Monks stood in attention. The Abbot appeared, crossed himself at the doorstep, and entered. He was led by a retinue to the farthest table at the hall, and was seated. The assembly sat in response. A bell rang and our neighbors jumped to their food. In an instant, the hall rattled with the clamor of hundreds of knives and forks in a feeding frenzy. Only the two non-Orthodox attired guests, my friend and I, looked at each other in bewilderment. Were we in Mount Athos?
The voice of a monk standing by the Abbot’s table and reading aloud in Greek struggled through the clamor. “The Philokalia,” said my friend noticing my curiosity. He took a few more moments to catch their meaning and added with embarrassment, “passages on the necessity of attending while dining.”
Attending to what? Our neighbors attended neither to their own dining nor to their bewildered guests. We began eating at half their tempo, shocked by the contrast between the monastic discipline associated with this place and the reality of its inattentive inhabitants. My friend and I had made considerable efforts to come here. We had inadvertently built expectation. Now our expectation was turning into judgment. Had I come all this way to judge? If the lesson was not in monastic discipline, then it must be elsewhere.
I laid my utensils and looked around. The Monastery of Great Lavra was the first built in Mount Athos a thousand years ago. This dining hall had been inhabited by generations of monks. It would be naive on my part to expect them all to have possessed the same level of understanding and commitment. In the course of a thousand years, some might well have listened to the Philokalia passages and adhered to them, even if none seemed to be doing so right now. What would attending while dining have meant to the founding fathers? What would they have meant to the people who built this dining hall?
My gaze alighted at a fresco dominating the hall from above the Abbot’s table. Jesus and the twelve disciples seated at the Last Supper. That supper, too, was clamorous; Jesus had just told his disciples that one of them would betray him. Enraged, they each plead not-guilty and look at their neighbor suspiciously. Through their confusion, Judas already reaches out to Jesus’ plate, condemning himself.
“Why do you have the Last Supper above you,” I asked the monk beside me, interrupting his frenzy.
With mouth full and without pausing, he answered in broken English, “Like them, we.”
A teaching can instruct, but it cannot make efforts on our behalf. Application is our responsibility. Too much instruction with too little application stalls us. Encased by the scaffolding of knowledge, our muscles atrophy. This was my lesson in Athos: the high fortification walls weakened the monastery, the long-established rituals weakened its monks. The founders, who had coined the passages on attending while dining, had seen something overlooked by contemporaries. They could not see for the newcomers what the newcomers had to see for themselves.
By the same token, we will preempt the next tutorial on Dining Exercises with setting a preparatory exercise. Go to a cafe. Order a beverage and observe others dining. Categorically discard your judgment. Observe others as if you were studying yourself. Based on what you see, which exercises would you apply to maintain consciousness while dining?