1 Reading will always accompany the meals of the brothers. The reader should not be the one who just happens to pick up the book, but someone who will read for a whole week, beginning on Sunday. 2 After Mass and Communion, let the incoming reader ask all to pray for him so that God may shield him from the spirit of vanity, 3 Let him begin this verse in the oratory: Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise (Ps 50:17), and let all say it three times. 4 When he has received a blessing, he will begin his week of reading. 5 Let there be complete silence. No whispering, no speaking–only the reader’s voice should be heard there. 6 The brothers should by turn serve one another’s needs as they eat and drink, so that no one need ask for anything. 7 If, however, anything is required, it should be requested by an audible signal of some kind rather than by speech. 8 No one should presume to ask a question about the reading or about anything else, lest occasion be given [to the devil] (Eph 4:27; 1 Tim 5:14). 9 The superior, however, may wish to say a few words of instruction.
10 Because of holy Communion and because the fast may be too hard for him to bear, the brother who is reader for the week is to receive some diluted wine before he begins to read. 11 Afterward he will take his meal with the weekly kitchen servers and the attendants. 12 Brothers will read and sing, not according to rank, but according to their ability to benefit their hearers.
Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert
Reading at the monastic table can no longer be taken for granted in monasteries. The Rule, however, is very clear: “Reading will always accompany the meals of the brothers.” So the first teaching of this Chapter is that meals are taken in silence and that reading should be expected at the meals of the brothers.
The second teaching is that we should expect to understand what is read by the brother who does the reading. Saint Benedict says: “Brothers will read and sing, not according to rank, but according totheir ability to benefit their hearers.” This is more difficult today when there may be monks in a community who speak very different forms of English. On the top of that, today, at least in many monasteries, we have monks for whom English is clearly a second language and who have strong accents in their English.
We all know that we cannot expect to have professionally trained readers in a monastery such as we would expect on a radio program! And surely Saint Benedict did not expect that, either. On the other hand, by appointing a monk who reads for a whole week, there can be some expectation that the reader prepare his reading. The main challenges, apart from the accents mentioned above, are that the reader should read slowly and clearly and should know beforehand what he is reading.
Finally we can be aware that the refectory is not a place to be talking to one another. Saint Benedict expects total silence during the meals–although the superior can say a few words to instruct the brothers.
All in all, we see right away that the meals are a time of prayer and listening for the community. This is so different from what people expect of meals in most cultures today. But we monks do form a culture of our own and we should be happy to have this opportunity of listening and praying and being still. It is one of the blessings of our monastic life.