The qualities required by the cellarer
‘The Cellarer of the monastery should be chosen from among the community. To qualify for this choice a candidate should be wise and mature in behaviour, sober and not an excessive eater, not proud nor apt to give offence nor inclined to cause trouble, not unpunctual, nor wasteful but living in fear of God and ready to show the community all the love a father or mother would show to their family. The cellarer will be responsible for the care of all the monastery’s goods but must do nothing without the authority of the superior, being content to look after what is committed to the cellarer’s care without causing annoyance to the community. ‘
We come now to one of the longest chapters in the Rule and unsurprisingly it is about the very practical details surrounding food and possessions, both of which take on a very different meaning in monastic community as they otherwise would in the ‘real world’ (it is perhaps fitting that this is being written in March 2020 when we are on lockdown because of a global pandemic and our food and possessions suddenly mean something very different). As this chapter is unpacked I shall do so in sections for ease of access.
This first paragraph begins, as it should, with the character of the candidate for this position. Interestingly the phrase that jumps out is ‘mature in behaviour’ – not mature in years. So this is not a role that is automatically given to someone purely because of longevity or, indeed, the number of years they may be in their monastic vow. This takes into consideration the very real nature of the community and allows a better distribution of gifts – this is the mark of true leadership – that someone should be put into the position that allows them to flourish.
However, Benedict does stipulate that it must be someone from among the community. That this is included suggests that some jobs in the monastic complex may well have been undertaken by people who are not members, perhaps regular guests or local workers or people that have a specialised skill. This role, however, is deemed significant in many ways and therefore has to be a member of the community. Because they are responsible for the distribution of food and such it is vital that they have intimate knowledge of the needs of the community. They must also be sober and not be an excessive eater – the reason for this is two fold – firstly they will spend much of their time in the stores and cellars with the food and drink supplies. It brings unnecessary temptation to one who is more likely to overindulge – not through malicious intent, just through proximity. Also, if someone drinks or eats more than others, they are likely to judge distribution of food in a more generous way – therefore supplies may not be eked out as far in years where crops fail or harvests are meagre.
They must be like Joseph in Egypt. Prudent with the supplies and storing and preserving them in the years of plenty for the years of less. The monastic community needs to be as self sufficient as possible to limit the need to enter back into the world and thus be distracted from the true purpose of their life, the work of God, in the chapel.
The character of the Cellarer is important because of the way in which they can affect the whole community very easily – if they are hot tempered and decide in an act of anger to lock the doors – nobody eats. If they are malicious and seek revenge, other members of the community unduly suffer in the flesh. It is also important that they don’t make unilateral decisions alone – their role is important – vital even – but they do not have authority in the same way the superior does. Once again, like Joseph in Egypt, he was granted power and authority but still subject to the Pharaoh.
‘If one of the community comes with a reasonable request, the cellarer should, in refusing what is asked, be careful not to give the impression of personal rejection and so hurt the petitioner’s feelings. Such a refusal of an ill-judged request should be measured and given due deference towards the person involved. As an incentive to personal spiritual progress the cellarer might remember St Paul’s saying that those who give good service to others earn a good reputation. The cellarer should show special concern and practical care for the sick and the young, for guests and for the poor,and never forget the account to be rendered for all these responsibilities on the day of judgement.’
Because of the practical nature of the position of the Cellarer, they will have the greatest amount of contact, on a day to day basis, with members of the community and therefore will develop a particular understanding of their temperaments and needs. Those who are working in the kitchen, the field, the garden, the orchard, etc. will all have dealings with the Cellarer often in the cause of their own duties and responsibilities.
However, not every member of the community will and sometimes requests that are made may come through naivety or lack of judgement. The response to them should be kind, but firm, as the Cellarer must abide by the prudence that they have been chosen for, the needs of the community at large, and also the orders of the superior. Sometimes the very nature of saying no to someone can cause offence and so Benedict reminds the Cellarer to ensure that no personal offence is meant or taken, even when things will be hectic for the Cellarer, such as at harvest time.
The most telling part of the chapter about the role of the Cellarer is the one that sums up much of the framework for the Benedictine tradition. That they Cellarer should give special care to those that are sick or young – in the community – as these are the ones that for one reason or another may need more food. The young for their growth and development without which they will not progress in their duties or spiritual development. The sick because they need to recover and their body will be weaker from fighting off whatever it is that ails them. Then attention is turned to the guests, who, as we saw in an earlier chapter, should be treated as hugely important and therefore generosity should be shown, and also to the poor – for they are given priority often in the scripture.
In order to assert the importance of this Benedict once again invokes scripture in the words of Saint Paul, reminding the Cellarer that this is a sacred duty to which they will have to render account at the day of judgement. This is a permissive use of scripture that can overrule other orders or thoughts from the self about what is or isn’t appropriate.
‘All the utensils of the monastery and in fact everything that belongs to the monastery should be cared for as though they were sacred vessels of the altar. There must be no negligence on the part of the cellarer nor any tendency to avarice nor to prodigality nor extravagance with the goods of the monastery. The administration should be carried out in all respects with moderation in accordance with the instruction of the abbot or abbess.’
The sparse personal possessions in the life of the monk or nun are supposed to build a lack of attachment to earthly things in order to focus on the spiritual work of the soul. So those items that are the possession of the monastery should be treated with respect. Replacing things because they have gone missing or carelessly broken is not a prudent use of resources. One of the reasons for our rampant materialism is because of the availability of stuff, we can have whatever we want, pretty much whenever we want it. We accumulate items for status or disordered desire. Treating the tools and utensils of the monastery as though they are sacred vessels of the altar has a multi beneficial approach – firstly it means they will be respected and cared for so resources and time won’t be wasted in replacing or repairing them unnecessarily, secondly, it shows that we should be thankful for the items that we do have and this breeds a more healthy connection to our material items, thirdly, it shows the importance that Benedict places on manual work – that it is of equal value to the work at the altar or in the oratory. Work is prayer and prayer is work and therefore the aids to both activities must be respected.
Again the work ethic of the Cellarer is brought to attention. No laziness, no excessive spending, is the order of the day. This helps to ensure smooth running of the manual labour of the monastic complex and the forming of good spiritual habits when it comes to connection to material property.
‘Among the most important qualities the cellarer needs to cultivate is humility and the ability to give a pleasant answer even when a request must be refused. Remember how scripture says that a kindly word is of greater value than a gift, however precious. Although the cellarer’s responsibility embraces all that is delegate by the superior there must be no attempt to include what the superior has forbidden. The community should receive their allotted food without any self important fuss or delay on the part of the cellarer which might provoke them to resentment. The cellarer should remember what is deserved, according to the Lord’s saying, by those who provoke to sin one of his little ones.’
That Benedict extends this chapter to include a second reminder of the importance of kindness shows how central the cellarer is to the life, and therefore stability, of the community. People have very different relationships with food and when we are deprived of it, especially when we are already hungry or tired can have great ramifications on our behaviour. We don’t always act like ourselves when we are overly hungry and our behaviour can impact those around us, that is only amplified in the confines of a monastic cloister.
The Cellarer must also ensure that by their behaviour they are not placing themselves in opposition to the superior – which would be easy to do because of the very practical nature of their work. They must remember that they are not building up a personal kingdom but acting as the steward of all that has been placed in their care, failure to do so may cause others in the order to stray from the path of virtue, and harsh judgement awaits those that cause others to sin by their own poor example.
‘If the community is large, the cellarer must receive assistance of helpers whose support will make the burden of this office tolerable. There will, of course, be appropriate times for the cellarer to hand out what is needed and for requests for goods or services to be made, these times should be observed by all so that failure to respect them may not cause any disturbance or unhappiness in the house of God.’
Benedict ends as is characteristic – practically. To have the role of the Cellarer grow exponentially when the community grows in number, without support, would be nonsensical and would lead to a failure on the part of even the most diligent of Cellarers, and so others can be co-opted in to assist. This is also good for succession planning, working out and testing out who may be suitable for the role in the future.
Finally the time in which the Cellarer can be approached for requests is restricted. Because of the practical nature of their role in the community there may well be needs that occur at strange times – if there was open access to the Cellarer then they would never get the chance to focus on their own spiritual needs – it would also mean that people in the community were focusing on the practical elements at times that may not be appropriate – such as in the oratory if they happen to be seated close to the Cellarer. It also is a way to level everyone in the community again – even the Abbot or Abbess cannot approach out of the set times. No preferential treatment is given, which means that when refusals have to be made it is always less personal, no one is shown favouritism which again helps with harmony and balance in the community.