Chapter Thirty Eight
Reading must not be wanting at the table of the members when they are eating. Neither let anyone who may chance to take up the book venture to read there; but let those who are to read for the whole week enter upon that office on Sunday. After Mass and Communion let them ask all to pray for them that God may ward off from them the spirit of pride. And let the following verse be said three times by all in the oratory, the reader beginning it: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare your praise” (Ps 51:17), and thus having received the blessing let them enter upon the reading.
Let the deepest silence be maintained that no whispering or voice be heard except that of the reader alone. But let the members so help each other to what is needed for eating and drinking, that no one need ask for anything. If, however, anything should be wanted, let it be asked for by means of a sign of any kind rather than a sound. And let no one presume to ask any questions there, either about the book or anything else, in order that no cause to speak be given [to the devil] (Eph 4:27; 1 Tm 5:14), unless, perchance, the abbot or abbess wishes to say a few words for edification.
Let the one who is reader for the week take a little bread and wine before beginning to read, on account of Holy Communion, and lest it should be too hard to fast so long. Afterward, however, let readers take their meal in the kitchen with the weekly servers and the waiters. The members, however, will not read or sing in order, but only those who edify their hearers.
In my experience, one valuable aspect of practicing verbal silence at meals is that it eliminates many of the problems that common meals provide for new or shy people. Some might not find it easy to make their way into the life of the tables we share, and this Benedictine practice clears the way for everyone's full participation in that life.
Another valuable aspect of this practice of silence at meals is that it can open the door to what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “mindful eating.” He describes the mindful eating of a carrot in his book, Living Buddha, Living Christ:
And when you chew, chew only the carrot, not your projects or your ideas. You are capable of living in the present moment, in the here and the now. It is simple, but you need some training to just enjoy the piece of carrot. This is a miracle.
We will need some training, indeed. Thanks be to God for the school of our Father Benedict.