Monday, August 18, 2014

CHAPTER 51: When a Monk is Away on a Short Journey

A brother who is sent out on any business is expected to return to the monastery the same day, and may not presume to eat his meals away from the monastery, even if he is urgently requested to do so.  The abbot, of course, may grant exceptions to this rule, but if the monk disobeys, let him be excommunicated.

      Excommunication for eating out?  Seriously?  Can it really be that big of a deal?
Actually, yes.
      Meals are sacred events in a monastery—as indeed they have been for millennia all over the world.  In ancient Greece, if you had dinner with someone, it meant that you were lifelong allies.  They called this relationship Xenia (from xenos, meaning ‘friend’ or ‘stranger’), and it was the most sacred bond between two persons—as sacred as a marriage bond.  After sharing a meal with someone, you were obliged to protect him and his family for the rest of your life.  Your children and his children were also bound by this covenant, and so on for generations.  The entire Trojan War was started because Paris violated Xenia in Menelaus’ home.  
      Today, we tend to see meals as more functional than ritual.  Perhaps “fast food” has done this to us.  Grace before and after meals has gone out of fashion.  We bolt down a hamburger or a pizza in front of the television.  At breakfast we read the paper or play with our cell phones.  Not a lot of communication goes on.  And since eating out is so easy and so cheep, we do it often.
     But living in any community is difficult, and friendship requires communication.  Whether that community is composed of three people or thirty, there are going to be personalities that clash.  And you will be tempted to run away from them.  But if you’re going to love someone—and your foremost obligation is to love your family—then you need to be willing to hang out with them even when they annoy you.  For this reason, Saint Benedict sets fixed times for prayers and meals when the brethren simply must be together.
     No excuses.  Breakfast in bed, dinner out with a friend, a meal or two in your room while you read a book…all these exceptions are strictly forbidden to the monk because, over time, they begin to add up, and before you know it, every monk is out on his own—and the monks with the richest friends eat the richest food.
     You may prefer to eat dinner in front of the television, or to text your friends while you shovel Corn Flakes into your mouth, but if you make a habit of that, you’ll soon find that you have lost touch with the people who matter most.