I remember a time during my novitiate with the Order. After the first half of the year, the brothers had a meeting to review our daily schedule and evaluate any changes that needed to be made. After a long discussion over our mid-day schedule, it was decided that we would move mass from the noon hour into the early morning so that the brothers’ day wasn’t broken up into such small parts. While lunch itself had not been scheduled, before the change, we would celebrate mass together and then nearly everyone would go into the kitchen , prepare something for lunch and we would all eat around the table. If someone had an appointment scheduled they may not be present, but for the vast majority of days, we were all eating lunch at the same time.
After the change, however, there were rarely more than three brothers eating lunch at the same time, and on most days, I found myself eating entirely by myself. Whereas before we would see one another throughout the day, afterward there were some brothers whom we did not even see between breakfast and supper. Some might have eaten at noon, others at two o’clock in the afternoon, and even if I knew that I wanted to talk with someone, I would not know what time they were planning on eating that day. There is no question that the community suffered for the loss. We became fractured, brothers became distanced from one another, and it was all the more easy for, and even encouraged, cliques to form within the house. While most families never have the option of coming together for lunch everyday, the story holds just as true. A meal in common holds the community and a family together in ways that other activities simply don’t.
Eat a common meal. In our day and age, it is not practical for families and couples to eat three meals together every day; it is likely not even possible for anyone, living outside of a monastery or group home setting, to be able to do this. We live in a culture and time that simply does not allow for this to happen. That being said, if at all possible, begin each day with a common meal. Sit around the table or kitchen bar for breakfast. I know that it can be exceptionally difficult for parents of teenagers to get everyone out of bed early enough to have time, but even if you can find the time to spend 15 minutes together, at the start of each day, to sit and have a bowl of cereal, a piece of toast or occasionally prepare a full breakfast, it will begin your day together and serve as an anchor that will not allow any one person to drift very far away.
Then, if at all possible, come together for an evening meal. This may require families to work around sporting activities, or even work schedules. It may even require giving up some activities and things that would altogether prevent the household from coming together, but that sacrifice will be worth it. Coming together for an evening meal, at a time when we can share the important events of the day with one another is a cornerstone for keeping unity and regular contact with one another. Do not rush or constrain the time for this meal, understanding that there are times and days which are busier than others, and that coming together for a short time is better than having to skip a common meal altogether. Aside from the time being spent with one another, there is an added benefit of eating a common meal, rather than each preparing their own and varied menu.
If you have ever eaten in a cafeteria setting, or a food court where each person goes to a different place to buy their food and then congregates at the same table, you know some of these differences. While it may be neat and interesting to see what kind of food each person gets, there is something lost in the sharing, of passing dishes and dipping from the same bowl; there is a greater sense of personal ownership over my meal, rather than our supper; with a common meal there may be a greater awareness of and attention to ensure that everyone has had enough to eat; with a common meal there is also the acceptance of food that may not be our favorite thing to eat, but that we must joyfully accept as we accept the unpleasant things that come to us throughout the day. Eating a meal in common also may also force us to make time to break way consciously and deliberately from the private and individual course of our day--it helps to draw our awareness toward the others we love. In addition to spending time with family, friends and companions, we are actively reminded that this journey is not our own and ours alone. There are responsibilities, work and obligations that may be ours, there is a need for regular time in private and in solitude, but like those first monks in the caves of Mt. Carmel, we are truly not alone, sharing this life with others and waling this path as one pilgrim in the midst of a crowd.
To eat a common meal is not something that is reserved only for our families and homes, but can also be carried with us throughout the day and into our workplace, into our schools and wherever we spend out times. It may be that the time for a meal is the only time throughout the day that we may have to find the quiet and time alone--if this is the case, then it may be very good to eat alone. However, bear in mind, regardless of your situation and place, the benefits and affects of eating a common meal with co-workers, classmates and colleagues, and the effects of inviting others with whom you may not spend very much time.