Meat-eating and Benedict’s rule

Here’s another tid-bit from that Christian Century article on food that I blogged about last week:

Benedict saw lack of dietary discipline as a sign not of strength but of weakness. In particular, he restricted meat to children, the sick and the elderly. By eating meat unnecessarily, healthy adult members of his community would enjoy a level of luxury inappropriate to their calling. It must be remembered that Benedict expected monks to undertake manual labor as part of their daily routine, so he likely would not have been open to the idea that meat eating is essential to an active lifestyle.

In our culture, meat-eating is vaguely associated with vigor, manliness, and so on. The picture of a “man’s man” piling meat onto his backyard grill is a staple of popular American imagery. It’s actually kind of ironic if you consider that there’s nothing particularly tough or macho about paying someone else to confine, kill, and “process” a helpless animal for you. But I suppose it’s associated with some real or imagined picture of “man the hunter” going out to kill his family’s food. In his book Meat: A Natural Symbol, Nick Fiddes goes even further, arguing that the prestige of meat-eating is due to its importance a symbol of our domination over nature. Our strength is shown in our ability to bend nature to our will.

One might then see Benedict’s rule about meat-eating–and other “food disciplines” that Christians might choose to adopt–as symbolizing a new set of values. If Christ inaugurates a new era in human history, one that undoes the effects of the Fall, then reducing our consumption of meat is symbolic of a new relation to nature, one based on kinship and mutual benefit rather than domination. This is the kind of relationship foretold in the Isaianic prophecy:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:6-9)

The forms of responsible cultivation of the land often associated with monastic houses would be another expression of this new relationship. Being “strong,” in Christian terms doesn’t mean exercising raw power and lording it over the rest of creation. The truly “strong” person follows the path of Christ in self-giving love and service.

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