The monks shuffled single file into the dining hall, their hooded heads bowed in silence, their hands clasped together. The morning fare had been arrayed on the long table and was the same as always . . . hearty soup, homemade bread, vegetables from the Abbey’s garden, and wine. As the dining hall filled, each monk stood in front of his assigned place and patiently awaited the Abbot’s arrival.
The Abbot, a short, severe-looking man in his mid-seventies, habitually entered the dining hall at mealtime from a side door obscured by a velvet curtain. Today was no exception, and he was always careful to wait until all the monks were standing at their chosen chairs to make his entrance and assume his own exalted position at the table. After all, he’d earned the right through years of loyal and devoted service to the Order.
After saying Grace, the Abbot announced, “Brothers, please be seated and commence this fine meal the Cook has prepared for us. We have much to do in the vineyard and garden before our evening devotionals, so you’ll need your energy today.” And with that, the familiar clack of wooden spoons against wooden bowls began to fill the dining hall along with the voices of the older monks.
The rules were simple enough. The younger monks were not allowed to speak unless spoken to by one of the older monks. As such, Brother Timothy had never been spoken to at the dining table in his three years since joining the Order. Not expecting today to be any different, he didn’t respond when Brother Jonathan asked him a question. It wasn’t until he was nudged by a brother next to him that he realized he was being spoken to. “I’m sorry, Brother Jonathan. Could you repeat your question?” Brother Timothy responded belatedly.
“Brother, I asked you if you’ve ever seen the Cook,” Brother Jonathan repeated, a wry smile crossing his face.
The brethren nearby stopped talking as their attention was drawn to the question posited to their young Brother Timothy. Clearing his throat, Brother Timothy replied gently, “I, uh, have not, Brother.”
“Even when you worked in the kitchen?”
“Not even then, Brother.”
“Do you find that curious, Brother?”
Hesitating for a moment, Brother Timothy debated within himself just how to answer the question. He’d heard rumors about how the younger Monks would sometimes be questioned about things, things of seeming little importance. But how they answered the questions would have important implications about how their futures in the Order would play out. He decided to take a chance.
“Yes, Brother, I did find it curious,” Brother Timothy answered calmly and then added, “But I have never seen God, either, Brother, but I know in my heart that he exists. And he provides us with all we need, just like the Cook does.”
None of the monks at the table said a word as Brother Timothy finished speaking. Nor did they continue to eat. Instead, transfixed by his words, they did nothing until a clinking on a wine glass was heard from the head of the table.
It was the Abbot, drawing all their attention to him. As they turned as one to the sound of the tinkling glass, the Abbot rose, walked slowly down the line of seated monks until he stopped behind Brother Timothy, who by this time was mystified by what was happening.
With all watching, the Abbot put his hands on Brother Timothy’s shoulders and, looking around at the others, announced, “He will sit at my right hand for the rest of my tenure here, Brothers.” And with that, the Abbot took Brother Timothy and led him to the head of the table and seated him on his right.
As the Abbot assumed his seat at the head of the table and instructed the rest of the monks to resume their meal, he turned to Brother Timothy, smiled, and leaning over, whispered, “Your faith is powerful, Brother. You are the first in two generations to have answered the question correctly. When I pass, you will be the new Abbot.”
“I am honored, your worship. But am I qualified? Won’t I need much training?” Brother Timothy wondered.
“You will do well, Brother Timothy. You have a good heart and a strong faith. Hopefully the Cook will approve of you, too. That’s important,” the Abbot replied.
“You’ve seen the Cook, your Worship? What’s he like? Will I meet him?” Brother Timothy asked breathlessly.
Looking around to be sure no one else was overhearing, the Abbot moved close to Brother Timothy and quietly divulged, “No, Brother Timothy, I’ve never seen him, either. He works very mysteriously. No one knows what he’s like, just that he’s always been here, cooking. And, no, you’ll never meet him either.”
As Brother Timothy leaned back in his wooden chair next to the Abbot, he felt a bit uneasy. He’d lied to Brother Jonathan earlier. He didn’t know why, but he had lied. He’d seen God, more than once. He’d just never told anyone. And he wouldn’t have known how to explain it in words, anyway.
Today in the garden he would find more of the mushrooms he liked to eat alone in his room late at night. Perhaps the Cook, too, would pay him a visit.