Reading will always accompany the meals. The reader should not be the one who just happens to pick up the book, but someone who will read for a whole week, beginning on Sunday. After Mass and Communion, let the incoming reader ask all to pray so that God may shield them from the spirit of vanity. Let the reader begin this verse in the oratory: “O God, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise” (Ps. 51:17), and let all say it three times. When they have received a blessing, they will begin their week of reading.
Let there be complete silence. No whispering, no speaking – only the readers voice should be heard there. The members should by turn serve one another’s needs as they eat and drink, so that no one need ask for anything. If, however, anything is required, it should be requested by an audible signal of some kind rather than by speech. No one should presume to ask a question about the reading or about anything else “lest occasion be given to the devil” (Eph. 4:27; 1 Tim. 5:14). The abbot or prioress, however, may wish to say a few words of instruction.
Because of Communion and because the fast may be too hard for them to bear, the one who is reader of the week is to receive some diluted wine before beginning to read. Afterward they will take their meal with the weekly kitchen servers and the attendants.
Monastics will read and sing, not according to rank, but according to their ability to benefit their hearers.
The rule continually uses practical and ordinary ways to shape a gentle and consistent coming to awareness of each other, divinity, and who we are in this divinity. This chapter, in setting up a dynamic between listening and mealtimes, helps the community to experience where their attention is and what might be getting in the way of simply being now, conscious.
The invitation of this chapter is to remain in the moment of listening to the words as they are read. Eating need not be self-conscious; mealtime can be a time when we attend to what is being read for our consolation, our challenge, our education, our enjoyment.
Here, the community, as community, practice the art of remaining in the moment together. Christ is only in the moment. If we cannot remain in the moment, we cannot remain (conscious) in Christ. Distraction cuts attention off from the divine life that is always with us. This is why it is vital that contemplatives as Christians use whatever is being done as a way to remain now. While shining your shoes, for example, be attentive to this act rather than thinking about next week. While the weekly reader is reading, be attentive to the words. Anything being done now can be a way to remain now. Attention to the mantra teaches us this.
So too, the reader attends to the words they are reading. The reader is a voice for the words; they do not give an opinion while they read, implicitly or explicitly. The reader is not in the spotlight, despite the task. The words read are the object of attention. While vanity may say otherwise, any impression being made is to be done by the words themselves. A good reader stays out of the way of the words they read.
This kind of reading is a practice in going beyond the ego. A heathy ego connects with others in non-obtrusive ways; it does not point a finger towards itself. Perhaps though, while reading, there is a craving, however hidden, for attention, to be noticed and complimented. However, this reading, like reading at church or reading for our children, is a loving service rather than the satisfaction of desire. Here is another way to experience the dynamics of the ego in the everyday (without thinking about it). In this way, going ‘against the grain’ of the ego, we continue to practice other-centredness.
While at table are we mindful of the needs of others? After using the salt, for example, do we place it in the middle of the table for others to see and use or just place it down immediately in front of our plate? Little things like this show where attention is. The table, then, is also a place to practice a very practical other-centredness.
The silence that Benedict asks for is for no speaking or whispering. However, is this all that silence is? Cutlery clinking on plates and bowls, as well as the sounds of food service, while not distracting at other times, may be a distraction as the reader reads. Mealtime with a reader can be a time to notice the noise we make that goes unnoticed at other times. In this way, the rule invites self-knowledge. And after the reader has finished, all that is left just might be a deeper silence.
You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:22-24, NRSV)