of Eating Together”
A Review of
Around the Monastic Table:
Growing in Mutual Service and Love.
by Aquinata Böckmann.
Reviewed by Chris Smith
“To do rightly the practice of breaking bread together is a matter of economic ethics”
— John Howard Yoder, from Body Politics.
At one level, Aquinata Böckmann’s new book, Around the Monastic Table: Growing in Mutual Service and Love, is a fairly technical monastic commentary on twelve brief chapters of The Rule of St. Benedict. And yet, this volume is one of the most significant and engaging works in recent memory on the ethics of food and eating within the life of the Church community. Around the Monastic Table is not just about food, but rather the economy and form of a life that is centered around a community of God’s people who break bread together. Thus, even Benedict’s broader economic reflections on questions like how the tools and resources of the monastery should be shared or whether a monk should have any possessions of his own, in Böckmann’s words, reflect “the image of the common meal” (3). Each chapter of Around the Monastic Table (with one key exception that we will address later) exposits a single chapter from the passage of Benedict’s Rule on which Böckmann has chosen to focus. In these chapters, she examines our contemporary context into which the specific passage is read, the sixth-century context in which it was written, and the textual context within the Rule where the passage occurs. She them overviews the passage as a whole and finally spends the bulk of the chapter in a phrase-by-phrase exegesis of the passage’s meaning. Although this rigid approach is typical of academic textual commentaries, Böckmann seems never to get bogged down in the minutia of the text, but – perhaps driven by the monastic practice of lectio divina – she ultimately focuses on the ethical significance of each phrase.
The first five chapters of the passage from Benedict’s Rule (chapters 31-42) that Böckmann addresses deal with general economic issues of the community. First, Benedict gives the qualifications for the monastery’s cellarer (Chapter 31), the monk whose job it was to dispense the food and resources of the community. The next three chapters address the resources of the monastery, how they were to be understood and allocated. The fifth chapter addresses the weekly rotation of “kitchen servers” and gives form to the process of preparing and serving the community’s meals. The next two chapters (36-37) address the care with which marginal groups within the monastic community are to be served: first the sick (Chapter 36) and then the aged monks and children (37). After her exploration of Chapter 37, Böckmann inserts an introduction to “the common meal,” which will be the central theme of the remaining five chapters of her selected passage from the Rule. This interspersed chapter is in my opinion itself worth the price of the book and is the heart which pulses lifeblood throughout the whole of Böckmann’s text. She begins with a brief, but powerful critique of our contemporary Western practices of eating meals. She begins:
Without exaggerating, we can state that, compared to earlier times, meals in our society have but a minimal role. In the family the importance of the common meal keeps diminishing as everyone eats the food they need (or more) alone, especially in the morning, but more and more also at noon. And because of the various activities outside the house, the evening meal is often also eaten at different times by each family member (181)
She proceeds to critique the idea of a “self-service” meal where we each choose the foods that we would like to eat, noting that such practices lead to unhealthy eating and sometimes even to eating disorders. She then goes on to contrast the individualistic eating practices of our times with the traditional common meal of the monastic community, and even critiques the ways in which many present-day monasteries have had their eating practices shaped by larger cultural demands. Surveying the practices of eating in Scripture and various eras of monastic history, Böckmann concludes by offering for our reflection five essential themes that undergird the monastic practice of the common meal:
- Emphasis on the table and its connection to the Eucharistic table (koinonia)
- Emphasis on community
- Emphasis on the discipline of eating (or fasting) at set times
- Eating alone is a punishment and the food is not blessed
- The danger of eating or drinking too much lurks everywhere (199)
The last five chapters of the book address the role of the monk whose turn it was to read during the meal (38), the proper amount of food and drink to be served (39-40), when the meal was to eater (41) and the practice of silence after the evening (compline) prayers. It is striking that in these chapters on the common meal (or anywhere in the book, really) there is very little said about the ethics of what was eaten. Böckmann does at one point have a brief sidebar on the traditional Benedictine practice of not eating meat from four-legged animals, and she also notes in the middle overview chapter that traditionally the monks would grow or raise much, if not all, of their food. However, her focus in this book reflects Benedict’s prevailing concern for the ethics of how the monks ate together.
Böckmann concludes the book with these pointed questions that reflect the stellar significance of this work:
Eating together at a common table is a model for our communal life … Might Benedict animate us today with his ardent love of Christ and his intense faith in the ever-present Christ who is both present inside and comes to meet us from outside? And might he inspire us to take concrete steps such as he described in these chapters? (273)
Indeed, Böckmann takes a key text of the monastic tradition, in which the common meal plays an essential role and challenges us to discern in our church communities – monastic, new monastic or otherwise – how we will eat together. As John Howard Yoder has reminded us (see the above quote) and as the Rule of St. Benedict emphasizes, the common meal is at the heart of the church community’s economy. If we cannot be disciplined enough to deny ourselves and serve our brothers and sisters for a simple common meal, how can we expect to do so throughout the rest of our lives? May we reflect on Böckmann’s excellent scholarship and may our practices of eating together reflect the discipline and love for others that we need throughout our days as we follow in the way of Christ.