Friday, January 22, 2016

Treasure in the Refectory

One of the most memorable meals of my life was in a Monastery. As a retreatant, I was privileged to be seated with the nuns, in a setup exactly like the one described by the Lathrops (below). I'd had a prayerful, fruitful day of quiet, and I came to supper with my spirit dancing.

‘One of the first places we visited was the refectory.  The board-like tables upon which the few dishes of the nuns are placed are the same that were set up for the nuns here a hundred years ago. A raised desk called a pulpit, in the middle of one side of the room, is where the sister sits who reads aloud during the meals; at which, by the way, no conversation is allowed. The spiritual food she dispenses is usually the Life of a Saint, or passages from saintly writings.' (A Story of Courage, p. 14)

My memorable meal could not have happened without silence. As it was, nothing interrupted my prayerful train of thought and, in fact, everything about this supper added to it. The Sisters didn't have 'refectory reading' that night, but instead played a CD of classical music. My thoughts were free, therefore, to go along a track which I will find impossible (I know) to describe. But I'll try.

It was a Saturday night, and I thought of people 'out in the world' in fine, fancy restaurants. I imagined a lady dressed in silk, wearing diamonds, delicately dabbing her mouth on a white damask napkin. She was dining on filet mignon, lemon capellini with caviar, prosciutto wrapped asparagus, tiramisu. A piano would be playing lightly in the background; mellow standards with a touch of jazz. The lady might be chatting with her companions, against a background of muffled conversations and silverware clattering against china. Perhaps this was an establishment noted for its view, maybe a revolving restaurant high above a city glittering with night life. The chairs were comfortable, cushy, soft. 

‘Here in the refectory the only seats are benches ranged along the walls. There are no chairs. The nuns do not gather around a table, in the ordinary social way, but sit in order on the long, hard benches, at one side of the continuous tables, against the wall, and face the middle of the room. None of them sit on the opposite side of the table, which is left empty and clear, so that the servers, who constitute in turn all the sisters, from the Superioress to the novices, can conveniently place the dishes for them, from that side.' (p. 16)

I sat straight up on a hard bench, looking at my little bowl of buttered carrots. Plain glass windows across the room let me know night was falling, but I could still make out the concrete angel statue standing outside on a little hill. Lights along the ceiling reflected in the window, and glinted off the edge of my water glass, and let me see my companions seated along the walls of the long room. These were silent Sisters, their expressions pleasant, in black habits and long veils, wearing profession crosses of silver and habit-rosaries of dark wood. They did not look at one another; only at their plain white plates and bowls. I, meanwhile, watched the windows darken and the concrete angel dim.  

And I realized. Of all the people dining that evening, in all of the restaurants and houses and country clubs and townhomes and ballrooms across all the lands in all the earth, I was surely one of the happiest. It is no exaggeration to say that, during this simplest of meals, my soul was soaring.  Can I really describe this? Just as I expected - no.  I cannot. I can only say that I remember the refectory as shining with light and splendor and richness that evening.

I can only say that the overhead lights were chandeliers. Drinking glasses morphed into crystal. Fish sticks were lobster. Sturdy white plates were delicate china. A hard bench was made of cushioned velvet. And water became the finest wine.

'He brings me into the banquet hall, and His banner over me is love.' (Song of Songs 1:4)


Painting of Refectory: Pietro Lorenzetti
Painting of Party: Ralph Curtis, James McNeill Whistler at a Party

This post is part of our series 'A Story of Courage.' To continue in chronological order, click this line.


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