And my mouth shall declare Thy praise (XXXVIII)

refectoryThe photograph shows our refectory.  We have done very little to it since arriving at Silverstream.  It is clean and functional, but very cold in winter.  In the foreground is the reader’s desk; in the background you see the prior’s table with the statue of Our Lady, whom we, like the monks of Mount Athos, venerate as our Abbess and Queen.  The wooden crucifix was a gift from our our good friends in The Netherlands.  Our plain crockery comes from Emerson Creek Pottery.  The people at Emerson Creek make lovely things.  We find their Go–Green Earthware line very suitable for our way of life. The refectory tables were made for us in Tulsa, Oklahoma by master carpenter Robert Schrader.

CHAPTER XXXVIII. Of the Weekly Reader
7 Mar. 17 July. 16 Nov.
>Reading must not be wanting while the brethren eat at table; nor let any one who may chance to have taken up the book presume to read, but let him who is to read throughout the week begin upon the Sunday. After Mass and Communion, let him ask all to pray for him, that God may keep from him the spirit of pride. And let this verse be said thrice in the Oratory, he himself beginning it: “O Lord, Thou shalt open my lips, and my mouth shall declare Thy praise.” And so, having received the blessing, let him enter on his reading. The greatest silence must be kept at table, so that no whispering may be heard there, nor any voice except that of him who readeth. And whatever is necessary for food or drink let the brethren so minister to each other, that no one need ask for anything: but should anything be wanted, let it be asked for by a sign rather than by the voice. And let no one presume to put any questions there, either about the reading or about anything else, lest it should give occasion for talking: unless perchance the Superior should wish to say a few words for the edification of the brethren. Let the brother who is reader for the week take a little bread and wine before he begin to read, on account of the Holy Communion,* and lest it be hard for him to fast so long. Afterwards let him take his meal with the weekly cooks and other servers. The brethren are not to read or sing according to their order, but such only as may edify the hearers.

Reading at Meals
Reading at meals is a monastic custom pre–dating Saint Benedict.  A community benefits in many ways from listening to the reading of the same text all together and at the same time.  It stimulates the intellect in a healthy way, quickens monastic fervour, broadens one’s cultural references and, at times, provides entertainment, and even a moment or two of comic relief.  At Silverstream dinner and supper (the two meals that we take together in the refectory) begin with a passage from Sacred Scripture.  The reading continues from a biography, a work of history, or a commentary on the Sacred Liturgy.  At the moment we are reading a life of Saint Silouane of Mount Athos at dinner and, in the evening, a life of Saint Benedict by Abbot Ildephonsus Herwegen (1874–1946) of Maria Laach.

Humility in Service
Saint Benedict wants all things to unfold in an orderly manner; good order fosters peace.  The reader is appointed by the abbot from among the brethren who are capable of reading intelligently and clearly, yet without complacency and pride.  Literacy and fluency, although they be valuable gifts, can also become an occasion for setting oneself above others; Saint Benedict recognizes the danger of one so gifted becoming puffed up with pride, and warns against it.  The monk designated to read in the refectory enters into service on Sunday by means of a brief liturgical rite, incorporating a three–fold repetition of verse 17 of the Miserere (Psalm 50), the same verse chanted at the beginning of Matins: “O Lord, Thou shalt open my lips, and my mouth shall declare Thy praise.”

The refectory is, like the oratory of the monastery, a place of silence wherein the Word finds optimal resonance.  Even whispering interferes with listening to what is being read.  Saint Benedict places limits on that endearing southern Italian spontaneity  by which comments, interjections, acclamations, and sounds of disapproval could easily escalate into noisy chaos.  The abbot alone is authorized to say a “a few words for the edification of the brethren.”

Human Needs
Always concerned with human weakness and with the needs of the body, Saint Benedict authorizes the reader to take a little bread and wine before beginning to read.  To prolong the traditional Holy Communion fast until after the principal meal would be unreasonable and onerous. Together with the cook and the servers at table, the reader takes his repast after the conventual meal.

Refectory and Oratory
The refectory has a liturgical quality.  It is a reflection of the disposition of the oratory of the monastery.  The arrangement of the tables resembles the choir.  The abbot’s table, with a large crucifix hanging over it, occupies the place of the altar.  The reader’s desk is a kind of ambo.  The monastic table prayers are themselves very ancient and include suitable verses of the psalms, a small litany (Kyrie eleison), the Our Father, an oration, and a blessing.

Reading and Chanting
Finally, Saint Benedict reminds us that reading and chanting for the benefit of the community are gifts requiring a certain technical preparation and artistry.  The monks called upon to read and chant, in the refectory as in the oratory, must possess the ability to deliver a text clearly, objectively, and in a pleasing manner.  A monastery’s cantors and lectors are entrusted with the clear and objective transmission of the Word of God or of its echo in the lives and writings of the saints.

Our Declarations treat of Chapter XXXVIII as follows:

161. Saint Benedict wishes that the soul be nourished together with the body. The monk assigned to read in the refectory will, therefore, ask God for the grace to touch and penetrate the hearts of those who hear him.  He will read attentively and without precipitation, in such a way as to be easily understood.

162. The Subprior will post each week the name of the reader in the refectory. At the beginning of the reading, he shall say: Laudetur sacrosanctum et augustissimum Sacramentum in aeternum.  The reading at midday will begin with a passage from the Old or New Testament, exclusive of the Holy Gospels.  The evening meal will begin with a passage from the Holy Gospels.

163.  Privileging works of history, hagiography, and biography, the Prior will choose for the refectory books that elevate the heart and mind to God while fostering, at the same time, a sound monastic culture. A monk appointed by the Prior will maintain and develop the monastic library as an indispensable resource in the love of letters and the desire for God.

164.  Before the meal, the reader and the servants of the refectory will avail himself of the refreshment authorized by the Rule, and this even on fast days with the permission of the Father Prior. Those whose work occupies them during the first table may do likewise.