“Wow. There they are,” I crowed to myself as I came into the kitchen. Every time I come to a monastery meal and recognize the vegetables as the ones I picked from the garden, I experience a thrill. After months of working in the garden, tilling the soil, planting seeds, learning the difference between weeds and plants, paying attention to how much water the plants were getting and impatiently waiting for the first crop—a season of harvest has begun. As the summer progresses, there are green beans that hang from the vine, squash and zucchini, kale and cabbage, broccoli and beets, miracles to be harvested each day and made ready for the table. In a new way, the common meal has become a celebration, a way to pause and taste the fruits of shared labor and to give thanks sincerely for all that this season has yielded.
Ten months into my Benedictine Sojourner experience, it is the experience of the common table that invites me to further reflection. Twice a day, immediately after midday and evening prayers, the monastery pauses to eat a common meal together. Gathering in the dining room with guests and retreatants, everyone shares introductions, gives thanks, and sits down together to share food and conversation. To tell the truth, when I first arrived at the monastery, I thought this was merely a matter of efficiency. One large corporate meal served at a regular time simply seemed a logical way to keep everyone in the monastery fed and relatively happy.
But even a cursory glance at the Rule reveals that the common table is no accident. Benedict paid great attention to matters of food and drink in the monastery. There are two full chapters on food and its timing, plus several more on drink, kitchen servers and reading at meals. Perhaps I should not have been surprised then to discover how closely Benedict tied the Divine Office to the common table. In Chapter 43 of the Rule, titled “Tardiness at the Work of God or at Table,” he deliberately parallels the punishment for being late to prayer with being late to meals:
“[I]f anyone does not come to the table… she should be warned up to the second time. If she still does not amend, let her not be permitted to share the common table, but take her meals alone, separated from the company of all.”
Ouch. While it seemed perfectly understandable that Benedict would want his monks on time for Liturgy of the Hours, it stunned me to see the same stress placed on timeliness at common meals. What’s the big deal? Isn’t it far more important that the monks pray together than apply themselves to the fairly mundane task of eating together?
When I asked Sister Lynne Smith about this portion of the Rule, she astonished me with this fact: the architecture of Holy Wisdom Monastery is meant to evoke the close relationship Benedict draws between common meals and common prayers. For this reason, the community designed the main sanctuary where Sunday Assembly gathers each week for Eucharist so that its far doors open directly into the dining area. She went on to explain that Benedictine spirituality is intended to erode the artificial distinction we often put up between the communion altar and the common dining table, both laid with necessary nourishment for the people of God.
In Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today, Joan Chittister puts it this way:
“The common table in monastic spirituality is no small thing …. The family meal, in the monastic mind-set, is that point of the monastic day when the love and service and self-sacrifice and Word of life that the Eucharist demonstrates in the chapel can be made real again in our personal lives…. Everyone here has made this sustaining moment possible, by preparing the food, or paying for the food or growing the food or carrying the food or setting the table for the food or serving the food or cleaning up after the family. Here, at the common table, all our care and work for one another is made tangible.”
In the daily, mundane act of sitting down and eating together, we learn to love and honor one another. The rhythm of moving directly from prayer to meals invites a sustained reflection on the presence of Christ, manifest in scripture, conversation and shared food. While it has taken me many months to recognize the subtle ongoing spiritual formation that occurs at the monastic table, I’ve come now to a renewed sense of gratitude for the regular privilege of eating together.
Follow this link to read Rosy’s earlier posts:
Living in Community – A Benedictine Sojourner’s Journey