A recent survey, taken in a school for upper-middle-class American children, surfaced a startling statistic. When asked how many times per month each child sat down to an evening meal with the family, the average answer was once.
"Stay with us. It is nearly evening-the day is practically over."
We recoil at the long-range consequences of such informal family patterns. More positively, a statistic like that generates an immediate reaction in favor of the undisputed value that table fellowship has in building community.
"He took bread and pronounced the blessing...."
Whether it be the family, an intentional adult live-in community, the weekly or biweekly Bible study circle, the justice and peace solidarity groupwhatever expression of community one examines, breaking bread together is of its essence. There is something about preparing, serving, sharing, enjoying, and even cleaning up that makes the community table a place like no other in the life of the group.
"He broke the bread..."
A community meal contains little that is casual or offhand. Obviously, this is true of the preparation. The cook(s) plan well ahead of time what food will most benefit the group. (In one community even the cardiac patient can count on special "heart-healthy" dishes when the principal meal might prove problematic.)
"...and began to distribute it to them."
Things are readied so that the meal will go on the table at the appointed time; late meals drag down community spirits. Often the cook doubles as waiter, making sure that each one has what s/he requires, thus avoiding the "boarding house" atmosphere of everyone for him/herself.
"With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him...."
The intentionality goes further. Each member must commit him/herself to being present, really present, actively present. In the family community, the adults have to see to it that the younger members show up for the meal and receive a hearing at the table. In adult communities the members must come to table ready to speak and listen, contribute and receive, draw out each member and allow themselves to be drawn out.
"They said to one another: 'Were our hearts not burning inside us as he talked...?'"
In such an atmosphere of giving and receiving, one cannot overestimate the benefit each participant draws from the collective. We know of one high school student whose college application essay described the wonderful people who had graced the family table during her growing up years. (The university immediately offered her a partial scholarship.)
"They got up immediately and returned to Jerusalem, where they found the eleven...."
The small and large courtesies that fall under the rubric of "table manners" make for a smooth community-building experience that can truly be called table fellowship. The group pays attention to such details as waiting until everyone is served before beginning, anticipating the requests of others at the table, making sure that all around the table engage in the conversation, contributing to a relaxed atmosphere during the meal.
"Then they recounted what had happened..."
Above all, the community gathered at the table must attend to the quality of conversation. Light-hearted comments can provide wonderful lubrication for the give and take of mealtime. Serious topics must have their place as well. It is in the enjoyable atmosphere of eating and drinking in community that dialogue best happens, new ideas find expression, and contradictory opinions are safely stated and received.
"...and how they had come to know him in the breaking of bread."
May all of our communities know the Lord's presence as we break bread together.
Joe Nangle, OFM, was executive director of Franciscan Mission Service and a member of Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., when this article appeared.