March 13, July 13, November 12
The monks should serve one another. Consequently, no one will be excused from kitchen service unless they are sick or engaged in some important business of the monastery, for such service increases reward and fosters love. Let those who are not strong have help so that they may serve without distress, and let everyone receive help as the size of the community or local conditions warrant. If the community is rather large, the cellarer should be excused from kitchen service, and, as we have said, those should also be excused who are engaged in important business. Let all the rest serve one another in love.
On Saturday the monk who is completing their work will do the washing. They are to wash the towels which the monks use to wipe their hands and feet. Both the one who is ending their service and the one who is about to begin are to wash the feet of everyone. The utensils required for the kitchen service are to be washed and returned intact to the cellarer, who in turn issues them to the one beginning their week. In this way the cellarer will know what they hand out and what they receive back.
The Life of St. Benedict, by St. Gregory the Great, begins with a young Benedict performing his first miracle – restoring a broken sieve, something most probably made of clay and used for sifting wheat. Here is the Benedictine emphasis on how we heal and how we are made whole: in the service of each other, humbly and practically. To serve is to love; to love is to heal and be healed.
It is in the household and the ordinary where we can love simply and clearly. In this we create community just as surely as in meditation. The ordinary is nothing fancy, not the ‘latest’ this or that. Ordinary things used in attentive ways nurture love. Community is practicing love in what we do for and with each other, even (or perhaps especially) when it is challenging.
The assigning of tasks gives all the opportunity to serve in ways they might not otherwise choose. Here community members have, once again, the chance to ‘love against the grain’ of personality, expectation, and temperament. This helps all become more open, whole, integrated people. And the members do what they can, with assistance as needed. Assigning tasks in this way makes the action of the Holy Spirit part of the daily routine. The doing of tasks not chosen can destabilise our resistance to God and life.
In this chapter, Benedict has the weekly kitchen servers wash the feet of the community. This brings to mind the story in John’s Gospel where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples (John 13:1-20). This story, too, has an emphasis on the importance of service: to do so for each other in ways ordinary and humble.
If we look at the rule’s feet washing through the lens of John’s Gospel story, it makes sense that, in a Christian community, feet washing could be a regular occurrence. The repetition of this story grounds us in Jesus’ spirit of service and has us loving each other via an assigned task – one assigned by Jesus himself.
Communal feet washing is also the example of L’Arche, an example that the WCCM has, on occasions, followed. If we were to do this on a regular basis, as the rule has it, when could this foot washing be done? A meditating community could follow the rule and do it weekly, perhaps on a Sunday. Weekly groups could also include it in some way, as appropriate. Oblates could wash each other’s feet during their annual retreats.
Just as the mantra is a practical depthing in love, so is attending to the washing of each other’s feet. We give this simple act our attention. When the mind is distracted or wanders, we gently re-give attention – to the sensations, the feelings, without analysis, and with self-consciousness gently fading. Meditation and feet washing are two simple ways communities grow in love.
When he had washed their feet he put on his outer garments and reclined again at the table. He said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and rightly, for so I am. If I, then, the Teacher and Master, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one other’s feet. I have given you an example so that as I have done to you, you also should do. (John 13:12-15, RNJB)