Reflections by Brother Luke
Our married community, the Companions of New Skete, back in the 1990s, decided to start a dog biscuit business to help support their monastery. Brother Elias created the recipe for the biscuits. This was truly a cottage industry, since all the work was done in the Companions’ residence. They purchased all the ingredients for the recipe, mixed them together and made the dough, rolled it out, and used dog-biscuit-shaped hand cookie cutters to cut out each individual biscuit and place it on large cookie sheets. But that was not all; they also made an egg white wash that they applied to each biscuit with basting brushes. Of course, they also purchased convection ovens to bake the biscuits. The business grew, but it reached a point where they could not keep up with orders.
At this time the monks had come to the conclusion that we could not keep up with the sausage-making business, so we thought we could replace that with dog biscuit production. We purchased a large convection oven and initially used the hand cookie cutters and a hand roller that the Companions had purchased to improve efficiency. In time we realized that the operation was still slow, so Brother Elias began looking for a machine that would cut the biscuits more quickly. He found one in Cleveland but decided he should go look at it before making a decision to buy it. It was winter, and Brother Elias took the train to Cleveland. Unfortunately, a major snowstorm hit and covered the tracks with snow. Part of the train went off the track and caused a huge delay. Brother Elias finally reached his destination, checked out the cutter and decided it would work for us, placed the order, and returned. No train wreck on the return trip!
Many years later we reached the same conclusion as the Companions. We had hit the upper limit of our production and could not expand the business any further without outside help. So Brother Elias searched for a company to take this on. He found one, and for many years they produced the biscuits for us, slightly revising the recipe so that it would work in their baking equipment. However, they ran into the opposite problem. They were not as successful as they had hoped in growing the business, and their minimum production runs were larger than demand, so they finally gave it up. We are now back at the cottage industry level, although having sold all our biscuit-making equipment, including the oven, we have teamed up with another baker who bakes the biscuits for us, using Brother Elias’ original recipe and doing all the work by hand. We handle all the distribution. So we have basically come around full circle to the initial cottage industry created by the Companions.
Coming full circle happened in another area too. After our Abbot retired in 2000, many aspects of our life were “on the table,” as it were, open for discussion, including our refectory tables. Virtually from the beginning, the arrangement for the refectory tables had been in a horseshoe shape, with the top of the horseshoe formed by the head table, where the Abbot sat. The rest of the brothers and guests were positioned around the Abbot. Each week the brothers shifted one position to the right in a continuing rotation around the Abbot. We also had cloth napkins and wooden napkin rings with each brother’s initials on his ring. Dinner was delivered to the table and served by the cooks.
Without an Abbot, I as the locum tenens at the time did not have any desire to sit at the “head” of the table. We also decided to switch from the practice of being served to serving ourselves at a buffet table and taking the food to our own seats. But soon, the brothers began to question even the arrangement of the tables. So we decided to try other arrangements. We removed the horseshoe end table and set the tables up in rows. That didn’t seem right, so we put the tables together two by two in separate units. Again that didn’t work. Then we tried putting all the tables together to make one big table. Exasperated, Brother James said it looked like a train wreck! So we then decided to make one large rectangle.
The rectangle arrangement survived for many years. But we noticed that we had a lot of unused space in the middle, and we had lost the space outside the tables where we put our dogs on down stay during meals. So just a few years ago we put the tables back into their original horseshoe arrangement, but without returning to the rigid requirement of the superior at the head and everyone else in assigned seats rotating around the superior. So, we had come full circle. But that was OK. Sometimes it is good to try new things to see what the other possibilities are. If, in the end, the original idea still seems to be best, then you use it without embarrassment, knowing that you had the freedom to try other options. This was just another example of the community working through an issue as a group rather than expecting such changes to be decided by an individual.