Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Doing Dishes

1 The brothers should serve one another. Consequently, no one will be excused from kitchen service unless he is sick or engaged in some important business of the monastery, 2 for such service increases reward and fosters love.

9 Both the one who is ending his service and the one who is about to begin are to wash the feet of everyone.

15 On Sunday immediately after Lauds, those beginning as well as those completing their week of service should make a profound bow in the oratory before all and ask for their prayers. 16 Let the server completing his week recite this verse: Blessed are you, Lord God, who have helped me and comforted me (Dan 3:52; Ps 85[86]:17). 17 After this verse has been said three times, he receives a blessing. Then the one beginning his service follows and says: God, come to my assistance; Lord, make haste to help me (Ps 69[70]:2). 18 And all repeat this verse three times. When he has received a blessing, he begins his service
RB 35:1-4, 9, 15-18

She wasn’t especially familiar with the Rule but she lived it. Towards the end of her life, when her dementia grew steadily worse, Sr. Scholastica would often show up in her apron, ready to wash the pots and pans. Of course she would often show up long before or after the meal and had trouble remembering which job she was doing even when she was there. But service was in her bones, years of community life, teaching and prayer were so much a part of her that she wanted to serve even when there was little else she could do.

Sr. Scholastica’s service is the spirit of Benedict’s chapters on the kitchen servers of the week. Every week people are to be designated the kitchen helpers. They are to serve the meals, clean up, do the dishes and make sure a hungry community is fed promptly and efficiently.
This is the nitty-gritty of life in common. Someone has to get the food on the table, do the laundry and the dishes, clean up and make sure people’s needs are met. This chapter doesn’t contain the exalted language of ladder of humility, the compelling call of the Prologue or the challenge of obedience. Kitchen servers are about ordinary, everyday life.But Benedict always knows that the holy hides in the ordinary. Hidden in the most mundane chapters are little jewels of exquisite sacramentality.

The kitchen servers begin and end their week of service by washing the feet of every community member. This wasn’t a practical necessity, the monks would wash their own dirty feet when they needed to. In the weekly washing of the feet the monks would become Christ for one another. Every week they would become Jesus’ disciples. Were they worthy to have their feet washed by a holy brother? Could they be humble enough to allow someone who had hurt them deeply wash their feet? Could they become the presence of Christ and serve those whom they loved and those whom they detested?

Sister Scholastica was the first woman in our community to receive a Ph.D. When she came home she washed dishes beside those who may not have finished high school and spent their adult lives doing domestic work. She washed dishes with the newcomers and those, like her, who had lived this way of life for fifty years. There is a lot of time to reflect on service when “scratching” the pots and pans with baked on food, up to your elbows in dirty water. There are no distinctions in the pots and pans, there is only service.

But sometimes we need to be reminded that we did not come to monastic life because of our gifts and talents, we came to community to serve God and one another. Benedict reminded everyone of this reality every week. The Rule provides that the kitchen servers would rotate and every week in the oratory, in the heart of the monastery, everyone would gather and the servers of the week would be blessed and commissioned for their week of service.

Benedict’s ceremony of psalms, prayers and blessings was similar to the ceremony of novices making their life commitment to the monastery. Every week the whole community would gather and be reminded of why they came to the monastery, perhaps to be reminded that if they didn’t come to serve they shouldn’t stay. Those starting their week would recite the verse: “O God come to my assistance, O Lord make haste to help me,” the same verse that opens the hours of prayer. And kitchen service is a prayer, it is a prayer to a God who is not a distant king but a God who served and suffered and loved the very people who betrayed him. Those ending their service would recite the verse: “Blessed are you Lord God who have helped me and comforted me.” We do nothing on our own, coming to monastic life, staying, doing dishes or washing feet. We are sustained by God’s help and comfort not by our strength or determination.
Probably no one has ever come to the monastery because they want to wash the dishes. We come because we want to seek God. But we find is that God is there, in the pots and pans, in the feet we wash, when we reach the end of our life unable to remember anything except how to serve.

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