An Ignatian diet for Lent

Published on 25 Feb 2019

With Lent coming up we might be thinking about whether to give up sweets, cakes or something else... Teresa McCaffery reflects on St Ignatius' Rules for Eating in light of our modern culture and the need to care for our common home and ourselves.

I came across Ignatius’ Rules with regard to eating by accident, they are tucked in between week three and week four of the Exercises. They are remarkably topical.  The new set of Apostolic Preferences includes Care for our common home, and that includes care for our long-suffering bodies.  We now know that dieting is not only about vanity; getting rid of the paunch or wearing size 12 dresses; it is about health; obesity damages the body. These Ignatian rules include several concepts that have more recently been proven by experiment.

He says that the aim is to secure for the future due order in the use of food.  Ignatius has already told us that we should use what is useful, and not what is not,  but due order is also a strong theme; we do things because it is appropriate to do so and not for personal gain.  Here are the rules:

1. There is less need to abstain from bread as it is not as tempting as other foods.  (This refers to the bread of course, not the delicious spreads we put on our sandwiches.)  We may also note that bread is often the staple food of the poor.

2. Abstinence seems to be more necessary in regard to drink.  (Today, apart form alcohol, the tendency is to drink too much coffee, or sweet energy drinks.)

3. Food in general is a trap for the unwary.  We should eat coarser foods and limit the delicacies.  (Well! We all know the importance of a high fibre diet, and the multiplication of fast food outlets encourages constant snacking on tasty, but non-nutritious food.)

4. Provided care is taken not to fall sick (eating disorders come to mind here) the more one retrenches from a sufficient diet the more speedily he will arrive at the correct level of nutrition.  Ignatius did not know about calories so by ‘sufficient’ he must mean ‘what I consider to be sufficient’, which is probably far more than I need.Ignatius gives two reasons for this plan, as usual one is positive, one negative. He suggests that doing without food can give rise to spiritual consolation and by this learn the proper mean for eating.  We are not doing this in order to have visions, there is a much more down to earth experience of this that we can find in our own lives.  I know that if I want to do justice to a delicious box of chocolates that I have been given I will take to the sofa and pick up a novel or watch TV.  In the absence of such delicacies I am more likely to stay on my feet, find something satisfying and creative to do and keep at it until I feel genuinely hungry.

Conversely, Ignatius tells us that inability to do the exercises is the marker for knowing when we need to eat more.  Given that the Exercises are meant to lead us to a better understanding of the will of God, he is telling us that we only need food to enable us to do the will of God.

5. While eating we should imagine Jesus sitting at able with His disciples and friends and imitate what is going on there.

Our constant desire for instant gratification has led to snacking and grazing so that meals round a table are a rare event.  I know one house for refugees where the only rule is that everyone gathers round the table at lunch time, even if they don’t want to eat.  Unfortunately, meals taken together can become an arena for argument and teasing so that it is no wonder that people avoid them.  Therefore, we should also imagine the conversations Jesus would have and encourage, how he would appreciate the food and talk of a wonderful future of love, harmony and peace.  This way we learn how to conduct ourselves while eating.

6. We should apply our minds, while eating to thinking of something good and wholesome (hence the practice of spiritual reading or music during meals on retreat.)  It has been shown recently by experiment that people who are distracted while eating eat less than people who concentrate on the food, and how good it tastes.

7. We should not be so intent on our food that we eat hurriedly.  I confess to having choked on food I was gobbling down too quickly. Modern research shows that it takes the stomach 20 minutes to tell the brain that it has enough food; eat too quickly and you have taken in too much before the stomach has time to say ‘stop’.  It has also been shown that food which has been well chewed (which takes time) is more easily digested (and won’t cause me to choke).

8. Decide what you need to eat tomorrow when you have just finished eating (never go shopping when you are hungry!).  Having made your decision, stick to it.  If tempted to eat more, eat less.

Obesity is a modern plague in rich countries.  It causes serious, life shortening illness which is expensive to treat.  The transport of exotic delicacies across the world pollutes the atmosphere and the oceans, and the land used to grow them could be better used to grow food for the people who live in the country of origin.  I think that a right attitude to eating is a major contribution to care for our common home.

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