The Rule of Benedict and the Askesis of Service

In chapter 35 of The Rule of St. Benedict, the ordering of the weekly servers in the kitchen is described:

Let the brethren serve each other so that no one be excused from the work in the kitchen, except on account of sickness or more necessary work, because greater merit and more charity is thereby acquired. Let help be given to the weak, however, that they may not do this work with sadness; but let all have help according to the size of the community and the circumstances of the place. If the community is large, let the Cellarer be excused from the kitchen, or if, as we have said, any are engaged in more urgent work; let the rest serve each other in charity.

Let him who is to go out of the weekly service, do the cleaning on Saturday. Let him wash the towels with which the brethren wipe their hands and feet. Let him who goeth out, as well as him who is to come in, wash the feet of all. Let him return the utensils of his department to the Cellarer clean and whole. Let the Cellarer give the same to the one who cometh in, so that he may know what he giveth and what he receiveth back.

An hour before meal time let the weekly servers receive each a cup of drink and a piece of bread over the prescribed portion, that they may serve their brethren at the time time of refection without murmuring and undue strain. On solemn feast days, however, let them abstain till after Mass.

As soon as the morning office on Sunday is ended, let the weekly servers who come in and who go out, cast themselves upon their knees in the oratory before all, asking their prayers. Let him who goeth out of the weekly service, say the following verse: Benedictus es, Domine Deus, qui adjuvisti me et consolatus se me (Dan 3:52; Ps 85[86]:17). The one going out having said this three times and received the blessing, let the one who cometh in follow and say: Deus in adjutorium meum intende; Domine, ad adjuvandum me festina (Ps 69[70]:2). And let this also be repeated three times by all, and having received the blessing let him enter upon his weekly service.

And in chapter 38 is described the duties of the reader of the week:

Reading must not be wanting at the table of the brethren when they are eating. Neither let anyone who may chance to take up the book venture to read there; but let him who is to read for the whole week enter upon that office on Sunday. After Mass and Communion let him ask all to pray for him that God may ward off from him the spirit of pride. And let the following verse be said three times by all in the oratory, he beginning it: Domine, labia mea aperies, et os meum annuntiabit laudem tuam (Ps 50[51]:17), and thus having received the blessing let him enter upon the reading.

Let the deepest silence be maintained that no whispering or voice be heard except that of the reader alone. But let the brethren so help each other to what is needed for eating and drinking, that no one need ask for anything. If, however, anything should be wanted, let it be asked for by means of a sign of any kind rather than a sound. And let no one presume to ask any questions there, either about the book or anything else, in order that no cause to speak be given [to the devil] (Eph 4:27; 1 Tm 5:14), unless, perchance, the Superior wisheth to say a few words for edification.

Let the brother who is reader for the week take a little bread and wine before he beginneth to read, on account of Holy Communion, and lest it should be too hard for him to fast so long. Afterward, however, let him take his meal in the kitchen with the weekly servers and the waiters. The brethren, however, will not read or sing in order, but only those who edify their hearers.

Both of these passages were called to my attention in a letter I received this week.

When I was still an Epicopalian, in the summer of 1997, I became a member of the contraternity of St. Gregory’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastic community in the Episcopal Church. The last time I was at the abbey was in October 2002, but I still receive the abbey letter and the contraternity letter, both of which are usually a profitable read. Most recently, I was reading over the confraternity letter, and was struck by this paragraph.

One of many things I like about the Rule of Benedict is the way it brings to our attention the prayerful dimension of service we give, particularly as it relates to meals. This connection is made most strongly at Sunday dinner when we do the changing of the guard of table servers. First, the outgoing servers say: “Blessed are you, O Lord God, for you have helped and strengthened me.” (Psalm 86:17) Being the one who waits on the community and guests or the one who washes the dishes requires an effort that can easily get us down if we think only of ourselves. Thinking of the ones we serve and caring about them lightens the burden considerably. Most important, we need God’s sustaining care as we in turn care for others. Often we feel a sense of thanksgiving that last week’s job is finished, but we also give thanks to God for strengthening us during that time. The incoming table servers, looking ahead to the week, say: “O God make speed to save me; O Lord make haste to help me.” This opening verse of Psalm 70 also opens the Day Hours in church. This cry for God’s help was very popular with the early monastics in the fourth century and many of them repeated this verse throughout the day to keep them ever mindful of their need for God’s help. Since we follow the old monastic custom of listening to reading at meals, the reader of the week then says: “O Lord open my lips; and my mouth shall declare your praise.” (Psalm 51:17). AGain, God is called on to help, this time, in a spirit of penitence, this verse coming from the penitential psalm par excellence, as Benedict says that the reader is praying to be shielded from all vanity. Each of these verses are repeated by the whole community as a gesture of support of those who serve them. (Abbot Andrew, 23 March 2006 Confraternity letter)

This got me to thinking about my own home. I have resolved that as soon as our children are old enough, they will be assigned weekly chores in the home suitable to their age and responsibility. This was how it was in my own home growing up, my sisters and I rotating through household areas of responsibility (kitchen, laundry, bathrooms) as well as upholding our own various responsibilities (cleaning our own rooms, and so on).

As I reflected on this paragraph, it struck me that this is easily incorporated into the Christian home. On Sunday evening we can rotate the responsibilities with the above psalm-verse-prayers. A very simple “ceremony” which can serve to always focus me and my family on the loving service that is the heart of the Christian way of life.

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