A chance dinner conversation with Sister Kym Harris of Benedictine Monastery in Australia opened my eyes to a new aspect of The Rule of Benedict. Monastics often chuckle about the provisions of Chapter 35:
“No one is to be excused from kitchen duties unless he is ill, except of the case of one occupied with some matter of great importance. …”
We laugh at how unlucky the community may be when one or another person is in charge of the kitchen and cooking, and how happy when that person would rotate out of the duties. In fact, most monasteries have pretty decent food, or at least assign someone to be the cook who knows what she or he is doing.
Today, however, I learned an entirely different reason for this provision: that nature of kitchens the sixth century. The chimney had not been invented yet, so there was no effective way to draw the smoke of the cooking fires out of the room. Cooking involved one of any number of smoky and dirty methods.
The ancient Romans did much cooking in metal braziers placed over coals in a fire pit outdoors or, in bad weather, in a large kitchen room that was vented by a hole in the roof. Larger meals might involve turning meat on a spit – outdoors when possible, but also indoors when rain made outdoor cooking impossible. These kitchens were filled with grimy smoke and dirt that infiltrated the clothes, the hair, even the skin of people who worked in them. (Remember, too, the general shunning of baths at the time.) To be a cook was a filthy job that would render one unwelcome.
Because of this, cooking was also a much maligned position – the lowest of the low – and one which all except those from the lowest classes would learn to despise while growing up. Remnants of this low status are seen in the scullery maids of novels of the 19th century. However, even these were better off than their counterparts in the sixth century.
The rotation of kitchen servers, then, was not only a matter of requiring that all serve each other at table – waiting on each other – but that all serve each other by taking on one of the least desirable jobs in the place.
This is a deeper spirituality than merely being of service to one another – although people who mostly work in situations where others wait on them find it awkward and uncomfortable even to be the one doing the service. But Benedict is asking every member of the community to willingly assume the dirtiest and least desirable job in the community.
This also explains the words that Benedict provides for the ritual of exchanging service. The outgoing servers say, “Blessed are you, Lord God, who have helped me and consoled me” in this time of difficult service, while the incoming servers are to say, “O God, come to my assistance, O Lord, make haste to help me.” These phrases seem a bit dramatic for the task of merely serving food to others in the community, but make a world of sense for those entering and leaving a place of smoke and open fires, where injury was common and the pace of work unrelenting.
The more I learn about this 6th century spiritual guide, the more I am drawn to the practical spirituality of everyday life.
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