A Silent Meal

Monastic meals nourish the body and soul. In Chapter 38 of his Rule for Monasteries, Benedict describes what should happen during the main meal of the day. “The meals of the brethren should not be without reading. Nor should the reader be anyone who happens to take up the book; but there should be a reader for the whole week . . . And let absolute silence be kept at table, so that no whispering may be heard nor any voice except the reader’s. As to the things they need while they eat and drink, let the brethren pass them to one another so that no one need ask for anything.” 

From Praying with Saint Benedict, my reflection: 

At the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, following the Rule, no conversation takes place at the meals. At the midday meal on my first visit, after two chanted prayers, monks and guests sat to hear the first reading, a short passage from Exodus. Then, as the meal was served, the designated reader for the week began the second reading from a devotional book with chapters on compassion, forgiveness, anger, and humility. On other visits, the reader has read from biographies of modern saints. At the end of the meal, the reader read a short passage from the lives of the early fathers. Lunch ended with a chanted thanksgiving and a sung prayer to St. Benedict. 

[Benedict’s] chapter on the meal readings underscores several principles of The Rule. The first principle follows Benedict’s teaching on restraint of speech: during meals, complete silence. The introvert in me found great relief in not having to make dinner table conversation with the strangers on either side of me. I was free just to sit in silence and listen. 

The second principle is humility; the reader asks for prayer to shield him from “the spirit of vanity” and waits to take his meal with the kitchen workers and servers after others have left. A third theme addresses mutual obedience: the brothers being sensitive enough to one another’s needs as they eat and drink, so that no one needs to ask for anything. Mealtime, it seems, is a perfect time to practice holy silence, humility, and service. 

Patient God, help me in every moment of my life, even during meals, to be obedient to you, looking for opportunities to listen and serve with humility.

Published by Stephen Isaacson

Stephen Isaacson is Prior of the Cornerstone Community, a lay Benedictine group within Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon. He has served in many other roles in the Cathedral and is currently the Co-coordinator of Outreach Ministries at the Cathedral. Prior to his involvement with Outreach or the Cornerstone Community, Steve was Professor of Special Education at Portland State University, where he also served as Associate Dean of the Graduate School of Education. During his career in academia, he authored a number of juried publications and instructional materials.

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