”Let the abbot temper and dispose all so that souls may be saved and the brothers’ work may be performed without reason for complaining”
Who is in control?
It has begun to feel quite odd to spend so much time outlining and structuring times of eating for a community. With our modern Western relationship with food, particularly in a place of affluence, having control over someone’s eating habits is highly parental and is seen as slightly oppressive. There is a part of us that reacts to this seeming misuse of power on the part of the abbot when it comes to our basic desire to eat and drink but is this not a challenge to our culture?
Our culture has an issue with eating; we either eat too much or too little. Our relationship with food is out of balance and it seems many of us cannot control our eating patterns.
The most accurate figures we are aware of are those from the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence. These suggest that 1.6 million people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder, of which around 11% are male. However, more recent research from the NHS information centre showed that up to 6.4% of adults displayed signs of an eating disorder (Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, 2007). This survey also showed that a quarter of those showing signs of an eating disorder were male, a figure much higher than previous studies had suggested.
It is estimated that of those with eating disorders:
- 10% of sufferers are anorexic,
- 40% are bulimic, and
- the rest fall into the EDNOS category, including those with binge eating disorder.
(from the B-eat website, “Facts and Figures”, 11th November 2014, http://www.b-eat.co.uk/about-beat/media-centre/facts-and-figures/)
We are a society who lacks control. We desire freedom but we don’t know how to handle it. This is yet another cost of the individualistic culture, where the self is raised to god-like status to be satisfied and indulged.
Discipline, in this context, then, becomes counter-cultural. Obedience to an authority outside of the self is not only a challenge but a threat to the basis of the whole world-view. That’s why, nestled in the text about amount and times of eating, there’s a simple statement about the abbot saving souls because this is about more than just food; this is about our issues with control.
“But wait,” I hear you cry, “Is this prison-like system of withholding food the solution? Won’t we, by handing over decisions as to when and what we eat to another, risk abuse of that power?”
The risk is big and uncomfortable and I’m sure that abuse has happened throughout the long history of the Benedictine Rule but its a risk still worth making because the other thing this brings up for us is the issue over relationship and covenant.
We no longer appreciate the depth of relationships beyond the pornographic. I deliberately use this evocative word to describe our attitude to each other. I see many of us (and I am very much included) making connections with others in controlled and calculated ways. We weigh up the pros and cons of a potential relationship, we romanticise or functionalise indiscriminately in the way we select prospective friends or partners. This places a distance between us and others and is done in order that we remain self-autonomous which is the ideal of our culture. Others are objects to be observed and handled; we remain the only subject.
I found an article that explores, what Sam Black calls, ‘The Porn Circuit’. He suggests that when we think about doing something stimulating our brain releases dopamine which gives us a sense of craving as well as a sharp focus to remember where we can access the stimulation. As well as dopamine the brain releases norepinephrine which is a form of adrenaline giving us a sense of expectation and preparation for stimulation. Sexual stimulation releases oxytocin and vasopressin which are hormones that help to secure pair bonding and intimacy with another by cataloguing this pleasurable experience with a particular object. Afterwards the body then releases endorphins and serotonin creating an all round feeling of elation. With each experience of euphoria our brains begin to associate the craving with the specific source of that craving.
Porn, this article suggests, ‘short circuit the system’.
Multiple problems happen when porn is used. First, instead of forming a deep connection to a person, your brain ends up “bonding” to a pornographic experience. Your brain remembers where the sexual high was experienced, and each time you desire sexual stimulation, you feel a sharp sense of focus: I’ve got to go back to the porn.
Our culture, I think, is doing something similar. In order to achieve individual, self autonomous people a culture must minimise the importance of pair-bonding and objectify the world around them: everything can be sold and bought and possessed. In this situation if that ‘object’ fails to create craving and release of hormones then we discard it and look for a bigger/better object. By asserting to ourselves that we are the only subject everything else becomes object and an emotional distance is created.
These hormonal releases in our brains are able to be controlled if we train our brain. This requires discipline but we understand discipline as severe and unnecessary so we rely on controlling them ourselves through medical intervention or we refuse to acknowledge a problem with being controlled by our hormones. Authority is placed internally and this means we are able to trick ourselves into thinking we’re in control but we’re clearly not. When we acknowledge our lack of control this releases similar hormones and we get caught in addictive and abusive behaviours.
There is similar chemical patterns in the eating of food. It is important to eat and so our brain releases hormones to ensure we are able to feed our bodies. There is nothing un-healthy about that. We do, however, unconsciously attribute the satisfaction of eating with particular emotional states which shouldn’t go together such as isolation and this is where we get ‘comfort eating’ from.
In the light of these brief, layman’s reflection on cultural impact on our brains, this outlining of the distribution of food sets up, for me, a training to ‘apply our heart (inner part) unto wisdom’ (Psalm 90:12) What the Rule of St. Benedict is doing by placing control in the hands of the abbot is establishing a culture of interdependence where covenant relationships can be formed over peaceful existence and not attach pleasure with food. In our day, this is radically counter-cultural and, in my mind, a solution to the hormonally charged pattern of life offered by the individualistic culture of the West.
Where, in the context of a congregation, are we challenging our need for personal control? Where are the opportunities to deny ourselves satisfaction of cravings? Where are we opening ourselves to healthy pair-bondings which will sustain and bring life? Where is the questioning of desire and a training in discipline?
In this section of the Rule of St. Benedict, as we reflect on very practical issues of life, I am continually reminded of the shared roots to the words ‘discipleship’ and ‘discipline’. To be a disciple is to go through a process of discipling, correction of thoughts and behaviours and instructions as to a new way of life. We are to reform and transform which will require a de-construction of our mind; or as Paul says it,
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)
The image of the Body of Christ must be deeply re-thought. We must talk more about how the Spirit challenges us to break down our self-autonomy and become united with others in risk and trust. Passages like 1 Corinthians 12 must be re-focussed away from the objects (spiritual gifts) and back onto the subject (the one Spirit) and our identity must not be connected with the object (the possible ministry/calling) but with the subject (the one Spirit). In this space we are able to fully embrace the Lord’s yoke as he teaches us in the ways of discipleship.
Gracious God, you came to lead us into new life; a life different from the patterns of this world. You came to make disciples to go into all the world as a sign of your kingdom. You broke down self-built, self-actualising, self-centred, selves and created one Body by your Spirit. Teach us, discipline us that we may be saved from ourselves and shaped into the likeness of your Son, Jesus Christ.
Come, Lord Jesus