Visiting a monastery can be a bit disorienting. Everyone walks around staring at the ground, wearing Medieval garb, and no one talks. Not exactly a place where the average American feels at home unless maybe you are my husband who is more of an introvert than anyone I know. Still, even to him, entering into a community that exists mostly in silence feels isolating until, he says, you arrive at meal time and find a seat with a card marked with your name on it. It is a simple thing but it lets you know that you were expected and that there is a place for you here. With that little card which is laid out with a napkin and napkin ring the heart of monastic hospitality is conveyed.
At the monastery you get one napkin, it is switched out when laundry is done at the end of the week. You keep your napkin and name card tucked into its ring. And while some elements of this routine feel a bit stiff and formal it is exactly the formalities of it that give you a sense of place, an understanding of how things work and clarify your role in it.
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We took up cloth napkins pretty quickly in our house mostly because it felt practical. I am not one to take up anything fancy. I don’t want ruffles or anything that will break. I don’t even have more than three dishes that match. But give me something that is reusable and that saves me a few pennies and the earth a few trees and I’m all for it.
This week in the Liturgy of Life Reading group we read through Edith Schaeffer’s Hidden Art of Homemaking. In typical fashion she takes what seems like an exceptionally trivial topic, “flower arrangements,” and turns it upside down. In it she reminds us of the power of beauty to communicate and help foster communication between others. She challenges us to look for the little everyday things and turn them into something special, to seize exactly those mundane moments and use them as occasions for beauty that will inspire and delight our families and prepare us all to live in appreciation of the world around us.
Let me give an example,
It’s been a long day. You come home exhausted, your spouse is picking up the kids and will be home with everyone soon. There is nothing in the house to eat for dinner, you didn’t make it to the grocery store yesterday as you had intended. Frantic you pull out some mac and cheese and a package of hot dogs, hey at least the kids will love it. To move faster you skip the ketchup and buns and instead slice the hot dogs in half and drop them in with the boiling noodles, it all cooks into one greasy glob.
You reach for the paper plates, but pause, skipping the buns and ketchup has saved you a few minutes. You decide instead to do something exceptional. Instead of paper you dig around for the cloth napkins you never use. You set the table and find some old candle stubs in the junk drawer. Sneaking outside you cut one of your neighbors roses (growing over the fence into your yard of course) and drop it into a mason jar. Your family arrives to a candle-lit dinner, cloth napkins and a simple rose. And you sit down and eat cheesy hot dogs around the table and find that it was exactly what you were craving.
What would have been a mundane meal will now go down in the memory books as that night that you made cheesy mac and dogs and ate by candle light.
Now imagine you had gone for the paper plates ( I mean we all do it, I’m not judging, I’m just saying, imagine the difference). Imagine a bare table with a pot of mac and cheese in the middle instead of candles and flowers.
It is totally adequate, and often really it is the best we can do, but still there is something communicated in the first scenario, something of welcome and attention of love, even though in both cases we are eating the same quick meal.
When Schaeffer describes arranging a table she isn’t asking us to become florists. She is asking us to care and to spend a moment to prepare as we gather with our friends and family. She urges us to create a space that communicates love and attention and reminds us that beauty is an expression of love.
“Great moments of trust and confidence do not spring out of concrete. . . If you never have time to enhance moments together by making some preparation for beauty as well as for meeting necessities you are apt to miss altogether the spontaneous response and opening up of the personality which this would bring. An atmosphere of love and consideration, in which one is trying to anticipate the mood of others, requires something tangible, something that can be seen, as well as a feeling inside oneself. Expression which is felt and understood is not just conveyed in words but in words accompanied by actions.”
. . .
So here is a quick tip that works for us.
Cloth napkins laundered once a week (more often for toddlers but let’s face it they make a lot of laundry no matter what). Everyone has a napkin ring.
These are some plain ones from the thrift store. I wrapped some twine around and then we each picked out beads to mark them which I sewed in place so we all know whose napkin is whose.
When we have guests we give them their own napkin and napkin ring for their stay and we make a little place card for them that they can stick in their ring with their napkin to keep track of it.
I found that keeping place mats on the table helps motivate me to keep my junk from piling up there. So after the meal we refold our cloth napkins, shake out or wipe off our place-mat and I wipe off the table before I start the dishes, the whole thing ends up looking like it did before we started.
It’s nothing fancy but it gives us a place to start from that feels both peaceful and creative. Just keeping the table cleared from junk is an invitation to add something fun like a flower or candle. And each time we take our own special ring and stuff our napkin back into it we are each reminded that we have place at this table and a role in this family.
So that’s it folks, in case you were hoping for more, that’s what you get here at Liturgy of Life, meditations on napkin rings. I hope in some small way it helps. If you want more inspiration to find meaning in the small things of life read this on my friend Shannon’s blog.
Have a great weekend.
This post is part of a series in the Liturgy of Life Reading Group. We are currently working through The Hidden Art of Homemaking by Edith Schaeffer. We would love to have you read along with us or to hear your thoughts.
Thanks for being here.