Let the Abbot’s table always be with guests and travellers…
Some time ago one of our Meditatio House community members was going along to house inspections with the intention of buying a house. In one of these houses there was no dining room. In fact the only place to eat together at table was a small breakfast bar with just two chairs at the end of a long kitchen bench. As more houses were inspected, this arrangement was often repeated in some way. It was rare to see a room only for dining, a room focused on the communal experience that dining together in a dedicated space can foster.
Often these houses did not have a very hospitable feel to them. They were devoid of a place of welcome – even if it be just two chairs in a corner with a coffee table. The energetic focus seemed to be only on the residents, with little or no conscious inclusion of the potential visitor or guests.
The physical spaces we live in and how they are arranged, can affect the ways in which we live with ourselves and others. Whole houses dedicated to just the perceived needs of the people who live in them can encourage an unhealthy tendency towards introspection and egoism. If there are spaces dedicated to hospitality, then these spaces, even if they go unused for long periods of time, can still remind us of the importance of being people of hospitality.
In this chapter the Abbot is asked to model this hospitality through the act of sharing their table with visitors and travellers. It is this table that is to be the physical space of mealtime welcome, the space absent in many houses today.
It is important that the community leader, as well as other seniors at the Abbot’s table, set the example for other community members. Their actions and attitudes towards guests set the tone, the hospitable atmosphere. This is how is it is in any group wanting to be more than just the group. Something is lacking in the group itself if it does not maintain an actively welcoming stance and space. This group is never fully community. The group is serving itself with no real sense that visitors can bring life and blessing and a new perspective. Any family, church, or workplace without this sense can see its spirit slowly shrink. A visitor or guest can be the ‘secret ingredient’ of any meal, the ingredient that makes the meal special.
The Rule follows the Christian injunction that the visitor, the guest, embodies Christ (see especially chapter 53 of The Rule). The person who seems to be, at first, a stranger – both to the community and to our inner experience – can end up being (in short time) someone deeply familiar to us. Perhaps the wise and loving life of Christ within us may also be experienced as strange(r) in some way. The risk of welcoming the stranger can be the same flavour of risk we take in welcoming the Christ within us.
Guests and travellers are honoured by the community through the invitation to sit at the Abbot’s table. At Meditatio House, when both guests and Fr. Laurence Freemen (the current director of The WCCM) are at table for lunch, Laurence will be seated at one end of the table with seats on either side nearest to him for guests. To leave these seats for guests is a practical act of other-centredness for the rest of the house community. Small, simple actions like this can be significant in the development of a humble life. A humble life develops as we do these practical things less and less from the ego and it’s (at times) self-centred perspective, focusing attention more on the lives of others. Guests often come bearing this gift of humility for any community or family.
…but when there are no guests he [sic] has the right to invite any of the brothers [sic] he wishes to.
The Abbot of the Rule also has an influential act to perform when guests and travellers are absent: they can welcome anyone of the community to the table. In this way the Abbot can perhaps ‘short-circuit’ unhealthy dynamics in the community. Someone, for example, may be being overlooked (for whatever reason) in the relational life of the community. A wise, loving, and observant Abbot can know this and invite this community member to eat with them and the seniors. Invitations to sit at the ‘leadership table’ can shift the dynamic, the energy, within the community.
It is assumed that when a senior needed, for some reason, to be amongst the rest of the community, they would be sent from the leadership table. Perhaps a senior, or a priest, was seen by the community leader (and their fellow seniors) as in need of a reminder about the importance of a humble stance. Or perhaps others at other tables needed the presence of seniors wise in the ways of love. Perhaps even the Abbot would move table, and so reveal the depth of humility necessary to hold an effective position of spiritual leadership.
Any guest can feel welcome when the energy of any table is inclusive, when there is a palpable sense of love, when attention is more on others. This is when ‘breaking bread’ together, for the Christian, becomes eucharistic. Jesus is revealed as really present.