But, if monastics do not come to table before the verse so that all may say the verse and pray and sit down at table together, and if this failure happens through their own negligence or fault, they should be reproved up to a second time. If they still do not amend, let them not be permitted to share the common table, but take their meals alone, separated from the company of all. Their portion of wine should be taken from them until there is satisfaction and amendment. Anyone not present for the verse said after meals is to be treated in the same manner.
No one is to presume to eat or drink before or after the time appointed. Moreover, if anyone is offered something by the prioress or abbot and refuses it, then, if the monastic later wants what was refused or anything else, that one should receive nothing at all until appropriate amends have been made.
This chapter advises that those repeatedly late and/or absent for community meals are to eat alone – the same recommendation given in chapter 24, named there as excommunication. Here, a consequence of separateness is given to those who have, for some reason, repeatedly separated themselves.
Prayer, or grace, before meals can be powerful. It is a gathering of awareness and relationship before the necessity of food, eaten together. The sharing of these necessities, food and the divine life, builds community; it is a commitment to each other, a recognition of the value of each other. To miss this time can reveal a different motivation, another priority. Maybe there was a knock at the door, maybe ‘nature called’ – circumstances that could not be avoided. These are different to a lateness or absence influenced by other, conscious, or unconscious motivations.
At mealtimes we are with those we want to avoid. This can be obvious, say, in families between siblings who might find it easier to avoid each other during the day. Here, shared meals, at table, are a time to practice civility and kindness, to do something together that we do not feel like doing. Community is about doing at least some daily things together, especially when feelings run contrary to the doing. During these times maturing happens, and an awareness of our motivations can rise. To miss times like these is to miss a time for growth.
Communal meals can also be a time of joy, a time when communion of hearts manifests in action and presence. These are times of profound and simple blessing. The verse, prayers done before and after a meal, recognises this and can open us to the possibility of blessing. Someone late to these, or missing them all together, is absent to the working of God in that time and that place; they miss blessing. Mealtime is a time to experience blessing, to get to know what blessing is, the inner movement of it in life.
The rule, in its rhythm, asks for a commitment to blessing and growth. Shared mealtimes are a manifestation of this commitment. Today though, for some of us, mealtimes have fallen away from what they could be; gathering people together for food can be like herding cats. Eating in front of the TV is not the same as eating in the presence of each other, nor is eating in separate rooms. Here the rule asks us to make a shared commitment to mealtimes as a time of growth and blessing, no matter how these may come – in challenge or in joy.
Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. (Matthew 14:13-21, NRSV)