any Christian as overindulgence. 9 Our Lord says: Take care that your hearts are not weighed down with overindulgence (Luke 21:34). 10 Young boys should not receive the same amount as their elders, but less, since in all matters frugality is the rule. 11 Let everyone, except the sick who are very weak, abstain entirely from eating the meat of four-footed animals.

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

Here we note that the Rule of Benedict seems to imply that only in the Season of Easter would there be two meals a day. Normally there is only one meal in the monastic day. There is no breakfast all year round. Rather the first meal of the day takes place at noontime if it is Easter time or later in some of the other seasons. Only in Easter time would there a second meal in the evening, to celebrate this great solemnity of the Lord’s Resurrection.

In this chapter Saint Benedict provides for the weaknesses of the brothers. Those who might find one type of cooked food impossible to eat hopefully will find in the second cooked dish something that he can eat. Fruit and vegetables can be added. We also see that Saint Benedict basically gives to the abbot the authority to change the diet, when that is necessary. The real concern is that overindulgence be avoided. This is sometimes translated as “indigestion.”

We also see in this chapter a clear teaching: frugality is the rule. We must be careful not to judge others because they are overweight! Frugality surely never meant in Saint Benedict’s time that all the monks looked like skeletons. Rather, it probably reflects the teachings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers that each monk must find how much he needs to eat and try to stay with that measure of eating. That is truly difficult. But it seems to goal in all things: knowing ourselves and having only what we need and learning how to say “no” to anything that is extra.

Here also we have the prohibition of eating the meat of four-footed animals. It seems that at some times in the tradition, fish and fowl were both acceptable fare. Later even the fowl was seen as forbidden. And in some traditions, not even fish was allowed. Saint Benedict seems clear, however, in what he is saying: “No meat of four-footed animals.” Probably this prohibition comes from an understanding in his day that such meat made the passions stronger.

For our personal spirituality, we look at our personal lives and consider whether we are frugal, whether we really have and use only what we need. There is a wonderful spiritual gift in being able to strive to have and use only what we need.