Thursday, March 09, 2006

How do we eat together?

As our monastery has increased from six brothers to eight in recent months, our refectory arrangment has become unsatisfactory. We rearranged the tables this past week, attempting to convey a clearer meaning about the way we eat together. First of all, we need a 'head table' from which the Prior presides; second, we prefer to have the brothers sit mainly on one side of the table, so that they can be served, rather than simply pass food around 'family style'; third, we want to include guests but at the same time keep a sense of cloister about the meal.

What we ended up with was perhaps even worse than that with which we had begun. Some brothers had their backs to the guests, who seemed quite isolated. There was a head table, but now the Prior and Subprior had almost no room and so felt as if pushed of to a corner. The arrangment will be redone again today, God willing.

I don't know how often we stop and reflect on how the arrangement at meals affects how we eat and what we are thereby communicating about community. Certainly, reformers of the liturgy pay a great deal of attention to this, which is why many remodelings of church buildings put the altar at the center (and then call it a table). Perhaps in some way they are trying to make up for the deficiency in family dinners. How many families sit down to eat together today? And when we do, how often is it at a restaurant where everyone gets to order what they want and not have to be content with what their mother or father or brother cooked? Speaking of restaurants, the next time you go into a McDonalds, ask yourself what their seating arrangement is about.

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