One Meal a Day: An Ancient Monastic Tradition for a Wired World
Intermittent fasting seems to be a thing these days, but Catholic monks have been intermittently fasting for a good millennium and a half.
“It’s true that grace is the free gift of God, but in order to put yourself in the way of being receptive to it you have to practice self-denial.”
~ Flannery O’Connor
“Fasting is the helm of human life and governs the whole ship of our body.”
~ St. Peter Chrysologus
At the end of my nursing clinical rotations, I like to take an extended “post-conference” with my students and go out for a meal someplace. In the spring, I have evening clinicals, and I depart with my students from the hospital around 9 p.m. and grab something to eat at an eatery of their choice.
In the fall, however, I have morning clinicals at a nursing home, and so our final post-conference gathering is for a brunchy meal someplace — like the local Chick-fil-A. My students order their meals, get their trays, and (in pre-pandemic times) push some tables together so that we can enjoy one last clinical confab. I grab a black coffee, sit down to join them, and invariably someone asks, “Aren’t you going eat something?”
“No,” I say, shaking my head. “Just coffee for me. I rarely eat lunch.”
“Call it breakfast then,” someone says. “It’s not even close to noon.”
“Well,” I reply, “actually, I rarely eat breakfast either. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I ate breakfast.”
Lull. Stares. “Really?” someone ventures. “Don’t you get hungry?”
“Actually, no,” I say, grinning. “In fact, when I eat more than one meal a day, I end up feeling lousy.”
It’s true. I’ve been down to one meal a day (OMAD) for years, and I’ve never felt better. Does that sound like a boast? Probably, but it’s not, I assure you. It’s not something I chose intentionally — in fact, it was kind of accidental — and I certainly wouldn’t have believed you five years ago if you’d told me I’d be down to a single daily meal someday.
So how did it happen? Pants. Yes, it all started with pants. I’ve always hated buying new clothes, and I particularly hate buying new pants. You see, if I’m shopping for shirts, I can buy them off the shelf — or online, no prob. I like my shirts roomy, so if it says “large,” it’s good. Or, for dress shirts, a 15-½ neck is a go, and I’m done.
But pants? You have to take several sizes into the dressing room, take off your shoes (!), and then go through the hassle of trying them on, one after another. All because of the waistline — unless you opt for the elastic kind. Even with that, however, you have to make sure it’s not going to droop too much.
What a pain!
As an alternative, I just refuse to buy new pants — simple! That means I’ve been known to wear slacks and jeans that my dear mom (rest in peace) bought me over decades ago. (My longsuffering wife can attest to this, much to her dismay.) Sure, they’re a little threadbare, especially at the cuffs, but they still cover my legs — and isn’t that why we mainly wear pants? What do I care for fashion?
Yet, as I aged, becoming less active and more self-indulgent at the dinner table, my ancient pants began to tighten around the waist — ooch! Time for some clothes shopping? Naah! Long ago, I adopted the habit of just skipping meals when I felt a pinch around the middle, and, voila!, within a couple days, the pinch disappears. No need to stop by Kohl’s. I’d be all set until the next gluttonous event rolled around.
And here’s the thing: Those days of skipping meals started becoming necessary more frequently, to the point that I found myself foregoing lunch pretty routinely, and sometimes breakfast as well — and occasionally both! But you know what? Even on those days I skipped both, I didn’t miss them. I wasn’t incapacitated; I wasn’t obsessing about when I’d get my hands on some calories or a protein source; I went about my business — teaching and accompanying my nursing students in their clinical rotations, running errands, taking out the trash, shoveling snow. And, when it was time for dinner, I always had a hearty appetite — dig in!
Imagine my bemusement, then, when I started hearing about “intermittent fasting” — a diet craze that seems to keep popping up on social media and the news. It seems to be a thing these days, and probably not going away any time soon. Apparently, what I’m doing — my fortuitous OMAD routine — is referred to as “extreme” intermittent fasting, but I’m telling you, there’s nothing extreme about it. For me, it’s become the norm, and it’s actually a norm that has a long and illustrious history.
Many years ago I read a quirky volume I inherited from my father-in-law: To Love Fasting: The Monastic Experience, by Dom Adalbert de Vogüé, a French Benedictine scholar. De Vogüé delves into the saga of the monastic Regular Fast — basically a religious OMAD — from its origins in the Rule of St. Benedict to its modern decline and virtual disappearance today. But To Love Fasting is no dry dissertation on an obscure monastic practice, for de Vogüé unilaterally rehabilitated OMAD and swore by it — at least he did at the time of the book’s publication in 1988. (Dom Adalbert died in 2011, rest in peace.)
My own fledgling experiment with OMAD compelled me to track down de Vogüé’s book and I eagerly devoured it (pun intended) again — this time, with purpose! As is always the case with the sons of St. Benedict, they were way ahead of their time, they were ahead of the times, and monks have been intermittently fasting (off and on) for a good millennium and a half. Beginning with John Cassian, and extending through St. Benedict’s composition of his Rule, the practice of Western monasticism has always been oriented to one meal a day, usually following Vespers. That was in addition to various abstemious practices as well as occasional more severe and lengthy fasts, but those particular monastic characteristics were of less interest to me than the idea of the Regular Fast.
And what’s especially noteworthy in de Vogüé’s account is that the laity often followed a parallel discipline in the earliest days of the Church, at least during Lent, and the People of God imitated the Regular Fast of the monasteries without undue hardship. Whether monks or lay people, those who had specific caloric and nutritional needs — like the young, the sick, the elderly, as well as those performing hard, physical labor — were not encouraged to undertake this discipline, but the majority could do so without difficulty.
Indeed, I’m happy to back that up based on my own experience. Heck, I’ll even go so far as corroborate de Vogüé’s wild assertion that if you give it a go, “you will love it.”
Even so, let me state flat out here that OMAD is definitely not for everyone. In fact, as a very busy nursing instructor with a chronic health condition, I was myself skeptical of this somewhat bizarre. So, I ran it past a couple of doctors who examined me, ran a few labs, and then gave me a pass — a medical stamp of approval that I’d urge you to obtain before trying it out for yourself.
But, if you do, I can tell that the advantages are many; the disadvantages few. Let’s consider the disadvantages first. To begin with, the greatest drawback is not gnawing hunger (that goes away pretty quick) or anything physiological. Believe it or not, the bigger problem, for me anyway, has been a spiritual and social one: the risk of real pride, or the appearance thereof. This was more of a temptation at the beginning of my experiment — that is, I’d occasionally get the thought, especially when others were partaking of their hearty breakfasts or leisurely lunches, that I was somehow “better” than they were. What nonsense, of course, but I’m just being honest here — it was a thought that did occur to me, and it was quickly, easily dispatched. Still, it was clearly something to be cautious about — something to submit to prayer and, if necessary, the confessional.
The appearance of pride, though, is less easily dealt with — take this article you’re reading, for instance. I thought long and hard about sharing my experience with the world mainly because I didn’t want anybody to think I was bragging. That’s still the case — I’m hardly in a position to crow about my puny OMAD adventure — but I decided to take the risk because my experience has been so uniformly positive. Quite frankly, it seemed selfish to keep to myself a practice that might be of benefit to so many.
And those benefits? Let’s see, aside from physiological benefits (weight reduction, obviously, and nutritional narrowing — if you’re only going to eat one meal a day, you have to be choosy about what it consists of), there’s the abundance of time that’s freed up (by skipping two meals a day and everything those meals entail) that can be devoted to prayer, meditation, spiritual reading, or simply more productive, less harried work and social interaction. Moreover, my adoption of the Regular Fast has led to an expansion of gratitude — not just for my OMAD and whoever prepares it for me, but for everything: my faith, my marriage and family, my work and friends, everything.
Plus, if you’re only having a single meal a day, you can’t help having a hearty appetite and really enjoying it when it comes, and there’s a spillover of that delight into all aspects of life — a “euphoria” is what de Vogüé calls it. “A feeling of freedom and lightness invades my whole being, body and mind,” he writes. “Well-being and joy are therefore the most immediate effect of my daily fasts.” Seriously! It’s really a thing, especially as my daily meal draws nigh — the few hours before I return home for dinner with my family. They’re often the most productive hours of my day, and I wish I could schedule my work schedule around them. But, of course, my responsibilities as a nursing instructor don’t always match up with my ascetical inclinations, and I definitely want to share a daily sit-down meal with my wife and kids, whenever it takes place.
And that’s an important point as well: I can’t be too rigid about any of this. Although my metabolism and preference are oriented to partaking of the OMAD around 6 p.m. (following de Vogüé’s routine, which is itself rooted in ancient monastic practice), I frequently make adjustments to accommodate my family’s schedule. Like, take Independence Day — an event that always features a mid-afternoon fried-chicken feast at my house. Same with Thanksgiving — substituting a turkey for the chicken, of course. It’s way more important for me to take part in such traditions, feasting on the relationships as we feast together on food, than stick to my somewhat eccentric dietary rules.
One final advantage of the Regular Fast is worth emphasizing, especially in this Lenten season. Pope St. Paul VI’s 1966 Apostolic Constitution on Fast and Abstinence (Paenitemini) is remembered mainly for its updating and relaxation of Catholic rules for fasting and abstinence. Yet, it’s also a profound and succinct meditation on the central importance of penitential practice in the Church. The Holy Father notes that “change of heart” (“metanoia”) through embrace of Christ and the Cross is requisite for all Christians. It’s a lifelong journey of conversion that is accomplished interiorly, but which ought to be manifested exteriorly. “Therefore the Church,” writes the Pontiff, “invites everyone to accompany the inner conversion of the spirit with the voluntary exercise of external acts of penitence.”
Yes, during Lent, we are required to do such external acts — on Ash Wednesday, for example, and all the Fridays, abstaining and fasting as prescribed by the Church. But we easily forget that we’re called to penance year-round — every day, in fact. The beauty of OMAD is that your daily penance is a given. Your Lent takes on a super-charged significance, therefore, and anything extra you adopt for Lent looms large and all the more meaningful — more prayer, for example, more almsgiving, or perhaps more fasting from non-food staples (social media, Wi-Fi, smart phones). Think of the possibilities; think of the peace! Then, when Easter comes and goes, you keep hanging your hat on your OMAD routine, and your Lenten penitential disposition becomes a permanent one. What a gift!
The Regular Fast has largely fallen into disuse throughout the monastic world, and de Vogüé wrote To Love Fasting in part to promote a Regular Fast renaissance. “I do not aim to accuse the contemporary world and monasticism but to enrich the world with the values that monasticism can and should contribute to it,” he notes in the Preface. “Our world needs monks who are different from itself.” The same could certainly be said for believers in general — that is, our world needs Christians who are different from itself. Widespread adoption of the OMAD Regular Fast, and the interior conversions it will naturally foster, just might help make that a reality.