CHAPTER XXXVIII. Of the Weekly Reader
17 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.
Saint Benedict gives great dignity to the office of reader in the refectory. The monk appointed to this service begins on Sunday, the eighth day, the day of the Holy Resurrection, the day when all is made new. His service is linked to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass; his is a quasi–liturgical function that brings to the refectory something of the grace of the Oratory. After Holy Mass and Communion, all pray for him that God may preserve him from the spirit of pride. The Latin says, ut avertat ab ipso Deus spiritum elationis, “that God may preserve him from the spirit of being puffed up.” Saint Benedict knows well that there will always be brethren who are enchanted by the sound of their own voice. “Do I not read well? Am I not demonstrating my intellectual acumen in the phrasing, and nuances, and emphases of my delivery? Do I not have an excellent voice for public–speaking?”
Just as one serves in the sacred liturgy with humility and modesty, so too must one read humbly and modestly to his brethren. This in no way means that one should affect a humbly-mumbly delivery nor read like an electronic voice. The reader is charged with delivering the text audibly, distinctly, and intelligibly. It is not easy to make oneself heard above the clinking of utensils and the rattle of serving dishes. More often than not our refectory is quite full. The reader must take great care to project his voice. He must not read too quickly. He must respect the punctuation of the text.
Even the reading in the refectory is invested with a doxological character. Just as the lessons at Matins and at Holy Mass are not read with a didactic end in view, but rather as a proclamation of the praise of God and an exaltation of the mirabilia Dei, so too is the reading during meals, first of all, a praise of God. This is why Saint Benedict has the reader intone thrice: Domine, labia mea aperies, et os meum annuntiabit laudem tuam. In Benedictine life, all things, both within the Oratory of the monastery and outside it, are ordered to the praise of God.
The community, for their part, must observe the greatest silence “so that no whispering may be heard there, nor any voice except that of him who readeth.” The servers must move quietly and without rushing about. When a server presents a plate, the server is to remain there until the brother at table serves himself. The servers are not to serve two plates at once. The service of tables has a certain liturgical quality that associates with the service of the altar.
As for the brethren being served, they need to be alert and attentive to the needs of those around them. There is no virtue in closing one’s eyes and becoming lost in one’s own reveries. Charity requires that each brother be attentive to what is going on around him and, in particular, to the needs of the brothers to his right and to his left.
It seems that in Saint Benedict’s day, the reading in the refectory sometimes gave rise to questions and discussions. Saint Benedict speaks of occasion given to disorder. One can only imagine what this might have been like. The abbot may, however, “say a few words for the edification of the brethren.”
The reader is to take a little refreshment of bread and win before his service. Here again is Saint Benedict’s kindhearted consideration (pia consideratio) for human infirmities. Finally, “the brethren are not to read or sing according to their order, but such only as may edify the hearers.” Just as food and drink build up the body, so too does the reading in the refectory nourish the mind and raise the heart to higher things.