Rule of St. Benedict: How Should I Eat Dinner?
One of the interesting features about St. Benedict’s Rule is how it envisions the ritual of dinner. After prayer, the monks eat in silence while one designated brother reads aloud through the entirety (or near entirety) of the meal. As elsewhere in the Rule, St. Benedict takes the reading of the text very seriously: not just anyone can read, but only those well-suited to the task and always on some kind of schedule so as to avoid chaos.
If we contrast this with some earlier monastic practice, it becomes the more interesting. Earliest monks observed complete silence at table, giving the meal an unearthly quality as a time of meditation or reflection, or merely as the avoidance of garrulous distraction.
St. Benedict’s most direct influence, the Rule of the Master, goes in the opposite direction. That rule specifies that the table reading be from the Rule of the Master itself, as a kind of training. The training goes a step further: the abbot will put his monks to the question on what they read, like a lunch-table seminar.
St. Benedict himself insists that there be reading and that there be no distractions, but that’s it. Most feel safe in assuming that he means reading from Scripture, but centuries of practice have broadened the standard Benedictine table-reading to be anything thoughtful or edifying.
Kardong’s commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict, to which I have finally returned after a long pause, raises an interesting question which regrettably goes unanswered: what are the merits and demerits of having the communal meal in some kind of silence? We tend to take for granted that conversation is a natural and healthy part of the meal. Why do all the monastic legislators seem keen to change that? Is that such a good idea?
I have two practical interests in this regard:
- How should I conduct the dinner table at home with my own children?
- How should a Benedictine school conduct the table at lunch with students?
In the United States, as in many other places, “talking with your kids at dinner” is a deeply embedded part of the bourgeois morality. Good families eat dinner together and talk about things: how was work, what did you learn in school, what’s wrong with the Nats, the latest world news, that sort of thing. Advertisements for restaurants and beer and whatnot assume a table conduct of garrulous revelry, and you can be sure that any movie-screen family that eats in silence is harboring a serial killer or some other dark, generational secret of total depravity. And they are probably Christian fundamentalists or something.
The theological response of the Benedictine approach is simple: man cannot live on bread alone. The meal is a time to feed both body and soul, and in a world where we neglect the latter to our immortal peril, taking a small slice of the day to hear the words of life is more than just a neat idea. There’s also a very practical response: the Benedictine approach teaches us to listen. The opening words of the Rule, woven through our lives? Another essential feature of humanity that we neglect to our immortal peril in this world of noise and distraction? Hey, maybe this Benedict guy is on to something!
Kardong’s commentary, here as elsewhere, looks quite askance at the “20 Questions Dinner” of the Rule of the Master. I have found, however, that blending several of the above elements has greatly improved the quality of the dinner table in my own home. Call it the Rule of St. Benedict Option For Dinner!
My young children don’t typically want to tell me anything about their school day, but they are also not going to sit in silence for an entire meal. So after we pray and get a few minutes into the meal—once the squawking and wiggles are out a bit—I set down my fork and grab the Bible off the shelf. I read one psalm, during which my wife and I enforce as much silence and attention as the fallen world will allow. If it’s a long psalm, I’ll break off at 20 or 30 verses.
I pair this with the Master’s idea of questions. It’s really, really hard to find time and energy to catechize your kids on the weekend. But a question posed before the psalm, and maybe an application question or two after, or fielding a question that the inquisitive 11-year old raises? That’s practically free catechism time!
So right before reading Psalm 23 I’ll ask my kids what David’s job was before he was king of Israel, and then I’ll teach them about what shepherds did in the ancient world (breaking necks of lions and such) and then I’ll read Psalm 23 and they’ll be all “Whoa!”
Or again, before reading Psalm 24 I’ll ask my kids where God is and get really interesting, different answers from the different ages, and then I’ll talk about Moses and the tabernacle and the temple, and then I’ll read about ascending the mountain of the Lord and standing in His holy place and they’ll be all “Whoa!” And I don’t even have to bring up Jesus myself—they hear about the man with clean hands and pure heart, and shazaam!
It’s a five minute ritual that transitions into conversation a la Americana. It might be more God stuff, it might be about school, it might be about the world around us or family or friends or whatever. And as the days have gone by (we’ve done this for about a month now), the squirrelly little kids get better and better at listening and understanding what they hear and picking out a theme.
This Benedict guy might be on to something!
What about my other interest, the lunch table at my Benedictine school? We’re always worrying about Benedictine ethos and imbuing the kids with the hallmarks and whatnot. And we should be. But it’s interesting that our lunch tables are exactly what you’d expect to find at a boy’s school—or any school, for that matter. Rowdy, boisterous, messy, and just plain old LOUD.
What kind of Benedictine school is this?!
At the risk of self-justification, I would appeal to another Benedictine principle: the standard discipline of the monastery is made up of times of focus and effort broken up by periods of rest and relaxation. Silence, fasting, prayer and meditation—St. Benedict crafts everything so that the strong have something to strive for and the weak do not become discouraged.
At school, our boys are strapped into desks (not literally…although…) for 40 minutes at a time and move briskly from class to class. School is work. And they need a break from that! Part of the discipline of the school is allowing them their relaxation and the easy way to get that is at lunch.
I’m not even talking about running the lunch room like a boarding school in a horror movie, or Doloris Umbridge’s tenure at Hogwarts. We could, if we wanted, impose a reasonable, human order on the lunch room. It would involve some kind of loose seating arrangement, table captains drawn from upper classmen, and a faculty member at each table. It could still be fun, right?
Teachers need a break from kids and, more importantly, kids deserve a break from teachers. They should have some time of silly boyhood, even if the price is a loud mess. So they talk and goof off and play and then get back to the work. Every bow needs to be unstrung for a time.
But we still make them clean up after themselves when they are done!