Fr. ADALBERT,de VOGÜÉ, O.S.B.  On Fasting
  

 La Pierre-qui-Vire, Church

 

To Love Fasting: An Observance that is Possible and Necessary Today

Adalbert de Vogüé, O.S.B.[1]
American Benedictine Review 35:3-Sept. 1984. pp. 302-312

 [1] IF there is an element in the Benedictine Rule which has ceased to be practiced in the twentieth century, it is indeed this one. There is an obvious contrast and a complete contradiction between the schedule of meals as set by Saint Benedict and the customs prevailing in our monasteries.

[2] According to Chapter 41 of the Rule, the monks should take two meals in Paschal time, a supper (cena) in the evening in addition to the midday meal. From Pentecost to the 12th of September only one meal is eaten at None (i.e. about mid-afternoon) on Wednesdays and Fridays, unless the abbot decides otherwise because of work or the heat. On the other days, a lunch (prandium) is served at midday, and probably there is also an evening meal.[2] From September 13th until Lent the monks fast every day until the ninth hour, except for Sundays, of course. Finally, during Lent the daily fast is prolonged until the evening.

[3] This arrangement of fasts certainly represents an alleviation compared to that of the Master who prescribed a single meal-at midday-during Paschal time and throughout the whole summer maintained the fast until None, except on Thursday and Sunday.[3] However, it is far from true that Benedict has practically set aside all austerity, as some in our century have concluded too hastily. The mitigations to which he consents and which are found in the contemporary rules in Gaul,[4] leave intact a program which must have seemed quite demanding to a man of that time, accustomed to take two meals a day, if not three, inasmuch as nothing authorizes us to think that his monasteries were peopled with a majority of rough peasants almost insensible to privations, as has been imagined a little too readily.[5]

[4] Our present-day regime differs from this moderate but real austerity by the absence of any effective fast. As far as we know, there is not a single monastery where three meals are not taken every day of the year: a very early breakfast, a dinner at midday, and a supper in the evening. At least in Anglo-Saxon countries a coffee break is often added in the morning, and tea in the middle of the afternoon. The Church’s Lenten regulations give rise to some more or less significant and obligatory restrictions, such as reducing breakfast and supper. As for the “monastic” fast (Wednesdays and Fridays in summer; the weekdays beginning with September 13th), it is marked only by very small changes, almost symbolic, such as the abstinence from meat at the chief meals or the suppression of milk at breakfast.

[5] In this exposition we do not wish to belittle beyond measure the present state of affairs. The restrictions it includes can be meritorious, and sometimes are more keenly felt than they seem. But however serious they are made out to be, they have nothing to do with the fast properly so-called. “To fast” does not consist in eating less, but in not eating at all. “To breakfast,” no matter how little is taken, means “to break the fast.” Therefore, it can be said that our present-day custom of taking at least three meals a day completely excludes fasting.

[6] At the present time, therefore, nothing remains of the dietary discipline established by Saint Benedict. Not a single day of the year do we content ourselves with only one meal, or even with two. This situation poses a problem: why has the fast thus completely disappeared from our observances? Until 1892, if we are correctly informed, part of the Trappist monasteries still kept in substance the horarium of the Rule. That year the union of the three Congregations of the Reformed Cistercians forced them to discontinue it. Departure from the fasts of the Rule must have occurred in the other communities of monks, white or black, sooner or later in the course of the preceding century according to diverse chronologies which would require extensive study. But however and whenever it came about, the overall result is in front of us and demands an explanation. Why in our day have the monks of every kind seemingly conspired to abandon an observance so characteristic of monasticism and so clearly established by the Rule?

[7] The most current explanation, which was given me in the novitiate almost forty years ago, consists in appealing to the weak health of modern man. It is said that the ancients were stronger than we are. Our bodily, and especially our nervous, weakness is such that we are incapable of fasting.[6] The observance was abandoned therefore because of physical impossibility. The evolution would be legitimate, indeed, necessary.

[8] However, a recent experience has shown me that this explanation is totally false. Allow me for a while to present the example of my own reprehensible self. In this matter, as in many others, one can only speak about what one has experienced. And having had the experience I believe I can therefore affirm that our modern allergy to fasting is not a matter of diminished strength, but of faulty judgment and will. The cause is not in the physical, but in the spiritual order.

[9] During the thirty years that I lived as a cenobite (1944-74), I was incapable of fasting for a single day, since the community diet, both in ordinary and in penitential seasons, seemed barely enough to me. Only when I began to lead a solitary life eight years ago, did I feel the energy and freedom to make an attempt. After a few years I was practicing the whole program of the Rule, even going beyond it a little.[7] Two stages of two or three years each had brought me to that point without the least violent effort: the progressive reduction and complete suppression of breakfast first of all, and then of supper. From then on, one meal a day, taken at a close of the day, was usually enough for me. Only Sundays and feasts were marked, in accord with ecclesiastical and monastic tradition, by a meal at noon and by supper. Breakfast was entirely out of the question.

[10] To put this experience in the proper perspective, I must make it clear that I am not a “toughy.” I have good health, but little resistance to fatigue and very limited courage. Moreover I have not lessened my daily activity in any way: seven hours of intellectual work and one hour of manual work, in addition to a brisk walk of twelve to fifteen kilometers (7.5 to 9.3 miles). The experience in question seems therefore conclusive to me: a man of today with average strength and normal health can easily follow the Rule’s program .[8] To attain that, it is enough to have a good sense of judgment and a firm purpose of will, that result in a sustained effort towards improvement. By combining flexibility with firmness, without ever bypassing any steps or retreating, a person is readily set free from slavery to the three meals which were formerly judged indispensable.

[11] But where does this servitude come from? After what we have just said, the question needs to be asked more than ever. If the explanation which invokes the diminution of physical strength is to be absolutely rejected, what other can we substitute for it?

[12] A first hypothesis, advanced by us nearly twenty years ago and repeated recently,[9] is based on the increased importance given to work in the existence of the modern monk. He has as much strength as the monk of former times but he uses it differently. Instead of working on himself by ascesis he works on things outside himself. He invests all his energy on this exterior action and finds nothing left for mastering his own appetites. The relinquishment of the fast may well result from this sort of extraversion.

[13] Certainly this explanation is partly true.[10] Our monasteries in the West are at one with the tremendous thrust which is pushing the whole human race towards the conquest of the universe. When work mobilizes all available energy and demands a degree of comfort, it tends to swallow up ascesis. However, the experience we have just described indicates that such an explanation is insufficient. The fact is, fasting does not at all keep one from working.

[14] Another hypothesis came to mind as the result of my first attempts at the solitary life. When a person passes from the common life to solitude, he suddenly gains unsuspected energy. Whether one recognizes it or not, community life absorbs a considerable amount of energy. The simple obligation continually to be on time, to conform to one’s surroundings, to pay attention to one’s neighbors, to exchange signs and words with them, imposes a continual constraint which costs energy-to say nothing of the tensions which can arise. By getting rid of all that, the solitary life frees the energies so used. A person becomes stronger, better disposed and capable of greater austerity with less difficulty. And this new force needs to be used for some other cause. Ascesis becomes not only possible but necessary.

[15] In the light of these facts it can be asked if the departure from fasting is not tied to a certain practice of the common life. Social life, no less than work, consumes a large portion of our energies; and this leads us to abandon the work of ascesis. The phenomenon is seen in every age. As early as the seventh century, Isaac of Niniveh makes a relevant remark about a hermit (himself perhaps?) he knew: although accustomed to eating only twice a week, he could not keep the fast on days when he spoke to someone,[11] as if conversation made him lose the selfmastery required to keep fasting. What these solitaries of old noticed in their day, is not this also what is happening in our modern communities, but on a much larger scale? This appears all the more to be the case because social life has undergone nothing but further expansion in recent decades with the predilection for meetings and dialogue, as we all very well know.

[16] However upon reflection, this explanation is no more satisfactory than the preceding one. First, the modern abandonment of the fast long antedates the intensification of the common life of which we have just spoken. Then, the rules laid down by Saint Benedict are specifically aimed at cenobites, and therefore are compatible with the social relationships which are unavoidable in a community. Finally, according to our own experience, if contacts and exchanges with others do not in fact make fasting easier, they do not prevent one from keeping the fast once it has become somewhat of a custom.

[17] From this inadequate attempt at an explanation we can nevertheless maintain that normally a certain mutual relation unites fasting to solitude and silence, two additional essential characteristics of monasticism. The rediscovery of fasting should lead to a better observance of its two natural concomitants. In addition, this affinity of solitude and fasting draws our attention to an important fact: eating is both an individual need and a social act. We do not eat only because we are hungry, but also because the others are eating. The fear of making ourselves odd, or of feeling frustrated or of not being as alert and vigorous as the others, acts powerfully to dissuade us in a milieu where fasting is not practiced.

[18] But let us return to our question: why do we no longer prac tice fasting? If work and the common life do not truly explain its abandonment any better than the decline of people’s health does, then what is the cause of this abandonment? The phenomenon certainly would merit a thorough historical and psychological study. Without prejudice to the findings of such a study, we can, in any case, ascribe great importance to a factor which certainly has played and still plays a decisive role: the loss of spiritual tone and conviction.

[19] This is plain to see when we compare our inability to fast and the ability which some of our contemporaries draw from their political motivations. The newspapers periodically tell us that individuals or groups devote themselves to fasting to protest this or that injustice. Such facts only confirm that modern man is as capable of fasting as the ancients. They also reveal the underlying cause of our failure, namely that even though political fervor mobilizes the energy of our contemporaries, the monastic ideal, sad to say, has no such mobilizing power over us.

[20] About ten years ago a Benedictine abbot, whose monastery is in one of the European capitals, forced himself to a fast of several days in company with a group of lay people under his influence to protest against the American bombings in vietnam. These fast days did not prevent him from taking part in all the community exercises, except meals, and fulfilling his duties as superior as usual. But neither before nor afterwards does he seem to have practiced the much lighter fasts prescribed by the Rule, not for three days but for three hours. There was no question of his doing as a monk what he did without trouble as a member of a core group.

[21] I understand well that an occasional fast inspired by a blaze of passion is one thing, and a regular fast, built into daily existence, is another. But this difference does not touch the heart of the problem. In both cases a motivation is both indispensable and sufficient. In the last analysis, if the monks do not fast, it is because they have no motive for doing so, because they do not believe in it.

[22] What would be the considerations capable of moving us to fast? The ancients have left us many insights, often beautiful and profound, on the meaning and effects of fasting. From Saint Basil to Philoxenus of Mabbug and later, their views are repeated, interwoven and renewed like the various themes of a symphony. The Biblical recommendations and models of fasting, its benefits for soul and body, its relations with the other aspects of ascesis such as the angelic life, humility, prayer, all that has been described and celebrated by the Fathers. Without repeating these literary themes which are always useful,[12] we would like to sketch here only what experience can show us today in the most immediate way.

[23] First of all, it is very true, as Cassian suggests,[13] that the fast plays a key role in the business of controlling the passions. Its special relation to chastity is perfectly plain. Perpetual abstinence from sex, periodical abstinence from food: these two forms of renunciation are similar to each other and interdependent. It is not for nothing that St. Benedict recommends them in the same terms, presenting both of them, and only them, as ascetical practices which must be “loved”: ieiunium amare ... castitatem amare.[14] In fact, fasting is allied to chastity. The importunities of the sexual appetite are easily warded off by fasting.

[24] But on a larger scale fasting contributes greatly to the mastery of all the passions. In the very act of fasting, that is, during the hours when the body is without food, one notices an overall serenity of the soul, and this has a prolonged effect on the whole of life. It is difficult to describe this. Expertus potes credere (you can rely on the experienced). Serenity and refinement, detachment, freedom, joy.... This last word may be surprising, but it is strictly true. Fasting, which is viewed as a sad thing, is really a source of joy.

[25] We can recall an observation presented not too long ago in the Collectanea[15] to explain this beneficial and beatifying power of fasting. The digestive functions are controlled by the brain. The latter therefore is at work when we are digesting, although we are unaware of it. Inversely, the absence of digestion gives the brain a rest, a relaxation, a leisure which makes the intellect happy and light like a schoolboy on vacation. In this way, no doubt, are explained the superior lucidity and agility of mind of the one who is fasting, together with a facility at prayer which accompanies them.

[26] Other authors stress the medicinal properties of the fast: it cleanses. the body of its poisons.[16] Is this a causal relation or a simple analogy? In any case, fasting has a similar effect on the soul: it purifies it of its passions. The need to eat, being a primordial appetite, is not mastered without the entire person being healed and fortified in all the domains of moral life.

[27] This spiritual benefit of the fast is by far the most important. To it can be added a secondary advantage which is not negligible, namely, the time saved. It is not that the time spent in eating is much less. When one eats only once a day, enough quantity and time must be put into it so that this one meal lasts about as long as the sum total of three ordinary meals.[17] But a considerable amount of time is saved relative to what surrounds the meal. The cooking and setting the table, gathering and sitting down to table, cleaning up and washing the dishes, all this takes place only once a day instead of three times. The time thus freed is available for reading and prayer, which are themselves facilitated by fasting, as we have said.

[28] Another happy effect could be added: the differentiation of days and seasons. The discipline of fasting breaks the monotony of three meals a day and distinguishes ordinary days from Sundays and seasons of effort from those of relaxation. But this is only a secondary feature.

[29] Another and more important point is the difference which fasting establishes between monastic and secular life. Our monastic life in its present state is lacking in specific content. Except for being centered on the common life and the liturgy, it scarcely differs from life in the world. Conversations and reading (especially of newspapers), eating, sleeping, clothing, all that is very similar or completely identical with what is done outside the cloister. The resulting lack of originality and vigor does not help to make this life attractive and interesting. Fasting, by giving a clearly distinctive note on an essential point, would restore to monastic life, or at least would accentuate in a decisive way, its character as an original conversatio (way of life), implying an effective rupture with one’s previous patterns of behavior.

[30] It will be objected that the only rupture that matters is the break with sin, and that the true separation which makes the monk is that of the heart wholly given to God. very true, but this consecration in spirit and in truth needs concrete gestures which signify it and make it real. The fast is one of them, and one of the most eloquent. Whether envisaged under this aspect of a break with secular life, or-more important still-in its positive effects for the transformation of the person, it is an integral part of this system of meaningful observances which is monasticism.[18]

[31] To those who would see in this insistence on some concrete observances only a sort of materialism, we must repeat that it is much rather a matter of spiritual realism. Just as we must steer clear of a Pharisaic exteriority which would reassure itself by the simple practice of fasting and other visible rites-”I fast twice a week” [19] -so we must strive to break out of the great modern illusion: pure interiority, a disincarnated spirituality, a web of words combined with middle-class comfort. Contrary to certain affirmations made by Butler[20] which lie at the root of contemporary Benedictinism, we can never repeat enough that Benedict in no way willed to replace austerities with obedience. Indeed, for him as for the whole of ancient monasticism exterior ascesis is an irreplaceable element in the spiritual formation of the monk.

[32] Before concluding, it will no doubt be useful to recall the precise object we have in mind when, following Benedict and the ancients, we speak of “the fast.” It is not a question of refusing what we need and of starving ourselves. An ascesis of this type would not be without interest perhaps, if kept within just limits, but we are not talking of that. Fasting is not essentially a matter of quantity[21] but of time; the monk takes what is necessary, but only once a day, at a deliberately chosen moment, and at the end of a certain wait.

[33] This one, movable meal is a daily affair. The Egyptian tradition, of which Cassian is the spokesman and Benedict the heir, counsels against the “superposition,” that is, fasting prolonged more than twenty-four hours. It recommends eating daily, in a moderate way, rather than taking bigger quantities at longer intervals.

[34] Even limited in this way, fasting sometimes has its disagreeable aspects, at least in the beginning when one is not used to it. Let us enumerate some so as to avoid all idealization. The absence of breakfast makes one more sensitive to cold in the morning. Moreover sometimes one begins the day feeling rather low. Do not be alarmed; things improve as the sun mounts, and one will be at one’s zenith at midday. Constant experience indeed shows that as time passes, fasting does not impair the faster’s condition, but improves it. Paradoxically it is at the end of the fasting period that one feels the strongest and most recollected.

[35] Another inconvenience is the heaviness felt during the last hours of the day when one has eaten at None (the middle of the afternoon). The siesta, if taken at noon, has been less restful - one can scarcely sleep without having eaten - and it is too late to take a siesta as evening approaches. The single meal of the day, which has to be filling, may be followed by a drowsiness which makes the end of the day burdensome.

[36] For this reason certain people find it more expedient to fast until evening. The period of digestion coincides then with sleep, and the two great physiological functions take place together, leaving to the mind the maximum of time and freedom during the day. This regime of the evening meal, which Benedict reserves for Lent as an exceptional austerity, is perhaps in reality the easiest to follow at any time.

[37] In conclusion, let us return from these concrete details to the essential, which is “to love fasting,” as Saint Benedict says. Today’s monks no longer practice it; they do not even know what it is. How could they “love” it? Love and practice go together. We shall practice the fast only if we love it. But to love it we need to experience its benefits, and thus we need to practice it. Happy he who breaks out of this circle, trusting in the wisdom of the Rule and trying it!

[38] “To love fasting” and “to love chastity”--these are similar things. In both cases it is a matter of the attraction of a certain happiness. The happiness of chastity, as we know well in spite of its trials, is the happiness of a total consecration to God, with its exceptional possibilities for detachment and for prayer, for freedom and for love. The happiness of fasting is similar. It is the happiness of feeling one’s spirit grow lighter and stronger, of being more in control of one’s senses and body, more apt to listen to God and to seek Him. As we have already said, the last hours of a fast day are the best, and it is with a true joy that one begins again each week the daily, observance after the interruption of the Lord’s day.

[39] Although this observance is reckoned impossible today, it is truly possible and even easy. Having lost nothing of its beneficial power, it remains necessary and irreplaceable. Is this the only case in which a practice of the ancient monks, and of Saint Benedict himself, has been too quickly considered outmoded, but, as a matter of fact, still remains useful and salvageable for the present? The example of the fast serves well to confirm that the “renouatio accommodata” of our religious life of which the Council spoke, should consist in going beyond the desertions and distortions of a pseudo-tradition to recover the great, basic observances of monasticism.

 


 

[1] Fr. Adalbert de Vogüé is a monk of Abbaye Ste-Marie de La Pierre-qui-Vire, F-89830 Saint-Léger Vauban, France. He is the author of a major commentary on the Rule of Benedict as well as numerous other scholarly books and articles. This article first appeared in Collectanea Cisterciensia 45 (1983) and was translated by Fr. John Baptist Hasbrouck, O.S.C.O., Guadalupe Abbey, Oregon.

[2] RB 41.3: “reliquis diebus ad sextam prandeant. “ It seems that this “prandium” (midday meal) implies a “cena” (supper) (cf. RB 42.2-3).

[3] RM 28. The Master maintains therefore the old principle of “a uniform fast all year long” (Jerome, Ep. 22.35), but with derogations and discussions which foretell the Benedictine mitigation. See La Règle de saint Benoît, VI, Sources Chrétiennes, No. 186 (Paris: Editions du Cerf 1971) 1177 and 1187.

[4] Cf. La Règle, VI, 1179-82.

[5] See La Règle de saint Benoît, I, Sources Chrétiennes, No. 181 (Paris: Editions du Cerf 1972) 76.

[6] Such was the motive invoked to impose on the Trappists the abandonment of the fast in 1892 according to La Trappe in England: Chronicles of an Unknown Monastery, by a religious of Holy Cross Abbey, Stapehill, Dorset (London 1935) (We cite the second edition, Gethsemani 1946, p. 164): the Union of 1892 called for Constitutions and Usages as close as possible to the primitive Usages of Citeaux, “with the exception of the rules of fasting, which, at the express wish of Leo XIII, underwent some modification, in order to render them more in accordance with the weakness of modern constitutions” (our italics).

[7] At least in regard to the horarium of the meals (one meal in the evening, winter and summer). In regard to the menu I take far more than the three dishes-two cooked and one raw-prescribed by the Rule. I add a piece of cheese to the four dishes which make up my community’s dinner (eggs or fish, vegetables, salad, fruit). My bread is about the same as the ancient “pound” Saint Benedict speaks of, that is, 327 grams.

[8] In addition to this, the fasts of several days reported by many ancient documents seem to me now entirely believable; the little I have done convinces me that with a little practice one can do anything. Moreover, note the contemporary experiences described by Thomas Ryan, Fasting Rediscovered: A Guide to Health and Wholeness for your Body-Spirit (New York: Paulist Press 1982).

[9] In the article “Le procès des moines d’autrefois, in Christus 12 (1965) 113-28, see p. 121; La Règle de saint Benoît, VII (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1977) 322; (English translation: Cistercian Studies No. 43, p. 230).

[10] Already in the sixth century there is a clear correlation between the fast and abstention from certain kinds of work. See La Règle, VI, 1190­1203.

[11] Isaac of Nineveh, Mystic Treatises, trans. A. J. Wensinck (Amsterdam 1923) p. 260 (p. 289 Bedjan).

[12] A survey of them will be found in La Règle, VII, 323-30.

[13] See especially Conf 5.4-6, 10, 25-26.

[14] RB 4.13 and 64=RM 3.13 and 70.

[15] A Benedictine Monk, Une expérience de jeûne, in Collectanea Cisterciensia 41 (1979) 274-79 (see p. 275). I must insist that this anonymous monk is not myself.

[16] See the detailed expositions of Thomas Ryan, Fasting Rediscovered (see note 7 above).

[17] Perhaps that is why Basil, Ep. 2.6, speaking of the one daily meal, says that the body is given `one hour’ out of the twenty-four hours of the day.

[18] Cf. our article “Saint Benoît aujourd’hui. La vie monastique et son aggiornamento,” in Noveau Revue Théologique 110 (1978) 720-33, reproduced in Saint Benoî t. Sa Vie et sa Règle (Bellefontaine 1981) p. 221-34. (English translation: Cistercian Studies 14 [1979] p. 205-18).

[19] Luke 18:12. Cassian in Conf 21.12-18 recalls that the fast is not a “good” in itself, but a simple “means,” capable of being used well or badly.

[20] See L a Régle, I, 76-78. More specifically, Butler thinks that in addition to the suppression of austerities Benedict replaced ascetic rivalry by “spiritual collectivism,” the essential being for him the simple leading of the community life. (See the English original: Cuthbert Butler, Benedictine Monasticism, 2nd ed. [New York: Longmans, Green and Co. 1924] pp. 35-45).

[21] Cf. RB 39.4-5: the same quantity of bread, a pound, is alloted per day whether there is only one meal or a dinner and supper. Moreover we do not know of what the supper consisted besides the third of the bread ration mentioned by Benedict. The Master speaks of “an uncooked dish” and of “fruits” to which are added the leftovers of the dinner if there are any (RM 26.3, 5, 10). But this menu for supper holds only in summer; in winter there is only a drink (RM 27.28).

 


xcxxcxxc  F ” “ This Webpage was created for a workshop held at Saint Andrew's Abbey, Valyermo, California in 1990....x....   “”.