This past weekend I was on a winter retreat with my faith community. There were 21 of us stuffed into a 4-bedroom chalet in the mountains. It was amazing to see how gracious and patient people were with each other. One person volunteered to sleep in the laundry room. Others offered to help out in the kitchen even if they were not scheduled to assist with cooking or cleaning. Our hosts welcomed us with huge smiles, hugs, and kisses. They silently served us in many ways: not only did they let us take over their chalet, but after a snowy night, we awoke to find that our cars had all been brushed off, ready for the trip home. I don't remember hearing any complaints over the weekend. We cooked together, we ate together, we went on a winter hike, we frolicked on the frozen lake, we drank tea by the fire, we played games, we had times of silence, we worshipped God together, and we prayed for each other.
Our last meal together was a variation of a monk meal. In a monastic community, meals are eaten in silence. Many times, someone reads an inspirational text while the group eats. One also has to be attentive to the needs of others, making sure that everyone has access to food and drink. The goal of the monastic meal is to help us to focus not just on our bodily needs, but to be attentive to nourishing our spirits and to be mindful of the needs of others around us. There are a few things that I notice every time I participate in a monk meal.
First, the noise of serving and eating a meal always surprises me. A monk meal is never truly silent. Today, I was thinking about music played in restaurants. I suppose that aside from creating a certain ambiance, it is meant to diminish the voices of people around you so that you feel you have some privacy. Maybe it is also meant to camouflage the noise of eating. Perhaps it mostly reveals how unsettling we find silence and what it might require of us.
Second, participating in a monk meal always makes me realize how far we fall short of selfless service and devotion. Meals have become very much about our own needs, our own consumption. How does one eat a meal to the glory of God? I don't exactly know, but I think the monk meal can give us some clues as to how we can re-prioritize our meal times to reflect our devotion to God, and with much more than a token prayer of thanks tossed in at the beginning.
Third, I always come away with a sense that I need to learn to listen better. I find it difficult to listen to someone read while I am eating. I suppose that is why I volunteer to do much of the reading when we have a monk meal. This last weekend, I read an article entitled, "The 7 Habits of People Who Place Radical Trust in God." To me, this article echoes much of what the monk meal is about: to help us get more in sync with the kingdom of God and less entangled in the values of our current culture. The 7 habits, according to Jennifer Fulwiler, are: 1) They accept suffering, 2) They accept the inevitability of death, 3) They have daily appointments with God, 4) In prayer, they listen more than they talk, 5) They limit distractions, 6) They submit their discernment to others, and 7) They offer the Lord their complete, unhesitating obedience. You can read the whole article by Jennifer Fulwiler here.
The word monk comes from the root monos which simply means "single." While in most cases it denotes an unmarried life, it also implies a single-minded devotion to Christ and Christ's community. Yes, let my devotion be single. And let me embrace the discipline of listening today. Speak Lord, I am listening.
the photo: some of our group at the lookout point of Mont Sourire.