Commensality. I first came across the word a few years ago when I wrote an appeal for a community of monks. It means the act of sitting at table together (remember that famous first declension Latin noun, mensa?).
Commensality was one of the central observances of their daily life, the monks explained, even though they ate in silence. And if, continuing the Latin theme, I were to have sat down with them a stranger, I would have risen after eating as their companion, having shared bread with them.
I’m thinking about these essential human rituals because I’ve been putting together a slide show for the Dark Angels 10th anniversary dinner in London. I’ve sifted through hundreds of photographs of the 40-odd courses and projects we’ve run over the last decade and what strikes me is that so many of them have been taken around the table.
There are al fresco lunches on a vine-draped verandah in southern Spain. There are sundowners on a lakeside deck in Sweden. There are candlelit dinners in an elegant Northumbrian country house. There’s breakfast on polished mahogany refectory tables in the dining hall of an ancient Oxford college, do-it-yourself elevenses in a homely kitchen in the Highlands, and many more meals in many more places from Zurich and Gdansk to Snowdonia, the Scottish Borders and Sussex.
Tonight, at the Goldsmiths’ Centre in London, we will sit down to the crowning meal, the largest ever congregation of Dark Angels, as 72 of us dine together in celebration of ten years of courses; while earlier in the evening we will have launched Keeping Mum, the Dark Angels collective novel and the fruit of yet more commensality.
Around that decade’s worth of tables, ideas that have been sown during the working sessions have come to be shared and savoured along with the food and drink that is served. Connections have deepened and been enriched in conviviality. Much that’s important and enduring from these courses takes place in these moments of companionship. Snatches of remembered conversation surface sometimes months later with all the force of fresh insight.
Dark Angels is a constant journey of discovery, as much for John, Stuart and me as for our students. But the thing that has been most unexpected has been the fact that we seem to have created a community. We set out to encourage people to think harder about the language they use, to dig down to the roots of words just such as ‘commensality’ and ‘companionship’, and in doing so to reach a deeper and more powerful sense of meaning. We certainly didn’t intend to start a fellowship.
But that is what has happened. Perhaps by seeking deeper meaning in language we also find deeper connections, with ourselves and others; and these connections have flowed together from all those separate moments of commensality to create the thriving family that Dark Angels has become. I don’t mind admitting that it’s a source as much of pride as surprise to us.