Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Everyday Life: Table Conversation

1Reading will always accompany the meals of the brothers. 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. 5Let there be complete silence. No whispering, no speaking—only the reader’s voice should be heard there. RB 38

At a conference I attended a sister from a very traditional, enclosed community was talking about table conversation in her monastery. “Sometimes I swear, if I hear one more sister talk about the cows I’m going to scream.” One of the ways her community supported itself was through raising cattle on its land. As a result the antics of the cows, which ones got out, recent births, deaths, prices, personalities and feeding habits, tended to dominate the dinner table conversation.

Personally, it was all I could do not to stand up and say “Yes! At last someone is talking about the problem of insipid supper conversations at monastic meals!” Up to that point I was afraid that ours was the only monastery with an abysmally low level of edifying conversation at meals. Of course it also shattered my illusions that perhaps at least at more contemplative monasteries members would somehow be imbued with a deeper level of spirituality and would live in a rarified atmosphere of profound conversations about God.

At our monastery we don’t talk about the cows, but there are times when I wonder whether talking about cows might be a scintillating change. We regularly talk about the weather of course. In fact we can manage to spend all of dinner comparing the precipitation this year and last year, the forecast for the coming week, the general accuracy of forecasts, whether the farmers need rain or sun or snow or anything else, and on and on and on.

Of course the weather is rivaled only by the popular topic of speculation about guests. Even in a monastery with frequent guests, and Benedict noted in his Rule that a monastery will never be without guests, the popular sport of wondering about guests never seems to lose its attraction. “So who is that woman over at the next table, is she a retreatant? a relative? a guest? where is she from? what does she do? how long will she be here? Even the barest piece of information can be stretched out into endless speculation with only a minimal need for actual facts.

I used to be deeply frustrated and not a little exasperated by the level of conversation. We are monastics, can’t we talk about something more profound or at least a little less trivial? But I also gradually came to notice what would happen when the same guests or retreatants whom we speculated about at length would begin to talk about their spiritual life at the supper table. People whom we didn’t know, who were only passing through, would sometimes share the most profound, intimate experiences of God’s work in their lives. Total strangers would begin sharing their deep loneliness, hunger for God, the joy of sensing a unity with the transcendent that they experienced in our chapel, on our hill, or in a spiritual direction conference. Strangely enough these conversations tended to be a little disturbing, somewhat voyeuristic, as if this guest had suddenly stripped naked or started talking about their intimate relationships with their spouse.

All of us have come to the monastery to seek God. In that sense those of us who are sisters are not unusual. Most people have a relationship with God, they go to Church, read Scripture, pray and believe in the basic tenants of faith. But at the same time, as monastics we profess to be different, we intentionally put God at the center of our life and orient our life around the unseen but absolutely real presence of God. This desire for God and our willingness to lead a life so different from most other people is what drives us, sets us apart, and is the guiding principle of our life. But this seeking God, centering our life around this quest, is also deeply, profoundly personal. For those of us who have professed celibacy it is the most intimate part of our life. To us God is not a matter of belief but of relationship, God is who we know and not simply what we believe. And unlike people who visit for a little while, that relationship is meant to be absolute and exclusive.

Perhaps that is why we talk about the weather. It isn’t easy to talk about the deepest longings of your heart over mashed potatoes. It is hard to express your most profound sense of connectedness with God in the presence of people you see in the bathroom every day. Pouring out the most intimate details of your soul and then going to a meeting about a new list of house chores can be very disconcerting. We live in community, with one another, every day, day in and day out, year after year. We share virtually every aspect of our lives. Maybe that is why it is so hard to share the deepest parts of ourselves, I don’t know, but it helps me to understand why we may need to talk about the cows or the weather.

Benedict, who as always was very wise, mandated table reading in his monastery. A reader, someone who could “edify” the hearers and not just anyone who picked up a book, would read appropriate material at the meals and the monks would keep silence. We don’t do that anymore, we tend to think that this practice is detrimental to the building up of relationships in community. Perhaps. Our world certainly has little in common with Benedict’s. But Benedict also knew that the interior landscape of our heart is a very fragile place, this deep interior space where God comes to dwell cannot stand too much traffic, the heavy footprints, poking and prodding of expression, our relationship with God, grows best away from the forced intimacy of casual conversation.

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