Monday, November 15, 2010

What the Monks Can Teach Us About Eating

The one thing that strikes me most about monastic eating is the scheduled aspect of it. We live in cultures where we're surrounded by food, most of us. Granted, a lot of that food isn't very tasty or very nutritious. I'm thinking of the past two weeks where everyone at my office has brought in the Halloween candy that wasn't claimed by trick-or-treaters. Most of us can't drive more than one block without being seeing (being tempted by?) a variety of eating establishments--again, most of them offering food that's not very tasty or nutritious. But boy, is it convenient--we don't even have to heave our bodies out of the car.

The monks eat at specific times of the day, two of the meals after a worship service. Monastic guests might have a different experience than the monks. Maybe monks are allowed to forage in the kitchen whenever they're hungry, but I doubt it.

What can this way of life teach us about eating? Plenty:

--Sticking to an eating schedule means that our blood sugar will never fall too far. It also means that we won't overeat because we snack through the day. It's easy not to snack, if there are no snacks to eat.

--There's always a bowl of fruit, if you just can't wait until mealtime.

--A sandwich and a bowl of soup make for a lovely supper. We ate this meal as our first meal at Mepkin Abbey, and I kept hoping for soup throughout the week-end.

--You only need dessert once a day. Really. Only once. Or maybe you want to make an exception for Sundays and have dessert twice.

--At Mepkin Abbey, the lodging for guests is at least a half mile away from the main part of the Abbey. One of us once had a pedometer during our visit, and we calculated that we walked 10-20 miles on an average day. Even if we didn't take a stroll down to the river or through the gardens, we'd still go back and forth to the chapel and the refectory 6-8 times a day. I often lose a pound or two during the week-end, even though I'm eating hearty meals.

--For the most part, for a variety of reasons, monks eat a tasty, vegetarian diet.

--Silence at meals means that the focus is on the food--or perhaps on God. You're not courting indigestion by talking about politics or home repairs or finances.

--At the midday meal, the monks listen to a book (I think it was a recording, but I can't be sure). I read through a lot of books and don't remember most of them. But I remember the snippets of the books that were being read when I visited the Abbey.

--We talked about how these monks put items together that we never would have done at home. For example, at the evening meal the last night, we had a spinach-tomato frittata paired with a cottage cheese and pineapple side dish. If we had been at home, we'd have probably offered a veggie side dish or a salad. We get into ruts, in food prep as with other areas. The monks point a different way. I suspect they use what's on hand, what needs to be used up.

--We also talked about how delicious everything was, even food we might have snootily turned our noses up to at home. For example, at the midday meal we had ice cream for dessert. It wasn't bottom brand ice cream, but neither was it premium. Still, it seemed like the best ice cream ever. I had an ice cream with Heath Bar bits in it, and I was surprised by how much I loved it.

--Portions are limited by eating time. You can take as much as you want, but you only have a certain amount of time to eat.

--Monks may move beyond this, but I found that because I was eating communally, I limited myself a bit. For example, I'd have loved to have more than one bowl of ice cream, but I knew that we were expected to take only one. Usually the food seems limitless, but once I was there and the one pan of enchiladas seemed to be dwindling quickly. Conscious of the line of hungry people behind me, I took a smaller portion than I might have.

--You might think that monks worry about world hunger or that they eat the way they do to free up resources for the rest of the world. If so, they don't talk about it. I suspect they eat the way that they do because they've been eating this way for many centuries and because it's a frugal way to be true to the rule of hospitality.

--Perhaps hospitality can point us back to the best way to eat. Much of what I've written above blossoms out of the monastic commitment to hospitality and welcoming the stranger. When I gobble a fast food meal by myself in my moving car, I am not practicing the hospitality of a welcoming table. God calls us to live in community. Solitary eating of non-nutritious food does not move us closer to that Kingdom ideal of sharing a table with the community.

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