Readings: Isaiah 66:10-14; Galatians 6:14-18; Luke 10:1-12, 17-20
It has sometimes been claimed that the quality, fervor and authenticity of monastic life can be gauged by the food served in the monastery’s refectory. Accordingly, frugal fare suggests a fervent community in living connection with its ascetic monastic roots, whereas a sumptuous menu all but guarantees that the monks are living a life of compromise at variance with their vows. As we monks know, some of the hallmarks of the early Strict Observance and its eventual distinction from the so-called Common Observance related to the monastic diet–in particular, abstinence from meat.
Now although we generally retain this abstinence in our present day, this isn’t the only penitential aspect of monastic diet. Equally penitential is doing what Jesus commends in today’s gospel, namely, eat what is set before you. Before we entered the monastery we were largely free to choose what we ate and when we ate. Now we no longer can and whether we like what is prepared or not, we eat what is set before us or go hungry. However, this eating what is set before us is itself emblematic of a deeper and more pervasive self-denial mediated through monastic obedience and partaking, as it were, of what life sets before us in the various circumstances of our daily lives.
A senior monk once pointed out if you’re happy with what is, you will always be happy! And so, whether it’s a meal that we find unappetizing, or a work assignment we dislike, partaking of what is set before us and striving to reach the point where we are not disturbed by it becomes key to true happiness and inner peace. Conversely, for as long as things like the quality of meals and the nature of work assignments fundamentally determine our mood and inner state, peace and inner happiness will continue to elude us.
Traditionally, the path to being happy with what is, and the inner freedom this signifies, is the task of training oneself in detachment and aiming for the seemingly elusive monastic ideal of apatheia. Apatheia, however, is s problematic term because in the common understanding it can seem to endorse indifference and aloofness from the realities of everyday life. For although if you’re happy with what is, you might always be happy, there are situations in which being happy with what is would be to condone injustice and sin. Even something as simple as following Jesus’ injunction to eat what is set before you needs to be qualified and knowingly eating unhealthy food may be less than virtuous.
In other words, true detachment and authentic apatheia are the fruit of diligent discernment whereby our obedience becomes an informed obedience and excludes unwitting collusion with sin or supporting injustice through silent passivity. This discernment is dynamic in the sense that it needs to be brought to bear on the new and evolving situations of our daily lives. And like conscience, it must always be open to new insights and information that may require different reactions to the same or similar situations.
This is another way of describing adaptability–something that Saint Benedict enjoins upon the abbot who is called to vary with circumstances, threatening and coaxing by turns, stern as a taskmaster, devoted and tender as only a father can be. The abbot able to do this consistently has surely attained apatheia and, freed from all self-seeking and self-serving desires, is able to truly seek the good of a monk rather trhan his own.
Attaining this apatheia will only occur to the degree that we can identify our distance from this virtue and are aware of the strength of our attachments. Assessing our progress towards apatheia has several markers, but one helpful one is our ability to sit down every day to eat what is set before us–not only at the refectory table, but even more importantly, at life’s table, partaking of whatever life sets before us at every moment. However, it is only with true detachment and authentic apatheia that we will be able to discern when to be happy with what life sets before us and partake, and when to be unhappy and desist. And in doing so we will be heeding Saint Paul’s admonition: test everything, retain what is good, and refrain from every kind of evil.