While the brethren are eating, someone should read aloud from a book. But the reader should not be just anyone who happens to wander along; let the one who is to read begin on Sunday and continue for the whole week. After Mass and Communion let him ask everyone to pray for him that God may ward off the spirit of pride. And let the following verse be said three times by all in the chapel: ‘Lord, open my lips that my mouth may declare your praise’(Psalm 51.15), and so having received the blessing let him begin.
While he is reading, the deepest silence should be kept so that no whispering or voice is heard except that of the reader alone. But let the brethren help one another to the various dishes, so that no one need ask for anything. Thus, when a monk wants something, let him request it by means of a sign of some kind rather than a sound.
Silence is so important to monks that they don’t even talk while they’re eating. Instead, one of them reads from a book while the others quietly have their meal. Saint Benedict even stipulates that the brethren should use sign language rather than whisper when they need something. In my monastery, we have special signs for milk, water, bread, butter, starch, salt, pepper, and so on. The sign for water is three fingers. The sign for starch is a closed fist. We even have a sign for ketchup, which we make by dragging the right forefinger across the left wrist. It’s weird, but it works. And it shows that we really mean it when we say that silence is precious.
The weekly reader, on the other hand, talks all the way through the meal, because that is his job. He needs to be careful, though, because that much talking can be an occasion for all sorts of sin, particularly pride. This is a common struggle for ministers of all sorts; because there can be a real temptation, when you’re good at something, to take credit for it—or worse yet, to put yourself at the center of your ministry. Have you ever watched a priest say mass like he was hosting a talk show (“Well hello, everyone!!!! How are we all this morning!!!! The Lord be with you!!!!!”). Every sentence has to have at least two exclamation points at the end of it. (Lift up your hearts!!!! Let us give thanks to the Lord Our God!!!!!) Years ago, I belonged to a parish where the cantor sang every hymn like he was Frank Sinatra. The whole experience became an exercise in frustration, because liturgy isn’t about entertainment, and it isn’t about us. It’s about God, and redirecting our gaze toward Him.
When the minister himself keeps inserting himself between us and God, we get angry. So a good minister (like a good musician or a good writer or a good teacher...) knows in his heart that the ministry comes first—the message, the music, the story comes first—and the minister’s personality takes a far distant second. Granted, this is hard to do because we can only speak from our own experience. But if we pray hard, the Holy Spirit should make up for our weakness.
Mother Theresa used to refer to herself as “God’s pencil stub.” She didn’t deny that she was doing great work, but she gave credit for that work to Holy Spirit, Who held the pencil. “Will the axe boast over the one who swings it?” said the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 10:15). You may be sharp, but give credit where credit is due. And if you want your creation to last, don’t build it around yourself. Build it around Christ.