LISTENING TO THE DISHES
READ: Hebrews 5:1-10
“During His lifetime on earth, Jesus offered up heartfelt prayer with both loud cries and tears to the One who had the power to save Him from death, and, winning a hearing by His reverence, Christ learned obedience, Son though He was, through His sufferings, when He became perfected, He became for all who obey Him the source of eternal salvation …” – Hebrews 5:7-10a
Nowadays I hear much about about “believing” in Christ yet, strangely little about “obeying” Christ. It is as if somewhere along the line, we removed “obedience” from our understanding of “faith”. Whatever happened to ‘obedience”?
You may want to try this experiment yourself … Go to Google, Bing, or Yahoo, and search for “obedience” but not in the web listings but in the image listings. Look at the images that the search for “obedience” displays … a few Biblical notations, a few military scenes, and … to my surprise … so many images involving the training of dogs! So few … are the images you will find of … people practicing obedience!
Christian discipleship in the Benedictine spirit emphasizes “obedience”. We speak often of “obedience”, but more so, we explore the spirituality of “obedience” through the practice of “obedience.”. At the heart of it, “obedience” in the Benedictine understanding is the art, the skill, the craft, the ability … to listen and to listen deeply. Yes, properly understood … “obedience” is about listening and then listening even more deeply. To illustrate …
Brother Andre is ninety-three years of age. He entered the novitiate at the age of sixteen. Thus he has been living the monastic life … seventy-seven years! Brother Andre is still quite active. In his younger, stronger years, he worked the farm. Nowadays, Brother Andre, along with his other daily duties, cares for the library books as the Abbey librarian and daily sets the tables in the refectory (our dining room). During my recent two-week stay at the Abbey, the Abbot assigned me each day to help Brother Andre set the tables. This includes washing all the dishes – both before and after each meal – a meal for thirty-five brothers and novices, plus guests … sometimes on the weekends, the guests number near one hundred souls. It involves “perfectly” setting each place with a glass, a napkin, flatware, and plates. And I do mean … “perfectly” as in the manner of precision! Nearing the end of this two week tour of dishes and table setting, I asked Brother Andre why the Abbot always assigned me this rather mundane duty. I confessed to Brother Andre, “Brother Andre, I guess I don’t much like doing this kind of work. It seems so … so mindless.” To my surprise, Brother Andre stopped mid-placement of a plate, turned to me, and said with his French-Canadian accent … “Brother Anthony, that is exactly what I said when the Abbot assigned me to do this work … fifteen years ago!” He smiled. Then we resumed working, he setting the plates, my setting the napkins, one after another after another. As we progressed along the table …Brother Andre, without looking at me, continued with his answer …”Obedience is about listening and then about listening as we listen. The Abbot wants us to listen in the places where we would rather not be, for he presumes we are already listening in the places where we would rather be.” He kept setting plates; I kept setting napkins. Then he asked, “Brother Anthony, what do the dishes say to you?” He paused again to offer me a mischievous smile that was meant to reassure me and to encourage me to go further … Then as we began setting the flatware, he, the forks, I, the knives and spoons, Brother Andre then asked, “Brother Anthony, would you like to know what the dishes say to me?” I nodded. He looked at me. I nodded again. “Well, I hear angels setting places for people like you and me. I hear my Brothers coming in from the fields, and from the shops, and from the chapel and and from the university. I hear the thoughts and prayers they each left at their assigned places when they departed after our last meal together. But most of all … I hear my soul rejoicing, “I am part of a family! I am one of many! I am not alone! And we each have our place at this table that the Lord and I … and now, you, Brother Anthony, prepare.” Then he asked me again, “Brother Anthony, now what do the dishes say to you?”
Listening to the dishes! Listening in the places I probably would not choose to go; listening to the tasks that I might never choose to do. Maybe this is what the writer of Hebrews was speaking of when he made that strange, strange statement that” … Christ learned obedience, though He was Son of God …”
My Loved Ones, I fear that we too much today listen only in the places where we like to go, when maybe we need to be listening in the places we would rather not go. Obedience does not automatically come to the human spirit, it must be learned in its doing … even … by Jesus.
Brother Anthony of the Cross