Dining in the refectory: Prosit!

By Fr. Jonah Wright, OSB

When a new monk enters our monastic community one of the many unusual experiences he has as a candidate, is his first meal in the refectory. Our meals are highly ritualized but the ritual comes naturally with a little practice. On the other hand, the candidate has to try and feel his way through the meal without a map. He is gently guided with this and that and ushered through bits and pieces, but our meals are in silence and there is only so much that can be communicated with a gesture and a whisper.

When he enters the refectory he will likely be guided to either the north or south side and his actual seat won’t reveal itself immediately. There is some shifting of places to accommodate the monks involved in pre-meal preparations and their seats are held open for their eventual arrival. The abbot begins the meal with a prayer and the candidate can find a prayer booklet on the lazy Susan in front of him. The candidate will sit with us after the prayer and wait for the abbot to ring the bell. Everyone puts their napkins in their collar and the passing of food begins.

Our refectory tables are divided into sets of four; food, sauces, dressings, beverages, and serving utensils are at the head of every set and the person at the beginning of the set takes what he wants and passes everything down. At the end of the meal the beverages are passed back for those who want more milk, water or coffee; the waiter brings the seconds tray and clean up begins. One or two monks will rise from their seat and assist the waiters with clearing the plates. All the dirty dishes are placed on a stainless steel cart to be wheeled back into the scullery and sent down to the kitchen below for washing.

The candidate is usually carried along by it all unless he finds himself in the position of head of a set. He then has the responsibility of passing everything down which is not always easy for the uninitiated. At the end of the meal the table reader rises from the reader’s stand and chants: Be grateful to the Lord for his mercy to us. The monks respond in unison: Thanks be to God. Usually the candidate is searching the pages of our prayer booklet for the proper prayer and finds it in time for the litany of St. Joseph that concludes the ritual. We then file out in silence touching the holy water and extending our hand to our brother with the word prosit.* The candidate is always unprepared for this and is encouraged to respond with prosit* and passing of the holy water from his hand to the next.

All of these rituals are second nature as we do them twice a day, but to the candidate, who just might be a bit anxious about getting things right, and certainly a little confused about all the steps and procedures, it is far from second nature. Yet if he is seeking a new way of life, if he has truly come to be a student in the school of the service of the Lord, he will find our eating ritual an interesting and perhaps even enlightening experience.

* Prosit: subjunctive of the Latin word prosum: be of good health.