The Work of the Kitchen

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CHAPTER XXXV. Of the Weekly Servers in the Kitchen

13 Mar. 13 July. 12 Nov.
Let the brethren wait on one another in turn, so that none be excused from the work of the kitchen, except he be prevented by sickness or by some more necessary employment; for thus is gained a greater reward and an increase of charity. But let assistance be given to the weak, that they may not do their work with sadness; and let all have help according to the number of the community and the situation of the place. If the community be large, let the Cellarer be excused from work in the kitchen, and also those, as already mentioned, who are occupied in more urgent business. Let the rest serve each other in turn with all charity. Let him who endeth his week in the kitchen, make all things clean on Saturday, and wash the towels where with the brethren dry their hands and feet. Let both him who goeth out and him who is coming in wash the feet of all. Let him hand over to the Cellarer the vessels of his office, clean and whole; and let the Cellarer deliver the same to him who entereth, that he may know what he giveth and what he receiveth.

Servants One to Another

Saint Benedict's monks are servants one to another, and not just theoretically, but concretely in deeds and in toil. Much of the servanthood in a monastery revolves around the kitchen, the refectory, and the scullery. Men have to eat. The preparation of meals, the service of the refectory, and the wash-up are a necessary part of daily life. No one is excused from serving in the kitchen, apart from those weakened by illness or occupied in other important tasks. The fruit of work in the kitchen, says Saint Benedict, is an increase of charity. Charity dilates the heart, making one who is faithful in little things capable of self-sacrifice in greater things.

Banish Sadness

In the middle of this chapter Saint Benedict inserts another of the great over-arching principles of the Holy Rule: "Let assistance be given to the weak, that they may not do their work with sadness; and let all have help according to the number of the community and the situation of the place." Saint Benedict doesn't want his monks to be crushed by too great a labour or stressed by their inability to get everything done. Acknowledging that there are weaker brethren, he orders that they should be given help. And why? So that they may not do their work in sadness. If there is sadness in the kitchen of the monastery, the community will begin to taste it in the food! Sadness quickly degenerates into bitterness, and bitterness turns to hostility and resentment. Quite apart from affecting the charity and unity of the monastery, these things also adversely affect one's appetite and digestion.

Help As Needed

A cheerful atmosphere in the kitchen makes for appetising food, and appetising food makes for a happy community. When the preparation of meals becomes burdensome, a spirit of crankiness begins to prevail in the kitchen, and from there it spreads quickly throughout the monastery. If it is true that "too many cooks spoil the soup", it is equally true that "many hands make light work". The Abbot will, therefore, take care to provide the kitchen master and cooks with all the help necessary.

The Liturgy of Eating and Drinking

Eschewing the culture of fast foods and eating on the run, Saint Benedict's sons understand that the kitchen is to the refectory what the sacristy is to the Oratory. "Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatsoever else you do, do all to the glory of God." (1 Corinthians 10:31) Benedictines honour the liturgy of eating and drinking in the refectory, and see the refectory as a kind of mirror of the Oratory. Even the disposition is same as in the choir: the tables facing each other; the Prior's table with the crucifix behind it; the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary; and the reader's desk. Twice daily the refectory resounds with the chanting of psalms and prayers. Like the Oratory, it is a place of silence.

The Mandatum

Saint Benedict organizes a weekly rota for the kitchen service. In small communities, such as our own, it is not possible to have more than one kitchen team. At least for the moment, the same brothers are affected to the wash-up every day. The Mandatum (or washing of the feet) no longer takes place weekly; instead it is done at the reception of novices and on Maundy Thursday. The Mandatum is a kind of sacrament of humble service and of charity. Although the liturgical rite is carried out less frequently now, the grace that it impresses on the soul and expresses outwardly is necessary at every moment if a community is to thrive in holiness.

Cleanliness in the Kitchen

Saint Benedict insists on the cleanliness of the kitchen: "Let him who endeth his week in the kitchen, make all things clean on Saturday, and wash the towels where with the brethren dry their hands and feet." A clean, orderly kitchen is a delight to work in. Monks must be as diligent about keeping the kitchen clean and in good order as they are about caring for the sacristy and the appurtenances of sacred worship. With Saint Benedict, all of life is steeped in the praise of God; there is no thing that cannot be ennobled and invested with sacredness. "For all things are yours . . . and you are Christ's; and Christ is God's" (I Corinthians 3:23).

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About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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