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The Prioress's or Abbot's Table

Friday, August 9, 2024
Chapter 56

The table of the prioress or abbot must always be with guests and travelers. Whenever there are no guests, it is within their right to invite anyone of the community they wish. However, for the sake of maintaining discipline, one or two seniors must always be left with the others.

This tiny chapter introduces a major question into Benedictine history and interpretation: Did the abbot eat in a separate dining room away from the monastics or did the abbot and guests eat at a special table in the midst of the community? And, whatever the case, what was the implication of this separate table for the rest of community life? If the monastic meal was a central symbol of community life, then the presence or absence of an abbot or prioress is of serious import, to say nothing of the notion that the ideas of cloister may then have been flexible enough to make guests, too, part of the monastery meal. There have been cogent arguments brought to bear on both interpretations that are both interesting and historically important. It seems, however, that the greater point of the chapter for us today is not the geography of the table but the fact that the leader of the community was expected to model the gift of self with strangers. It was the abbot and prioress themselves who showed the community the price and the process of availability and hospitality and presence to the other. Hospitality was not a warm meal and a safe haven. Hospitality in the Benedictine community was attention and presence to the needs of the other. Hospitality was a public ministry designed to nourish the other in body and in soul, in spirit and in psyche.

Welfare agencies give clothes; parishes collect food for the poor; flea markets provide rare goods at cheap prices. The problem is that too many of the handouts come with hardly a look and never a personal moment for the people they set out to serve. Benedictine spirituality sets a standard of comfort and care, conversation and respect--the things that make a human being human--as well as bed and board. And, the presence of the abbot and prioress prove, none of us can afford to be too busy or too important to do the same.