A Message from the Prioress: Sacred Meal in Benedictine Life

by Sister Mary Forman, Prioress

I grew up in a home where my sisters and I and Mom ate all our meals together; my Dad worked away from home for about three weeks out of four, so it was a big deal when he was able to eat with us. We would set the dining room table with Mom’s best china and silverware, rather than eating in the kitchen when Dad came home. On holidays, we set an extra place at the table for Christ, who might come in as the unexpected guest knocking on the door and needing a meal or a place to stay.

That sense of a meal being sacred because of the presence of those gathered around the table carried on when I entered the St. Gertrude’s community. Benedict highlights the sacred sense of the meal, when he repeats twice in RB 35.3 & 6— on the kitchen servers for the week — that the members are to serve each other mutually in love (caritas): verse 2 states “such service fosters love,” whereas verse 6 says “let all the rest serve each other mutually with love.” Benedict establishes the theology of service as an act of love and service to God.

Benedict extends the awareness of the sacredness of meals and the serving at such by stressing that all utensils and goods of the monastery are to be regarded “as sacred vessels of the altar” (RB 31.10). I remember that as a postulant I accidentally broke a dish and the older sisters doing dishes with me told me how, when they were younger, they had to hold up any glass, dish, garden implement, etc. that they broke in the chapter of faults as a way of acknowledging their responsibility for the breakage. Such a humbling, perhaps humiliating, act certainly brought home the seriousness of caring for utensils and goods as sacred. Benedict did not only believe that the actual vessels of the altar, which are handled with great care, but any tool, is sacred because God has created the earth and all that it holds as sacred.

Benedict provided a means for strengthening the community for its negligences toward living the common life by emphasizing the practices carried on during Lent, for he saw the whole of monastic life as “a continuous lent” (RB 49.1). He recommends adding an extra measure of prayer, abstinence from food and drink, and self-denial regarding sleep, needless talking and idle gossip (RB 49.4-5, 7). Fasting was to be one means, along with prayer, for increased mindfulness, as a kind of preparation for Easter joy, to which all of living the life tends. Thus, there is an intimate connection between prayer, meals, and fasting as means to deepen the awareness of the presence of Christ hidden in the very ordinary practices of eating together, praying in common, and fasting from those behaviors that run counter to common life.

In light of the devastation to thousands of people in the Gulf and others hungry and homeless in our world, there is an invitation to be in solidarity with those who long to sit at the table as a family and also know that loved ones are sheltered. One way to be in solidarity is to offer prayers on their behalf. Another is by sharing our resources for their aid.

As I reflect on practices learned in my home, and deepened in the community, I offer some invitations for seeing the sacred in the ordinary:

How might meal times be a source of sharing stories and important events in the family’s life together?

Where is there a special room or designated place for prayer where one can be silent and listen to the voice within?

What has graced the table and brought surprising realizations of the presence of the holy?

How does the family ritualize healing from breaches of what it means to be family?

In what ways might there be denial of food or drink or fasting from thoughts and words that harm to invite words that are life-giving?

How might mindfulness in washing the dishes, of cooking and serving the meal, of cleaning the house, be reminders of the sacredness of these acts and of the tools being used?

How might our simply eating a meal, having a bed to sleep in, having friends with whom to share our lives, be a reminder to pray for those who have lost everything or to fast so as to contribute to their need?

No doubt, you can think of many other ways to be open to the sacredness of meals and companionship. I invite you to consider them as a way to see Christ in your midst.