Bread, water, wine, and oil (XL)

CHAPTER XL. Of the Measure of Drink
19 Mar. 19 July. 18 Nov.
Every one hath his proper gift from God, one after this manner, another after that (1 Corinthians 7:7). And, therefore, it is with some misgiving that we appoint the measure of other men’s living. Yet, considering the infirmity of the weak, we think that one pint of wine a day is sufficient for each but let those to whom God gives the endurance of abstinence know that they shall have their proper reward. If, however, the situation of the place, the work, or the heat of summer require more, let it be in the power of the Superior to grant it; taking care in everything that surfeit or drunkenness creep not in. And although we read that wine ought by no means to be the drink of monks, yet since in our times monks cannot be persuaded of this, let us at least agree not to drink to satiety, but sparingly; because wine maketh even the wise to fall away (Ecclesiasticus 19:2). But where the necessity of the place alloweth not even the aforesaid measure, but much less, or none at all, let those who dwell there bless God and not murmur. This above all we admonish, that there be no murmuring among them.

Today Saint Benedict treats of the measure of drink; drink, for Saint Benedict, means wine. The chapter is remarkable in that it begins with a verse from Saint Paul regarding the unmarried state, which Saint Paul considers a gift of God, and the chapter ends with an admonition against murmuring. Let us first look at the context of the passage from the Apostle with which Saint Benedict opens Chapter XL:

I would that all men were even as myself: but every one hath his proper gift from God; one after this manner, and another after that. But I say to the unmarried, and to the widows: It is good for them if they so continue, even as I. (1 Corinthians 7:7-8)

Wine, like the sexual expression of love in marriage, is a good thing. The chastity of the unmarried man for the sake of the kingdom of God is a better thing. All are free to marry and all are invited to remain unmarried. The first state is blessed by God and the second state is a gift of grace freely offered to those who would avail themselves of it. Saint Benedict, with his characteristic consideration of the infirmity of the weak, admits of a diversity of gifts on this particular point:

It is with some misgiving that we appoint the measure of other men’s living. Yet, considering the infirmity of the weak, we think that one pint of wine a day is sufficient for each but let those to whom God gives the endurance of abstinence know that they shall have their proper reward.

Saint Benedict even allows, in certain circumstances, for a more generous portion of wine to be given to his monks, while warning against all excess:

If, however, the situation of the place, the work, or the heat of summer require more, let it be in the power of the Superior to grant it; taking care in everything that surfeit or drunkenness creep not in.

It happens that, here in Ireland, men enter the monastery unaccustomed to seeing wine on the table. It is a foreign practice, an anomaly. This is the case, not only in Ireland, but also in other countries of northern Europe. In some of these, beer takes the place of wine on the common table. It has been suggested that we ought to “inculturate” — to use a current buzz word — and not have wine on the table each day, given that wine is not the ordinary Irish drink. I have considered this at some length. It remains nonetheless that, on the Benedictine table, wine is a vestige of that Mediterranean culture from which Our Lord drew the sacred signs which He bequeathed to His Church.

Wine takes its place on the Benedictine table alongside of bread, water, and oil. These are the fundamental elements of the sacramental economy instituted by Our Lord. It is by these elements that the mystery of the saving Incarnation is prolonged in time, following that word of Saint Ambrose:

Thou hast shown Thyself to me, O Christ; face to face I have known Thee in Thy sacraments.

The bread, water, wine and oil on our refectory tables point to the Oratory, to the adorable Body and Blood of Christ, to the cleansing waters of Baptism, to the Chrism of Salvation, the Seal of the Gift of the Holy Ghost, and to the healing Oil of the Sick. We, sons of Saint Benedict, live immersed in the sacramental economy. Ours is a life of sacred signs and, for this reason, a life of perpetual praise and thanksgiving.

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