To be read: April 2, August 2, December 2
A brother who is sent out on any business and is expected to return to the monastery the same day, may not presume to eat outside, even if he is urgently invited to do so, 2unless, indeed, it is commanded him by his Abbot. 3If he act otherwise, he will be excommunicated.
Again Saint Benedict emphasizes the importance of belonging to the community. The reason the monk must return to the monastery is so that he may eat with the other members of the community. To eat outside the monastery would rob the monk of the fellowship of the community. Today, we live in an age of incredible individualism. We jealously guard our private time; and that is understandable, because it is extremely rare to have that time. And the time we do have in our days is consumed with work, family, and other obligations. As a result, it is not uncommon for us to grab a quick bite at a fast food restaurant and eat alone at our desk or in the car. And it seems that in our culture we are quickly losing any sense that eating with others means sharing our lives and spiritual communion with each other. To linger over a meal is too often perceived as “wasted time”. Miranda and I try to eat dinner together every day, but as an introvert I am quite happy most of the time to eat my lunch alone. When I am honest, I can admit that I cherish that privacy and solitude. But the practice of solo dining, if left unchecked, can cut us off from our family and the other members of the faith community.
What Benedict is suggesting here is that our communal meals are opportunities to deepen the sacramental character of our community. Whenever possible, I try to arrange counseling times, and visits with my parishioners over a meal, or a the least a cup of coffee. The food itself is not important, it is the quality time spent in spiritual union during the meal. To slow down and sip a cup of coffee, or relax over a common meal, opens avenues for genuine fellowship and spiritual union. Jesus often met with the ones to whom He was ministering over a meal (e.g. Matt. 9:10; 26:7; Luke 5:29; 11:37; 19:5). The act of breaking bread together draws us into a deeper fellowship. It is in that sense an outward sign of an inward grace, i.e. a sacramental act. The Pharisees couldn’t understand this. They asked Jesus’ disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matt. 9:11; Mark 2:16; Luke 5:30). Jesus ate with them so that the Holy Spirit could work in that situation, often bringing conviction on the participants in the meal, but equally often opening the door to spiritual enlightenment.
Is it wrong to “presume to eat outside”? Or to have a quiet, private, uninterrupted meal? No. But, to make a habit of avoiding opportunities for fellowship, and breaking bread with a brother or sister, is spiritually unhealthy. As the song says, “Let us break bread together” and enjoy the company of the saints in a common meal.