Project Canterbury

An American Cloister

The Life and Work of the Order of the Holy Cross

By Shirley Carter Hughson, O.H.C.

West Park, New York: Holy Cross Press, 1948.

Chapter VI. The Refectory.

WHENEVER the Holy Mass is celebrated, the priest declares, "We offer unto Thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice unto Thee." This passage in the Liturgy is the expression of the same principle which appears again and again in the Holy Scriptures. The apostle says, "Glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God's."

This teaches us that the service of God is a service of our bodies as well as of our souls. It lays upon the Christian the responsibility of keeping the physical frame in purity, and also in health and vigour. He who neglects the health of the body neglects a talent which God has committed to him. There are those who think that religious ascetical exercises are for the purpose of wearing down the body, with the aim of eliminating all human passions. Should anyone be so foolish and ignorant as to attempt this, he would find that the passions had acquired only a more dangerous and subtle intensity.

The Rule of the Order of the Holy Cross contains a passage which shows the true attitude towards the body, and which reflects the teaching of that great Religious, St. Thomas Aquinas, that the nature of man is not destroyed by grace but is transformed and glorified. Our Rule says:

"We are not to regard the practices of [42/43] mortification as mere punishments intended to make up for sins we have committed, but as penitential exercises by which the loving soul reaches out after God and seeks to repulse Satan, for the evil one must tremble at every act of faith which is performed in the power of the Holy Ghost."

The football player disciplines the body for the purpose of bringing it into submission to his will that it may be able to win the game. According to the same principle, Religious discipline is for the purpose of making the body a strong, prompt, and well-trained servant, ready and able at a moment's notice to serve and endure for the glory of God. These principles are carried out in a monastery in the austere, but none the less exact care of the body as well as of the soul. There is a chapel where spiritual sustenance is procured; and there is a refectory for the nourishment of the body.

But the faithful Religious strives to keep in mind that the [43/44] refectory is not merely a place where we take our necessary food, but more important still, from the spiritual point of view, it is a place eminently suited for the practice of self-denial.

There is no mere self-pleasing; our Rule says, "In taking food, all shall take what is set before them with thanksgiving to God, the Giver of all good things. . . . We may not be able to follow the saints in their heroic rigour of bodily mortification, but we must reverence them for all they were enabled to endure . . . and at however great a distance, we must strive to follow them and share their spirit, taking our food with great reverence and not at all as if we had a right to it; and not only with courage meeting the appointed abstinence and fasts, but making of them a spiritual feast, and praying God to enable us to deny ourselves yet more. ... It is to be remembered that a persistent and long continued self-denial is often harder and of more spiritual benefit than an excessive austerity alternating with an abandonment to appetite."

A visitor in a Religious refectory might look in vain for indications of mortification, but if the Religious are true to their vocation to penitential austerity, there will be no meal which will not be marked by many acts of self-denial, so slight, perhaps, as not to be noted even by one who was looking for them, but none the less definite and repeated offerings to God of mortification of the natural will and appetites. It is such unobserved but persistent acts which [44/45] train character into the likeness of Him "who pleased not Himself."

Since the body is to be kept in vigour with the sole idea of enabling it to serve God well, a definite dignity is appropriate to the taking of meals in a Religious house. The refectory is not a mere dining-room. It is a place the very furnishings and atmosphere of which suggest prayer as readily as they suggest the taking of food. In the great monasteries of old, it used to rank next to the chapel and the chapterhouse. Leonardo da Vinci painted his great picture of the Last Supper on the walls of the refectory of the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. In San Marco in Florence the great refectory is made glorious by Sogliani's fresco of the angels supplying food to St. Dominic and his friars; and the little refectory in the same monastery presents Ghirlandajo's rich conception of the Upper Room in Jerusalem on Maundy Thursday night.

We have no great artists to adorn the walls of our refectory at Holy Cross, but it is not without its lessons. Sacred pictures break the severe lines of the brick interior, while commanding the long stretch of the room is a fine carved wood Calvary, shedding its silent blessing on all who come and go.

At Holy Cross our breakfast is scarcely more than what the old rules called a collation. Each one repairs to the refectory and helps himself to what he needs from the dishes on a side-table, goes to his place, says his Grace, and when he is finished, makes [45/46] his private thanksgiving, and takes his departure.

Dinner, at mid-day, and supper are much more formal exercises. At the sound of the bell the household assembles in the main hall of the first floor, at the south end of which is the refectory. All stand in place, the juniors nearest the door, and the guests at the other end of the line. At a signal from the Superior, the procession takes its way to the refectory. The order of the procession and that of the seats at table correspond in such manner that on arriving at the table each one finds himself at his appointed place.

The table is a triclinium, as monastic tables have ever been. The narrow board extends around three sides of the refectory, far enough from the wall to allow a passage behind the benches, and yet close enough to leave ample space in the center where those waiting have room to come and go as they serve the food. The brethren take turns, week about, in waiting on table.

As the procession enters the refectory, each one bows to the crucifix and takes his place before his appointed seat, one of the monks going directly to the reading pulpit which stands at the upper end of the room. When all are in place the Superior blesses the table with the benediction which has been used in monastic houses from time immemorial:

V. Bless ye.

R. Bless ye.

The eyes of all wait upon Thee, O Lord, and Thou [46/47] givest them their meat in due season: Thou openest Thine hand, and fillest all things living with plenteousness. Glory be, etc.

Lord, have mercy upon us.
Christ, have mercy upon us.
Lord, have mercy upon us.

Our Father.

Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts of which through Thy bounty we are about to partake; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

The blessing given, and all still standing, the reader in the pulpit asks for a special blessing on the Scripture and other instruction which are to be read to the brethren, saying, "Sir, ask a blessing." The Superior responds: "The King of eternal glory make us partakers of His heavenly table. Amen." The reader then announces a lesson from Scripture, after which all take their seats. At the conclusion of the Scripture reading, all again stand, while the reader prays, "But Thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us," the response being, "Thanks be to God."

The meal then proceeds, an appointed book being read, the company observing the rule of silence which ordinarily prevails in a monastic refectory. On Sundays, and certain other feasts, the silence may be dispensed at dinner, after the Bible lection.

A word needs to be said about the reading. It is not intended for amusement, nor yet for the cultivation of the mind merely. It is a spiritual exercise, designed to teach the heart rather than the intellect, [47/48] although the latter does profit by the reading as a matter of course. The practice of reading at meals seems to be almost as old as the monastic life itself. In the Rule of St. Benedict which was written nearly fifteen hundred years ago, it is provided for, and the post of reader was regarded as one of importance and dignity. The appointee began his week on Sunday, and always made his communion in preparation for this work. After his communion, he proceeded to the midst of the choir, the brethren being assembled, and thrice repeated the words, "O Lord, open Thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth Thy praise." He then asked the prayers of the brethren that he might be preserved from the spirit of pride. "And so," says the ancient Holy Rule, "having received the blessing, let him enter on his reading."

Contemporary with St. Benedict was a saint named Caesarius who was a famous abbot at Aries in southern France. He wrote a Rule for his monks, which even after so many centuries thrills us with the beauty of its spiritual teaching. Commenting on these refectory exercises, he says, "When the reading has ceased, let not holy meditation of the heart cease."

On the reader's pulpit in the refectory at Holy Cross there appears the old Latin motto,--"Cibus melior cibo, Food better than food." This stands as a reminder of the saying of our Lord, "Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of Man shall give unto you." Meat for the body is indeed [48.49] necessary. We have seen how the body must be kept in strength and vigour for the service of God. But physical nourishment which is not joined with sustenance for the soul is but a pampering of that which will perish in the end. Food for the inner man is better than food for the body--Cibus melior cibo.

The reading includes devotional books, works of meditation, Church history, spiritual biography, accounts of missionary heroism, books defending the Faith, and like nourishment and stimulation for heart and mind.

One permanent feature is the reading of the mar-tyrology daily at supper. This is a brief account of the saint of the day, or rather of the day following, for the ecclesiastical day always begins with Vespers. Short, vivid accounts of the labours and sufferings of the saints give a quality to each day, and remind us of the intercessions and examples of the blessed ones in heaven whose prayers the Church teaches us to ask.

Of the food that is served in the refectory, it is not necessary to speak further than to say that it is simple but abundant. The dietary has been approved by high medical authority as "a well-balanced ration." Care is taken to see that it is well cooked. If what we said in the beginning about the care of the body that it might be a strong and ready servant of the Spirit, be true, you will understand the need of food being good, however simple.

In our refectory meat is ordinarily served only once a day. For dinner there is a dish of meat or fish, [49/50] with two vegetables, and either soup or a simple dessert, rarely both. On a great festival something in the way of delicacies may be added. Supper is a much simpler meal, usually only one dish being served, with bread, tea, and some cooked fruit.

When the meal is ended, the Superior gives a signal to the reader to stop the reading, and all rise for thanksgiving. This concluded, the Superior immediately begins, if it be not a greater festival or a Sunday, the Miserere--psalm fifty-one--and the whole community, with the guests who may be present, go in procession to the chapel, reciting the psalm antiphonally. On Sundays and greater feasts the last three psalms of the psalter are used.

On reaching the chapel, the Community kneel in front of the altar and recite together after dinner, the Anima Christi, and after supper, the memorial of the Blessed Sacrament. Thus are the refectory and the altar brought together--food for the soul and food for the body--and both having one and the same end in view, namely, the sustenance and development of body and spirit, that in all things, without and within, God may be glorified.

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