The porter of the monastery
At the entrance to the monastery there should be a wise senior who is too mature win stability to think of wandering about and who can deal with enquiries and give whatever help is required. This official’s room should be near the main door so that visitors will always find someone there to greet them. As soon as anyone knocks on the door or one of the poor calls out, the response, uttered at once with gentle piety and warm charity, should be ‘thanks be to God’ or ‘your blessing please’. If the porter needs help, then a junior should be assigned to this task.
The monastery itself should be constructed so as to include within its bounds all the facilities which will be needed, that is water, a mill, a garden and workshops for various crafts. Then there will be no need for monks and nuns to wander outside which is far from good for their monastic development. We intend that this Rule should be read at regular intervals in the community so that no one may have the excuse of ignorance.
The porter is arguably one of the most important monks or nuns within the community. They are the face of the order, the face of the particular house, the first person that greets and newcomer, novice, pilgrim or the poor, and as such they need a disposition that is suitable for the task. There is no point in selecting an individual who is a poor sleeper and surly when woken, or someone that is so junior in years of profession that the lure of the outside world just beyond the door would be too appealing for them. That Benedict decrees that the room for the porter should be next to the main door again shows how important it is that the guest, whoever they may be, are greeted quickly – even if the hours of their calling are unsociable – and being close to the door will lessen the waiting time. There is nothing less hospitable than allowing a guest to stand on the doorstep exposed to the elements whilst you meander from one end of the complex to the other to let them in, if you even hear their knock at all.
The porter is not just a representative for the house and the particular community upon which door they tend, they are an ambassador for the whole of the Order, for all avowed Religious. If you have never encountered a monk or nun before and the first that you do is unhelpful or with a difficult attitude, or, even worse, absent from their post, it is going to leave a bad impression – and as we are all too aware, bad impressions are very easy to shift, especially when they are first impressions.
The Porter is implored, by the Rule, to see every guest as an opportunity – as a blessing – just by calling upon the door. God is thanked in the first utterance of the Porter upon hearing the call, or, even more poignantly, the Porter asks the visitor for a blessing. The high value placed upon guests which we have already examined as being at the heart of the Benedictine charism is evident in this response to their arrival. But, also, on a more practical note, by ensuring that this greeting is established in practice engraves it on the heart and it is harder to treat those badly, if you are committed to seeing them as a blessing.
Benedict was aware, painfully and from personal experience when his own monks tried to kill him, that submission to the Rule can cause the enemy of the soul to be especially active. A Carthusian once wrote: ‘Where God is working, the devil is not idle’ and so it is not surprising that in the community, where unceasing prayer is sought and the school in the Lord’s service enacted that the Devil gets to work on the minds, hearts and souls of the monk or nun, to drag them form their path. So the Holy Father makes it very clear that the Porter must be an individual who is very stable in their submission to the Rule. Being so close to the main door, being trusted with the keys, means that they have temptation before them to leave the confines of the monastery (even though everything they need is provided for them, as Benedict says in the final paragraph of the chapter)
Importantly also, it means that others who wish to leave would have to pass the Porter and be let out. If this is man or woman of considerable wisdom and strength in the Rule they are likely to be able to offer counsel to the one who wishes to leave, encourage them and help them keep their monastic vocation. They are both the welcome to the community for those without, and the gatekeeper of those within. As they are the first point of contact it is not suprsing that very often they were the most known monks tot he locale, and would often be sought out by people for spiritual direction and wisdom.
An example of this in our modern times is the life of the Venerable Solanus Casey, an american friar in the The Order of Friars Minor, Capuchin. He was the porter for many years in Detroit and became an inspirational figure for those that encountered him. The cause for his canonisation is still on going.
For those of us in the world this chapter has a lot to say about how we treat those that impose upon our time, we have already looked in some detail at hospitality in the previous chapters that deal with the reception of guests in the monastery specifically (Chapter fifty three) so instead let us look at how we may apply this in our life to those who come to us for charity or with particular issues.
It is a sadly common occurrence in our daily life that we will encounter those who, for whatever reason, have had to make the street their home. There are many different approaches to those who are homeless and many different way the statistics are counted and massaged by local authorities and national government to make it look as though it is an ever decreasing problem – but those who work with the homeless in any capacity from St Mungo’s, The Big Issue and Shelter through to the Salvation Army, all report that it is an issue that is increasing, especially in our cities. It is hard, in any city, to not be approached at stations or on shop parades and in town centres by those who are in need.
How do we see them when they come to us? Are they an irritation? Someone who is trying their luck, rather than just down on it? Is what they say fact or fiction? Does all their money go and support an expensive alcohol or drug problem? Are they part of a professional begging syndicate? All these thoughts may come to mind as we are approached, and some of our concerns and worries are indeed very valid. But do we see this individual as a exactly that, an individual, a fellow human struggling through life – for whatever reason having to approach strangers and ask them for money, do we consider the indignity?
Small acts of kindness can mean a huge amount. Whether it is a few coins, buying a big issue, buying a meal deal from the local supermarket or providing a cup of tea or coffee. One easy way to bless this person, is to remember the words of the Porter that Benedict teaches. When you are approached by someone in this situation, think to yourself, thanks be to God – that they have approached you, that you have been selected, out of all these people, to be the one to be able to provide something, no matter how small or how insignificant it may be to you. One of the responses I am often told by the homeless who live in my parish is that just being spoken with, conversed with, having the time of day passed with them, even a hello, can make a huge difference when they can go for days without any human interaction.
We can be like the Porter when we encounter those in need, greeting them. In doing so, like the Porter represents his or her community, we represent Jesus Christ to them, to those who are on the margins, the the poor, whom we know are so close to the heart of the saviour.