April 9, August 9, December 9
The abbot’s table must always be with guests and travelers. Whenever there are no guests, it is within the abbot’s right to invite any monastic he wishes. However, for the sake of maintaining discipline, one or two seniors must always be left with the monks.
The physical spaces we live in and how they are arranged, can affect the ways we live with ourselves and others. Houses dedicated to just the needs of the people who live in them can encourage a tendency towards 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 and welcome.
In quite a few modern homes there is no dining area and no dining table. Perhaps there might be a breakfast bar, or maybe a smaller table with a couple of chairs. In some homes the dining room has become the entertainment and media room with a big TV. What can be lacking is a space dedicated to hospitality.
In this chapter the abbot is asked to model 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 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 if it is 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 communal. 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 and perspective shrink. A visitor or guest can be the ‘secret ingredient’ of any meal, the ingredient that makes the meal special.
The abbot 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 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. This can shift the dynamic, the energy, within the community. The same dynamic shift can be at work when a parent or a respected member of the family goes out of their way to sit with someone who is being forgotten, who needs some loving attention.
Similarly, the abbot of the rule can ask a member to not sit at the abbot’s table. Perhaps a community member might be needing a reminder about the importance of humility and other-centredness, or maybe their presence is needed in another part of the dining room. These relational needs can be evident wherever community is – amongst friends, in the family. In community, the life of love is to be preserved and made available to all regardless of personality and circumstance.
And when the energy of any table is inclusive, when there is a tangible sense of love, when attention is more on others and what they want, this is when everyone, especially guests, feel welcome. This is when ‘breaking bread’ together becomes eucharistic. Jesus is revealed as really present.
And as they were eating he took the bread, and when he had said the blessing he broke it, gave it to them and said, ‘Take it, this is my body.’ Then taking a cup, after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all drank from it, and he said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, poured out for many.’ (Mark 12:22-24, RNJB)