June 23, 2010

Are You Here For Supper?

People who enter religious life tend to be sorts that are sensitive to symbol. This is certainly as it should be for our life and work. But this also means--in ways that are sometimes both amusing and exasperating--that the most simple, transactional elements of our common life can be invested with great meaning, even to becoming treated as grave and mortal questions complete with their own zealots.

One example of this is the sheet of paper for signing in or out for supper, which you will find posted somewhere near the kitchen of most religious houses. It is usually presented as a sort of grid, with the date on one axis and the members of the community on the other. Marks are made on particular coordinates to indicate presence or absence from supper. This way whoever is cooking has an idea of how many to prepare for, and for whom.

Here we arrive at an ancient and acrimonious debate. What is the default, unmarked position? In or out? In other words, should brothers have to sign out to indicate their absence from the common table, or sign in to indicate that they will be there? Is it a 'sign in' sheet or a 'sign out' sheet?

Those who argue for the 'sign out' model say that any religious house in which absence from the common table is the default norm--at least symbolically if not necessarily--cannot possibly be healthy. Absence from the brothers ought to be an exception. Even if one is absent more than present, it is still the exception in the larger spiritual and symbolic economy. They fear that the 'sign in' model presents a worldview in which fraternal life is an elective rather than something to which we have consecrated ourselves by obedience.

On the other side, those who argue for the 'sign in' model say that is far more practical, and produces a better estimate of how many will be present for a particular meal. Therefore, those who cook a lot sometimes favor this model. Even more, the brothers are notorious for forgetting to sign out and often overestimate others' awareness of the obligations and days off that sometimes absent them from table, which others are supposed to know automatically, e.g. 'Everyone knows I'm never here for supper on the third Wednesday of every other month.' Nobody pays you that much attention, I'm afraid. God, perhaps. In this broken world, the desire to ensure that you get something for supper is a more powerful reminder than fraternal concern and charity for the cook, and so it is easier to remember to sign in to indicate presence than to sign out when indicating absence. Or so goes the argument. Proponents of this position also point out that guests always have to be signed in, even when regular members have to make a mark when they are in the opposite condition of absence, leading to a nomenclaturally incoherent system that would be easily resolved if everyone, guests and regulars, had to sign in.

No doubt this debate will rage in religious life until we all find ourselves at the heavenly banquet.


cuaguy said...

Which model are you arguing for?

Brother Charles said...

Since the Holy Spirit has thus far protected me from being the guardian or vicar or any house, I have not yet had any need to form a definitive opinion on this matter.

Anonymous said...

On a similar pondering...

Is it:
"leave of absence" or a "leave of presence"?

Brother Charles said...

Are you having a vocation crisis already? LOL. That was fast.

Anonymous said...

Before I married my husband, I asked him to promise me that unless one of us were out of town for buisness that we always have dinner together as a family even if we had to alter the time. I think sign in versus sign out depends on the calling of the order. For many active orders, sign in would make sense. That said, the default should be assumed present. It is easier to handle left overs than to have failed to provide or figure out how to stretch a meal with little to no warning.

I suspect that I am benedictan in spirituality.


penny ante said...

I'm practical! If you want to eat, sign up for it!!! :)