Tuesday, January 5, 2010

January 6 - In the Refectory, Part II

In most houses of monasticism, decorations are kept at a minimum. The eyes are curious, says the Novice Mistress, and they will feast on many things rather than humbling themselves to let the heart gaze upon the Lord.

There was, at one time, in a Carmelite refectory, at the head table where the Abbess sits, a very distinct knickknack. The Abbess’s table was “decorated” by a human skull. Vatican II changed many things, and this practice may have gone the way of some of them, but its monastic understanding is of interest to us.

This centerpiece gave most new postulants pause! From their first meal, at every meal, and on a small table in miniature replica in their cells, the Sisters were confronted by the reminder that we are not destined to live forever on this planet. Rather than a grim representation of the worm of death, the skull served to help the postulant begin to think in terms of the shortness of life in comparison with the length of eternity. Over time, the fleeting glory of the earth and even her own flesh would become subject to the nearness of the kingdom of heaven and the lasting joys that await. Her mind would transform. Transformation is the rule of every day and every custom.

In many traditional refectories, meals are eaten in silence. There is no chatty atmosphere to obfuscate the cranial stare. One nun observed that she waited in vain for a special feast when talking would be permitted, only to find that those events come on no other occasions than the Jubilee Anniversaries of the professed nuns!

The refectory isn’t completely without voice throughout every meal, however. An hebdomadaria is assigned who, at times and in a strong, clear voice, reads pages from uplifting texts and homilies. It isn’t The Shopping Network, on in the background, but the nuns grow to love and appreciate this inspiriting accompaniment to their meals.

The staring head was there to remind each Sister that the day would come when her place would be taken by another. The communal silence would continue, the meals might remain much the same, the reader would still clear her voice and begin, but each nun would vacate her seat one day, and vacate her flesh as well.

They think heaven is monastic in this regard, that every intention and act of every moment is for and toward the Lord God. With that in mind, even as they feed their bodies in life, they travel in silence, in song, in service, submission, supplication and stewardship, toward death.

". . . we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:8)

The End of Day
Photo by Kerry

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