Modern regulae

The refectory of Lewes Priory © Andy Gammon 2010

Chapter 38 of the monastic Rule of St Benedict stipulates:

‘Reading will always accompany the meals of the brothers’.

Reading in medieval refectories or dining halls was very common, not to say it was the rule. While the monks dined, another used to read a passage from a sacred or monastic text, like the Bible or the writings of the Church Fathers.

Eating and listening were part of a sacramental experience. Hearing the Word of God and eating the gifts of the Earth were juxtaposed in the same sacral moment.

That moment we laymen never get to experience. The modern regula, the Rule, is to turn the TV on, that speaker on the lectern, and listen and watch it as we eat. We are a different kind of congregation, poised to absorb something, anything. We stream, but the words stream to us in waves of immanence.

Silence is not a value in our culture. Quietness, however much we crave it at times of high anxiety, is not something we desire for the rest of the time. We find our refuge in nature, but is it really a refuge? No sooner had we touched it with our fingertips that we long for the crowds, and the noise, and the options to choose from.

The medieval monk feared distraction, which was, for many traditions, a grave sin. We have the intuition of the deleterious effects of boredom, but the only strategy against it is, for us, an immersion into more distraction. In Romanian, the word for entertainment is ‘distracție’, whose root is the same as the English distraction. Dis- tragere, dragging apart. We are dragged apart in the hope of reaching a centre, but the more we drag, the farther we get away from ourselves.

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