Chapter 56: The Abbot’s Table

1 The abbot’s table must always be with guests and travelers. 2 Whenever there are no guests, it is within his right to invite any of the brothers he wishes. 3 However, for the sake of maintaining discipline, one or two seniors must always be left with the brothers.

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

Here we have this very short Chapter 56 about the abbot’s table. As has been noted before, this system never worked in monasteries. It turned out to be much better for the abbot always to eat with the community.

We can understand the theology behind this Chapter. The abbot receives guests as though the guests are Christ Himself. We don’t send someone of lower rank to welcome the Lord!! On the other hand, this way of doing things almost always led to problems and the abbot eventually develops his own life style apart from the community. When abbots have their own “house” and their own dining facilities and live apart from the community, the situation ends up, in far too many cases, with an abbot who appoints someone else to run the community and the abbot himself ceases to be a monk in anything except name.

This is truly a difficult situation. It is difficult for the abbot really to be a monk, even with the best of discipline. By that is meant that the abbot often has duties outside of the community and even when he is home, there is so much work that he must do personally that it is difficult for him to lead a regular life. In the Orthodox tradition, the abbot really is not expected to lead the regular life of the monk. His role is to be the abbot–and that role is always going to be somewhat apart from the rest of the community.

We see Saint Benedict’s concern about the discipline of the monastery when he states that one or two seniors must always be left with the brothers when the abbot invites other brothers to eat with him in his private dining room.

As an exception, one can see this separation of the abbot from the community having some value. There are times when special guests come and need to be served separately.

Let us ask the Lord always to give us the Holy Spirit to understand how to honor our guests and visitors and at the same time honor the needs of the community.