When we are before food at table we are faced at some point with this choice: to stop eating or to continue. That is the point at which we experience the temptation to gluttony. We may want to continue to eat because the food is tasty, or because we want to continue to fill our belly. Usually, at the point that we are faced with the choice to stop eating or to continue, it is quite clear to us why we want to keep eating. As we have already said in another post, there are two aspects to gluttony: the desire for tasty food and the desire to fill our belly.
How do monks approach temperance in regard to food and drink?
First of all, in the Orthodox Church, monks do not eat meat. This custom, which goes back all the way to Fourth-Century Egypt, and is perhaps hinted at in the New Testament, is found even today in some of the more monastic congregations in the Roman Catholic Church, such as the Cistercians.
It should be obvious that abstention from meat changes the psychological ambience of the monastery in subtle ways. Monks are less aggressive, less sexually charged.
Next, the Orthodox Church has complex fasting rules, which require that on many days, the monk abstain from dairy products and fish, eating only vegetables cooked without oil. Mere adherence to the Church’s fasting rules brings about a change in the monk’s overall diet (and, indeed, in the diet of the lay person who carefully follows those same rules).
In the coenobitical monastery, no great effort is made to put all the monks onto a severe fasting diet suitable for hermits. The coenobitical monastery is the training ground, and the diet in it is moderate in reflection of this.
However, some points can be made about the proper diet in a coenobitical monastery; these points can be taken as starting points for discussions of more ascetical diets.
The food should be edible. We once visited a non-Orthodox house that had—frankly—inedible food. They thought that this was being ascetical. They even had a sign that visitors should not insult the cooks by not eating from all of the foods. This is nonsense. This is false asceticism.
The food should be easy to digest. Monks should not be weighed down, especially before nightfall, with heavy, hard-to-digest meals. This prevents them from sleeping calmly and from getting up to say their prayers.
The food should not be spicy. Spices excite the sexual appetite. This rule can be moderated in cases where the food is fasting food and the lack of seasoning might make it completely inedible.
The food should be nutritious. It is true that in Fourth-Century Egypt, the monks ate once each day 12 ounces of dried wheat-bread (after soaking it), salt, a bit of olive oil and very little else (although they did supplement this diet with some fresh vegetables). But they had Grace to support them and were engaged in a very intense spiritual war. In the coenobium, with the reservations given above, the food should provide all the vitamins and proteins and so on that a person needs, especially for the type of work that he does in the monastery. It is only on the advice of his spiritual guide that the monk should begin to abstain from foods in such a way that he will begin to experience vitamin deficiencies and so on. This requires discernment, not foolhardiness. We have met monks who fasted by abstaining from nutritious foods but eating sweets. This is crazy. In Fourth-Century Egypt, ascetics did not abstain from all foods except pastries. Hence, it is important for the monk in the coenobium to eat from all the foods available on the table so as to have a balanced diet, and if the food is inedible or otherwise personally unappealing, he should discuss the matter with his spiritual guide so that the proper measures can be taken.
Needless to say, given the dual nature of gluttony, it will not do for the monk living close to the city to know all the best French and Chinese and Thai restaurants. That is not why he went to the monastery.
Monks drink wine. In moderation. Wine clouds the mind or nous, and the monk practising the Jesus Prayer twenty-four hours a day will find that any benefit he obtains from drinking a bit of wine is offset by the cloudiness that results to his mind from that wine. The monk praying the Jesus Prayer twenty-four hours a day is pursuing sobriety so as to be able to repel temptation at the stage of his own thought processes. This is not helped by wine, although wine admittedly has other benefits, such as strengthening the monk who is quite tired. An excess of alcoholic beverages excites the sexual appetite.
On great feast days, the meals in the monastery are appropriate to the feast (for example fish is served on all feast days of the Lord and his Mother), without for all that being occasions for ‘pigging out’, or, God forbid, drunkenness.
We were once visiting a monastery with someone who had never visited a monastery before. He was struck by the courtesy shown us when, after the evening meal and Apodeipnon (complines), a senior monk of the monastery served us coffee and a biscuit and stayed with us for conversation. Our companion remarked: ‘It was very courteous of them to serve us coffee, but you could tell from the lightness of the refreshment that, underneath it all, this is a very ascetical monastery.’
Finally, one of the beginning points of monastic temperance is not to snack between meals (unless the doctor orders it). This is what is meant by the reference in the catechism of the Vows of the Great Schema to ‘secret eating’. ‘Secret eating’ is eating outside of meals without permission. There is no point to eating little in the meal in the refectory if you then snack outside of meals. You are just pretending to yourself, perhaps also to others—unless the doctor orders it. In the coenobium, this stricture against secret eating is often tempered by there being a coffee room available to the monk where he can make a coffee or tea at his pleasure and drink it with a rusk—and this without his having a guilty conscience.