CHAPTER XLI. At what Hours the Brethren are to take their Meals
20 Mar. 20 July. 19 Nov.
From Holy Easter until Pentecost let the brethren dine at the sixth hour, and sup in the evening. But from Pentecost throughout the summer (unless they have to work in the fields, or are harrassed by excessive heat) let them fast on Wednesdays and Fridays until the ninth hour, but on other days dine at the sixth. Should they have field labour, or should the heat of the summer be very great, they must always take their dinner at the sixth hour. Let the Abbot provide for this, and let him so arrange and dispose all things, that souls may be saved, and that the brethren may do what they have to do without just cause for murmuring. From the fourteenth of September until the beginning of Lent let them always dine at the ninth hour; and during Lent, until Easter, in the evening. And let the hour of the evening meal be so ordered that they have no need of a lamp while eating, but let all be over while it is yet daylight. At all times, whether of dinner or supper, let the hour be so arranged that everything be done by daylight.
With regard to the table, Saint Benedict arranges the year in four seasons: the first goes from Holy Pascha until Pentecost, that is, a season of fifty days; the second, that is the season in which we find ourselves now, from Pentecost until September 14th; the third, from September 14th until the beginning of Lent; and the fourth, from the beginning of Lent until Holy Pascha. The number of the meals (either one or two), the timing of the meals (either at noon, or in the afternoon, and during Lent in the evening) varies with these four seasons. Having arranged these things, Saint Benedict, establishes the great central principle of Chapter XLI: “Let the Abbot provide for this, and let him so arrange and dispose all things, that souls may be saved, and that the brethren may do what they have to do without just cause for murmuring.”
Let us look closely at this central principle. The organisation of the monastery’s life depends on the abbot. If a particular arrangement is found suitable and good, it is because the abbot has reflected, tried various arrangements, and implemented what he judged best. If, however, a particular arrangement is found unsuitable, if it affects the community adversely, and if it causes the brethren to murmur, the abbot alone is responsible for the unhappy state of things. The burden of taking a decision and of seeing it carried out, in weal and woe, rests on the abbot’s shoulders.
The abbot enjoys a certain freedom and discretion to arrange and dispose all things with a view to fostering and preserving the moral and physical health of the community. Et animae salventur. When the abbot hears murmuring, or even the distant rumbles of murmuring, he must listen attentively and judge whether or not the murmuring arises from a just cause. If the abbot judges that the murmuring proceeds not from the discontent of the malevolent, but from the honest concern of humble and right-thinking brethren, he must make those adjustments, corrections, and adaptations that are required for the community to live in peace. In Chapter LXI (On the Reception of Pilgrim Monks), Saint Benedict reveals his own modesty and humility when he says, “If reasonably and with humility he reprove and point out what is amiss, let the Abbot prudently mark his words, in case God perchance hath sent him for this very end.” If such is the case with regard to a monk who is a guest, how much more ought the abbot listen to one of his own sons when, “reasonably and with humility,” he point out what is amiss.
Saint Thomas says, “A measure should be as enduring as possible. But nothing can be absolutely unchangeable in things that are subject to change. And therefore human law cannot be altogether unchangeable”(Summa, I-II, Q97). The monastic observances exist for the salvation of souls. Certain observances, nonetheless, cannot be changed or mitigated without affecting the essence of the monastic life. Saint Thomas also says that, “to a certain extent, the mere change of law is of itself prejudicial to the common good: because custom avails much for the observance of laws, seeing that what is done contrary to general custom, even in slight matters, is looked upon as grave” (Summa, I-II, Q97). The abbot must hold fast to what is immutable; adjust and re-order all things whatsoever are subject to adaptation for the salvation of souls; and eschew all that savours of the itch for novelty. The abbot must take for himself the words of the Apostle to Timothy:
Keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding the profane novelties of words, and oppositions of knowledge falsely so called. (1 Timothy 6:20)