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.