In Chapter 38 of his Rule, Saint Benedict stipulates, The meals of the brethren should not be without reading. And so, at the midday meal we eat in silence as one of the monks reads to us. usually there is a substantial book, alternating spiritual subjects with history or biography; it’s not unusual for us to interrupt a book with articles or shorter essays directly related to monastic values or agenda we’re dealing with as a community.
Once again reading is accompanying the evening meal of our guests in the Retreat House. Br. Stephen of happy memory always read to the retreatants. He was also famous for extrapolating upon the reading with his lively and ironic commentaries. As one of our veteran guests told me, no matter how many times she’d been here on retreat, she heard Br. Stephen starting the same reading but she never heard the end of it, his on-going commentary being so all consuming. However, she did have a lot of laughs. There are monastic precedents: Chapter 38 itself says that the superior may perhaps wish to say something briefly for the purpose of edification in regard to the reading. If St. Benedict specifies “briefly”, Br. Steve’s lengthy remarks still have monastic parallels; when St. Anselm, a Benedictine monk, was Archbishop of Canterbury, and Canterbury Cathedral was then part of a Benedictine Abbey; the great scholar couldn’t contain himself from lecturing on the refectory reading. That’s one way to keep your weight down, I suppose.
At present we’re reading a book from just a few years back, Crossing: Reclaiming the Landscape of Our Lives, by Mark Barrett, a Benedictine monk of Worth Abbey in England. The success of the Book was something of a surprise to its author. He had structured his reflections according to the hours of the Divine Office and was so surprised how well that spoke to the average reader. To give you an example, Vigils allows him to introduce our reluctance to engage the demands of the spiritual life, despite our best intentions–not unlike the reluctance of a sleeping monk to heed his alarm at some ungodly hour to rise for Vigils. Midday Prayer, when we break our routine and inefficiently ignore the demands of work for a few minutes, faces us with the disillusionment and discouragement of the day. How do we pick up the pieces and get on with it?
At each step, Mark Barrett draws upon the collective wisdom of monastic spirituality, Saint Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries, the sayings of the Desert Fathers, the Gospels themselves, the insights of artists and poets and the universal spiritual disciplines of the world’s great religions. He (quite rightly) connects the dots between down-to-earth human experience and monastic spirituality.
So often our guests at the Retreat House, after a fruitful week with us, puzzle how they can bring the experience home. Clearly, they won’t find the silence and solitude or the idyllic rural setting or a choir of monks in their everyday lives. But listening to a book like Crossing, they may perceive that the monastic day is not terribly unlike the demands of their own daily responsibilities. It’s not the schedules and clothing that make the monk or nun, it’s a perspective on life, the trust of meeting God in the everyday. That is certainly something everyone can take home.