Sunday, February 22, 2009

How to Serve One Another - Chapter 1,553

Benedict says in his rule that the brothers should serve one another. He also says that in this service nothing is more important that working in the kitchen and it is so important in fostering love that no one is to be excused unless they are sick. No one.

This is taken seriously in the Benedictine communities that I know personally, and it certainly is part of our life, and was part of my path this week. We have a hired chef, as many of you know, because the number of the guests (large) and the number of the community (small) don't permit us to carry on the ministry we have and cook too. But we all work at doing the dishes, and we all take our turns at a job which we refer to as "Refectorian". The Refectorian is the one who is in charge of getting the food served and making sure that the dining room (refectory) is set up right and has everything it needs for the meal. This was my job this week.

It's a major job, especially in a week like this one when we have between 35 and 40 guests every day. It takes a lot of time, and part of its difficulty is that the time it takes comes just at the times that I usually use for prayer, or for other necessary tasks. This sets up internal conflicts and discontent.

It also takes a lot of attention. Are there enough bananas? Are the hot pads put out? Is the dishwasher filled? Where has the extra peanut butter gone? Why has no one replenished the supply of cranberry juice? Can I make coffee faster than they can drink it? (and keep the cereal replenished at the same time?) Is there enough water - or too much water? Why aren't there enough soup spoons? It goes on and on. Sometimes it seems like it never ends. Up and down the kitchen stairs for supplies. On our knees in front of the cabinet in search of more supplies. Carrying racks of glasses and pushing carts of plates and making sure there are enough clean coffee cups. This much attention takes a lot of energy.

I think it's fair to say that few of us approach one of these weeks with a sense of delight. I know that I'll have to be up 45 minutes earlier than usual to get an adequate supply of coffee made. I know I'll be struggling all week to find prayer time. I know that keeping my emotional balance in the face of constant demands to provide this or that won't be easy.

This week I decided to take a more measured approach to things. I marked the week well ahead on my calendar and took no extra appointments and limited what I did. I made sure I had a nap time every day. I prioritized so that this was The Job for the week. That helped. At least I had a sense that I was taking care of myself. It wasn't perfect, but it was better than loosing it altogether, which I do all too easily in one of these weeks.

I also got something good for myself. A really fine lesson came my way. And it came by an 'accidental' coincidence in my having the refectorian's job and in a piece of Benedict's Rule that I happened to see in my reading this week.

If you were to guess what Benedict thinks is the most important thing a monk can do, you would probably think of something in the area of prayer or silence or spiritual diligence or something like that. Actually the Rule says that there is almost nothing more important than......................... remembering not to grumble.

That it? Just that?

Yes, just that. What's more, old Benedict is right. Grumbling destroys affection in a community. It undermines the base of mutual love. Giving in to the universal supposition that "they" are responsible for my unhappiness puts up walls between people and groups in the world and in our society and in a monastic community. It also damages my relationship with myself.

And so part of the way through this week I decided to focus on my own interior grumbling. I looked seriously at my sense that this job was too much or too hard. I looked carefully at the feelings that arise when I walk through the pantry door, and of how easy it is to slip into blame when things aren't exactly the way I need or want them to be. I also decided that I was simply not going to give in to the temptation to spend time longing for this week to end and for the job to be over. I said that this job was this job - no more, no less - and I had it for now, and now is all I have. I wouldn't - absolutely wouldn't - grumble about it. I didn't succeed perfectly, but the effort brought a lot to me.

The most important thing that it brought was a really beautiful realization of how much I am supported by the love and care of my brothers. People showed up early at mealtimes to fill the diswasher or make some needed coffee or help carry the food. I would dash into the refectory to get some pre-meal job done and find it already completed - I'll never know by whom. Someone saw that one of the tasks wasn't completed and took a few minutes to be helpful, and then went on their way. Sure - some things that should have been done weren't - and that caused more trips up and down the stairs or in and out of the refectory. But if there isn't care taken about our tendency to interior complaining - grumbling - those missteps and those careless omissions can become the whole story - they become what we experience as the essence of the job. And they aren't the whole story. The whole story includes the reality that this is a hard job and my brothers are making sure that they help to ease my way. We are "bearing one another's burdens" to use a scriptural turn of phrase.

So I come to the end of this week, most surprisingly, not worn out (though I'm tired) and not resentful. I am not even feeling like giving thanks that the week is over. My predominant feeling right now is thankfulness for all the ways in which love came to me this week and for the growth that has brought us to the place of being a community that has this love - that is this love. This is, after all, what this life is supposed to be about.

Being loving is important. Taking the time to know that you are loved may be even more important.

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