Reader for the Week in the Age of the TV Dinner

Chapter 38 of the Rule of St Benedict, which we read today, is almost entirely concerned with reading at meals. For that reason, therefore, it is usually ignored by everyone who does not live in community, save for occasional reference to its concluding lines, which show that Benedict had both a sensitive ear and a keen eye for any kind of self-exaltation: ‘The brethren are not to read or sing according or rank but according to the edification they give their hearers.’ I wonder whether we can reclaim any of Benedict’s wisdom about the reader for the week in the age of the TV dinner?

First, there is his starting-point: reading is always to accompany the brethren’s meals and is to be regarded as a form of service, preceded by prayer and blessing. The reader must carry out his task conscientiously; the brethren must also play their part, listening attentively and not disturbing the silence by any untoward remark or unruliness, though the superior may say a few words of explanation or commentary. In short, the reading which accompanies the meal is a holy act, just as much as the actual eating and drinking. It is meant to nourish the spirit of the community as much as the food and drink nourishes their bodies.

I am not sure that watching TV or looking at one’s laptop is really an equivalent. It may be that the meal itself is a mere incidental: if one is just ‘fueling up’, a distraction may be welcome. It may be that one is multi-tasking, combining a recreational activity with eating, in which case neither has one’s full attention. It may be that the TV or the laptop assuages a feeling of loneliness or isolation: a sad comment on the fragmentation of family and society in the urban west. Does any of this matter? Am I just showing my age in my concern for the meal as sacramental, a less eloquent echo of Martin Buber’s exhortation to see the dining table as an altar?

What I think Benedict has noted is that eating/drinking and reading/listening are analogous acts, each given ritual form and significance — not just occasionally but every day of our lives. It is an important way in which to learn the holiness of the ordinary. The next few chapters of the Rule will show Benedict considering the measure of food and drink and the timing of meals, matters about which everyone is likely to have his own opinion and preference. In community, however, there must be agreement. Benedict is alerting us to more than we might think. Reading at meals may seem a small thing, but it is the detail of monastic life which illumines the whole.

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9 thoughts on “Reader for the Week in the Age of the TV Dinner”

  1. Good morning,
    After reading your text today I have searched for the complete Rule. It is very interesting but above all it is reassuring and comforting to have a rule to follow.

    I am a mother of three teenagers… I would really love to follow a rule with the whole family in this very phase of our life. However in your community you all chose to do it and in a family it is not possible. And this goes with the prayer that you posted today, for my tendency to imprison others in my view of them. May God help me to be a good mother without a “rule”. I ask prayers for me and all mothers in difficulty with growing youth. Thank you.

    • Thanks for an interesting comment. We don’t have rules in this household, but we do have custom and practice. I often find that Digitalnun’s postings on her Benedictine Rule inspire me to change some of our household customs.
      Eating together isn’t something I’d link to reading, but to conversation and to clearing away. (preparing the meal is usually done by one person alone) This coming together to ‘re-fuel’ and exchange news, even if it is not at every mealtime, is our way of celebrating the ordinary.
      The post challenges me to think about my reading habits. We never read aloud. It is a very solitary activity, often pursued for escape rather than edification.
      Living, working with young people, yes, you have my prayers.

    • Maria. Just because one lives alone, doesn’t mean that meals have to become dull. It doesn’t have to be artificial to take care over them. Set the table, (or even a tray on your lap) as if you were setting it for a dinner party. Light a candle, put some flowers. Have a glass of something. It can transform the humblest meal into something special. Just because we eat (and live) alone, doesn’t mean we have to reduce everything to base level. – Even if you do, as often I do, all this in format of the TV. I spent Christmas on my own for the first time this year, but didn’t short change myself because of it.

  2. Thank you for your comments.

    Cinzia, you may be encouraged to know that an important section of the Rule of St Benedict, chapter 4, was largely taken from a set of instructions for living the lay life well. You certainly have the prayers of the community!

    Having lived on my own before becoming a nun, I quite see your point, Maria; but maybe seeing a connection between the Eucharist and ordinary meals needn’t be artificial. You have highlighted an important point, and one that we in monasteries are having difficulty with as more and more people are entering without experience of shared meals/concept of food as anything other than fuel. Thank you. You’ve made me think.

    Patricia, Alex, thank you for sharing your insights. There is no one ‘right’ way, is there? But feeding the spirit as well as the body seems to me worth thinking about.

    • I have plenty of experience of shared meals and appreciate their sacredness. I am also able to make a solitary meal special on occasions. You comment was sensitive, Sister. I feel we need to be very careful about handing out advice to others when we don’t know them and are not standing in their shoes. You don’t do this and I thank you.

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