Monastic Customs—Reading at Meals

Sr. Judith Miryam reading at our evening meal.

One of the monastic customs that elicits an often negative reaction is that of reading at meals. For some, the idea that ordinarily we don't talk to each other seems just short of horrific! More than once the reaction has been, "Oh, I couldn't stand that!"

Aspirants are sometimes anxious about this, too. When they see the set up of the refectory some aspirants get really nervous about the idea that they will be sitting across from another sister on the other side of the room but not exchanging pleasantries. But it only takes one or two meals before they are not only used to it but well, rather like it.

This photo from several years ago shows our refectory.

There is deep significance to meals in the monastery. Our constitutions remind us that, "the nuns should keep in mind that just as they share together in the Eucharistic Bread, they should also partake of their bodily food as a sign of sisterly communion."

Our refectory is parallel to our Choir emphasising this connection. We are seated in the refectory in a similar fashion to the Choir. Our refectory ceremonies, although simple, place our meals within a liturgical context. Graces change with the liturgical seasons and whether it is a ferial day, feast or solemnity.

Before we go into the kitchen to get our meals (God willing, by the end of the year this will change and everything will be served in the refectory) we sit and listen to a portion of the scripture reading of the day highlighting the primacy of the Word of God feeding our souls. For we "do not live by bread alone."

Reading during meals while the sisters listen in silence fosters the unity of the whole person, "so that not only their bodies may be refreshed with food, but their minds also may be strengthened with the word of God." (Constitutions)

Refectory reading might be challenging at times but it is never dull. Usually, for the noon meal, our main meal of the day, we listen to taped lectures. Currently, we are listening to the lectures from our US monasteries on different themes from the Letters of St. Paul. The Internet also provides us with a new (and free!) source for lectures, especially from our Brethren.

In the evening we read something more on the light side—usually a biography, current newsletters from the Order, a magazine article that a sister thinks the community would be interested in or the text of a homily or lecture that someone though we would enjoy. The latter, rarely turns out to be "light reading" but is often is the springboard for some animated discussions during recreation!

While these readings and recording nourish our minds (and can even distract the sister who loathes lentil loaf!) they also provide the community with a source of ongoing formation and shared study.

At the evening meal on Sundays and special feast days we listen to music instead. Usually it is some sort of classical or sacred music (chant, polyphony, Russian, Ukrainian rite, etc.) and the choices try to reflect the liturgical season. While primarily relaxing, music also is important in feeding our minds and hearts and listening together provides a way to culturally enrich the community. We all enjoy this while at the same time quite opinionated on the choices!