The Reader for the Week
Reading will always accompany the meals. The reader should not be the one who just happens to pick up the book, but someone who will read for a whole week, beginning on Sunday. After Mass and Communion, let the incoming reader ask all to pray so that God may shield them from the spirit of vanity. Let the reader begin this verse in the oratory: "O God, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise (Ps 51:17)," and let all say it three times. When they have received a blessing, they will begin their week of reading.
Benedictine spirituality was rooted in prayer, study and work. Every hour of the short days were filled with one or the other and mealtime, too, was no exception. Monastics used food for energy, not for pleasure. It was spiritual nourishment that was the food that restored them and impelled them and made them strong and mealtime was a good time to get it. They rested in body and in spirit there and, even at a moment of physical need, centered their hearts on higher things. They filled their hearts as well as their stomachs.
Benedict considered reading such an important part of the meal, in fact, that he insists that the person doing the reading be a good reader, someone who would inspire rather than irritate the souls of the listeners. The reading was to be an artistic event, an instructive experience, a moment of meditation, not a wrestling match with words. Nor was it to be a moment of personal display or lordship by those few educated who could read while the rest of the community could not.
This paragraph is just as important now as the day it was written. Maybe moreso. People who give too much attention to the body give too little attention to anything else. They make themselves the idol before which they worship and run the risk of forgetting to raise their minds to higher things because they are more intent on the rich sauces and fine meats and thick desserts that fill their days than to the gaping emptiness in their minds and hearts and souls.
Let there be complete silence. No whispering, no speaking--only the reader's voice should be heard there. The members should by turn serve one another's needs as they eat and drink, so that no one need ask for anything. If, however, anything is required, it should be requested by an audible signal of some kind rather than by speech. No one should presume to ask a question about the reading or about anything else, "lest occasions be given to the devil (Eph 4:27; 1 Tm 5:14)." The abbot or prioress, however, may wish to say a few words of instruction.
In the course of the meal, the monastics are to concentrate on two things: the words of the reading and the needs of their neighbors. It is an astounding demonstration of the nature of the entire Christian life frozen in a single frame. We are to listen intently for the Word of God and be aware of those around us at the same time. Either one without the other is an incomplete Christianity. And never, at any time, are we to concentrate solely on ourselves in the name of religion.
Because of Communion and because the fast may be too hard for them to bear, the one who is reader for the week is to receive some diluted wine before beginning to read. Afterward they will take their meal with the weekly kitchen servers and the attendants.
On Sundays and solemn feastdays, when the community received communion, the fast from the night before to the meal which followed the Eucharist was a long one. It would have been even longer for the reader who could eat only after the meal was ended. So Benedict, the one more full of compassion than of law, allowed the reader to take a little wine before starting in order to hold him over. The reader still fasts, in other words, but with help.
If anything, this chapter on a now defunct practice, is a lesson in the way that gentleness softens rigor without destroying either the practice or the person. Legalists too often opt for practice, whatever the cost to the people who are trying to do it; liberals too often opt for people's convenience, whatever the loss of spiritual practice. Benedict, on the other hand, opts for a way of life that cares for people physically while it goes on strengthening them spiritually.
The contemporary question with which the chapter confronts us is an extremely powerful one: When we eliminate a spiritual discipline from our lives, because it is out of date, or impossible to do anymore, or too taxing to be valuable, what do we put in its place to provide the same meaning? Or do we just pare away and pare away whatever demands spiritual centering from us until all that is left is a dried up humanism, at best.
"Prayer without study is like a soul without a body," the rabbis say. Benedict clearly felt the same. The purpose of reading at table was to prepare the monastic for prayer. It is necessary to understand the scriptures before it is possible to pray them. It is essential to be steeped in the scriptures before it is possible to exude them. Table reading, in other words, was not a way to get away from people; it was a way to get closer to God. It was also one of the few times in the monastic day, outside of prayer times, that the spiritually thirsty but hard working Benedictine could spend concentrated time on the things of God.
The point is that it isn't so much the practice of reading at table that is important in this chapter, it is the idea of groundedness in the spiritual life that should make us stop and think. We're all busy. We're all overscheduled. We're all trying to deal with people and projects that consume us. We're all spiritually thirsty. And, we're all responsible for filling the mind with rich ideas in order to leaven the soul. Prayer, contemplation, and spiritual adulthood don't happen by themselves. We have to work at them. If mealtime isn't a good time for study because the children or the family or the guest demand an attention then that no other time will provide, the question becomes, what periods do we set aside to become as comfortable with the ideas of God in life as we do the television schedule or the daily paper?
Monastics will read and sing, not according to rank, but according to their ability to benefit their hearers.
The proclamation of the Word is the sowing of the soul. It is not to be done idly. It is not to be done without artistry. The proclamation of the Word of God must become part of the process of experiencing God. Prima donnas who do it more for their own sake than for the sake of the assembly, who come to perform rather than to blend in with the tone and theme of the liturgy, do not enrich a service. They distract from it. On the other hand, the ungifted or the unprepared interrupt the flow of the prayer and call equally disturbing attention to themselves. Lectors, homilists, and musicians, liturgy teams and pastors and teachers, all have something to learn here that is just as important for our own time as it was for this one. Good will is no excuse for a lack of artistry. Authority is no substitute for education. The spiritual nourishment of an entire people is in our hands. We do not have the right to treat liturgy lightly. We do not have the right to reduce the sacraments to such rote in the name of tradition that their dryness leaves the people dry. We do not have the right to make performance a substitute for the participation of the praying community.