Fridays with Benedict: Chapter 38, Attention and Anticipation

During the meals the monks were to keep silence while a reader read from the Bible. In Chapter 38 of The Rule of St. Benedict this practice is described along with how the listening brothers should attend to the reading of the Word during meals:
5Let there be complete silence. No whispering, no speaking--only the reader's voice should be heard there. 6The brothers should by turn serve one another's needs as they eat and drink, so that no one need ask for anything. 7If, however, anything is required, it should be requested by an audible signal of some kind rather than by speech.
If you've ever dined with contemplative monastic communities you'll have noted that they actually don't use many audible signals but use, instead, signs and gestures to get the salt passed. By using signs complete silence can be maintained.

Some random thoughts about this passage:

I've been a part of a few silent mealtimes, but never one where silence was maintained while the Bible was read aloud. I wonder how many silent retreats employ this practice? That is, it seems to me that many contemplative retreats emphasize silence but do they fill that silence with the Word? Then again, I haven't been on many silent retreats. Anyone see this practice--reading the Bible during mealtimes--employed?

The closest thing I regularly experience with this attending to the reading of the Word is Lectio Divina, called "dwelling in the Word" at my church. When we dwell in the Word we read a passage from the bible three times, with silence between each reading. After the third reading we then share what we heard in the reading of God's Word.

Finally, one of the things that caught my attention in the passage above was Verse 6: "The brothers should by turn serve one another's needs as they eat and drink, so that no one need ask for anything."

I waited tables during college and grad school. And the mark of good service was anticipation. I'm bringing a refill before you even ask, before you even know you need a refill. A good server is anticipating the needs of the guests. Benedict wants this anticipation because if you anticipate you don't have to ask, don't have to talk and break the silence. But beyond silence, learning to anticipate the needs of others is a profoundly formative practice.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

2 thoughts on “Fridays with Benedict: Chapter 38, Attention and Anticipation”

  1. Many women in general are very good at this "anticipation" you speak of. Dr. Carl Bracheen used to say that men have no sticky antenna, but women do and have a special ability to see and do even before most men even realize a need of others.

  2. I stayed at a silent Benedictine monastery in New Mexico once where there was reading at mealtimes, but it wasn't the Bible -- it was some other religious text that I don't recall. There is a larger library to choose from these days than there was in Benedict's time, I imagine.

Leave a Reply