Friday, February 15, 2008

A Banquet of Many Courses

I'm posting early this week because I'll be away over the weekend, first at a house party to say goodbye to close friends who are moving to Denver, and then to see an exhibition of Tibetan art at the Rubin Museum in New York City. (I'm excited)

Lent. What are you doing for Lent? Is there any point in "doing something for Lent"? Is this a custom with any meaning these days?

The community has talked about these issues and over the years we've done different things, including nothing. This year, whatever the reason may be, there was a good deal of energy on finding something that we could do that would be appropriately Lenten and also meaningful. What we decided on in the end follows pretty closely the thoughts I put down last week on small changes. This year our Lenten observance focuses on our noon meal each day.

The noon meal is our main meal. Supper is a smaller meal, appropriate for people who go to bed pretty early. It still strikes me as odd to refer to our noon meal as "lunch" since it's the big meal of the day, but in this society there isn't any other way to communicate about the meals. If we try calling it "dinner" that just confuses people, because everyone knows that dinner is in the evening. So lunch it is.

Whatever it's called, this meal is served 5 days a week. Our guesthouse is closed from Sunday afternoon to Tuesday afternoon, and on those days we forage on left-overs or cook our favorite things in small groups, or have little expeditions to some local diner, or whatever we like. On Wednesdays through Sundays the meal normally begins with silence while we read aloud from a book. The reading is sometimes spiritual, sometimes history or biography or travel or social commentary. Very occasional we hit on a book that combines all, or most, of those things. The reading lasts through about two-thirds of the meal, and then we have a space for conversation to finish the meal with.

When we had our discussion about Lent, the noon meal seemed like a good place to focus some of our energy about what we wanted to do during this season, and our conversation followed the trail blazed by the recent changes in other parts of the day about which I have written earlier. There was an obvious attraction to silence, as the earlier silences of each day had proved to be so fruitful. But we didn't want to lose the richness of the readings either. People so seldom read aloud to each other at this time in history, and it's a form of communication and relationship that has gone into eclipse. Guests often refer to our reading at meals as one of their favorite parts of a stay here. So we didn't want to loose that, either. And there was also a desire to focus more closely on the themes of this season, rather than just continuing to read on in the book by Peter Gomes that we had been reading. Out of these desires we have fashioned a sort of banquet for ourselves - a banquet of several experiences or courses. On Wednesdays and Fridays we have our meal in complete silence. On Thursdays and Saturdays we read. We have chosen two books for our reading, one an ancient text and one contemporary. On Sundays we honor the festal nature of the day by having conversation with the meal.

I love the silent meals. First of all, the silence connects me directly to the spiritual nature of the meal. Our Founder referred to "the silence which ever broods within our walls". For me a silent meal brings this silence, and the One who lives at the heart of this silence, into our meal and more intimately into my life. Silence is for listening, and the listening for God of these meal times is something that I value a lot.

I also get to attend to other things. First there is the scenery. The beauty of the Hudson River Valley that is spread out before us through the huge windows that are a part of our Refectory is always an attraction. Then just seeing the community and guests and reflecting on what I know of each one and of their joys and their struggles gives nourishment to go along with the food. And then there's the food itself, of course, which is normally excellent. Edward, our chef, sees to that. In silence I can concentrate closely on the flavors and the textures of the dishes we have for that day. And I can concentrate on my eating; I can do it more slowly and mindfully. I can feel my stomach as it welcomes the food and gradually becomes fuller and fuller until it reaches the moment when I am full and need to stop eating. It is possible to give attention to these processes when there is reading or conversation, but it's more complicated. It's a multi-tasking sort of thing, and doesn't always work for me. Having quiet time to attend is a gift.

And the reading is proving quite provocative. On Thursdays we are reading from the Lenten homilies of the Venerable Bede, my namesake. Bede was a monk of the Eighth Century in what is now England, and he wrote a history of the English Church (for which he is best known). He also wrote a series of scientific text books, the first to be used in Europe, and a number of commentaries on Scripture. And he left behind a number of homilies, some of which we are reading. I'm enjoying this reading. I like it because it isn't relevant. These are the thoughts and concerns of another age. They don't address our problems or our concerns. But just because of that something more universal shines through them. In the things he addresses, though they were meant to convey the Faith to people living in England in the 700's, I hear the deep concerns of everyone, no matter what age they live in. These homilies throw my own issues into relief, just because they don't address them directly. The struggle to believe, to live a life of faith, to conform one's life to the Gospel, all of this is very clearly central to what he says. I'm quite taken with old Bede's sermons.

On Saturdays we are reading from a contemporary book - "A Clearing Season - Reflections for Lent" by Sarah Parsons. This is a very contemporary book, one which is contains incisive understanding of the season of Lent and conveys it with a combination of spiritual and psychological insight, flavored with the spirituality of other faith traditions. I like this one because it is relevant; relevant to the struggles of the moment and the joys of this season. It's good, practical, spiritual reading. And it is arranged in chapters that address the meanings of each week of Lent, so it's perfect for reading to a group of weekend guests, because it focuses on the theme of that particular weekend.

On Sundays we talk. Relaxation seems appropriate to the celebration of our Holy Day, and conversation is natural for celebration. We mingle with our guests and share something of our lives with them and hear something of their experience of a weekend with us. We have dessert. The rigors of the season relax a bit. It's fun. It's especially fun when you realize that it's leading into the further relaxation of our Sabbath time which begins on Sunday evening and lasts through Monday.

So we have laid out for ourselves a Lenten banquet of many courses. Each has its own flavor and its own nourishment. Each brings something different. I'm enjoying this way of keeping Lent and getting a lot out of it. I'm glad we took the time to develop this plan out of the many desires that arose in our common conversation. It's one of the real joys of community life.

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