Chapter Sixty Three

BN-RU353_0126MO_M_20170125132336.jpg

Community Order

The three criteria for the order of precedence in the community are first of all the date of entry, then monastic observance and the decision of the abbot or abbess. But they must not cause unrest in the flocks committed to them by acting unjustly and as though with arbitrary authority but must remember at all times that an account will have to be given of all their decisions and works in this world. Well then, whenever the community gets into order for the kiss of peace, or for Holy Communion or for intoning the psalms or taking their place in choir or in any other circumstances they must be guided by the superior’s directions or the order established by the date of their entry. Age must never be the deciding factor in the community order just as it was that Samuel and Daniel judged their elders when they were still only boys. So, apart from those who the superior has promoted for a more cogent reason or demoted for specific faults, all the others retain the order of their conversion to monastic life so exactly that one who arrived at the monastery door at the second hour must accept a place junior to another who came an hour earlier whatever their age or former rank may have been. Children, of course, must be kept in their subordinate place by everyone on all occasions. 

Juniors in the community should show due respect for their seniors and seniors should love and care for their juniors. When they address each other it should not be simply by name, but senior monks call their juniors ‘brother’ and the juniors address their seniors as ‘nonnus’ or ‘reverend father’. The abbot is understood to hold the place of Christ in the monastery and for this reason is called ‘lord’ or ‘abbot’, not because he demands it for himself but out of reverence and love of Christ; (For the same reasons an abbess is called ‘lady abbess’ and nuns in monastic community address each other as ‘sister’ or ‘mother’) it is a point on which he should often reflect to help him to live up to so great an honour. 

When members of a monastic community meet each other, the junior asks a blessing of the senior. As a senior passes by, the junior rises and yields a place for the senior to sit down and will never sit without the senior’s permission. In that way they will conform to scripture which says they should try to be the first to show respect for each other. Small children and adolescents must keep their places in the oratory and the refectory in a disciplined way. Anywhere else, and especially outside the monastery, they must be under supervision and control until they have learnt responsibility as they get older.\

In this chapter, the order of the community, we are given an insight into exactly how many aspects of life are governed by the position someone takes in the monastery. In the previous chapters we have been told that the position in the community is primarily based on date of entry – what Benedict calls – the conversion to monastic life. And the use of the word conversion is very important as it demonstrates that the entry into monastic life is not something to be treated lightly (we have already read of the rigorous process for accepting new recruits in chapter fifty eight) and that, as ever, the primary concern of Benedict (save from the individual sanctification of the soul) is the balance of the community, to allow that progress toward Holiness to happen.

You would be forgiven for thinking that the order in the community, the rank one holds, does not have much impact on daily life and may only be considered when it comes to permissions being given by the superior for certain tasks – especially those that take the individual away from the community for any length of time – but here, Benedict shows us how much it impacts daily life and governs the actions of all. The ordering of the community is important, he says, so that the flock are not disturbed, and so all are expected to play their part and take their place, senior and junior, as instructed by Benedict.

The terminology the monks use in relation to one another shows the development of the familial and fraternal environment. The seniors are to greet their juniors as brother, as a relation, not as a subordinate. The juniors in return, being greeted with respect offer a reciprocal reverend father or nonnus. (this word has become synonymous with the word monk but comes form a more child-like vocabulary with inference to tutor or ‘old person’  but without a negative connotation) – this acknowledges that the junior, whilst being treated as a brother, recognises that they are to be guided and taught by those more senior to to them in orders.

Sometimes the mere mention of order is difficult for people accept, it has many negative images – such as those of hierarchy and privilege of power. Of course, there are times when these are true. Most monks that I have met and had the privilege of learning from actually speak very little about order, because they live in such an ordered way that it is just naturally part of their existence. But order is helpful, namely because it prevents a cult of personality or the domination of the group by any one particular person. For example, if you have a very charismatic individual in a group with no order, very quickly they will rise to the top of the pile and the group will be shaped by their personality and their whim. This, arguably can be a good thing, we see that in the lives of many of our great saints – perhaps even Benedict himself, but on the whole it is not a positive experience – at the very least it means the group is unlikely to survive post the life and leadership of that individual. Order establishes a longer lasting pattern, charismatic individuals are curbed in their overall influence and voices that are otherwise not heard are given an opportunity – an equality is created because all are following the same order. There is one Rule for all, not one Rule for one and one for another.

The principle aim of this order is humility. The rank within the community is a constant reminder that there are those above us and those below and causes us to think outside of ourselves, limiting the scope for selfish and egotistical though. There is an obvious, physical reminder of the need to be humble and obedience.

For those of us navigating a Christian life outside of the monastery what might order look like? We don’t rank the members of our church and congregation based on the date of their baptism, but it is also true to say we don’t, like the model of Benedict, do it purely on age. Very often those in positions of leadership may be considerably younger than those in the pew, and the learning between them is mutual – the formal teaching from the front and the teaching of a faith filled life can often be more apparent from the congregation.

But we should look at the ordering of our lives, as in where our focus and attention is and part of that needs to be a lessening of focus on the self in favour of the other. It is probably the most difficult aspect of our Christian life to put into practice. We are constantly surrounded by images from culture that tell us that we are the centre of our universe, we are living in the ‘i’ generation, the selfie, social media, self-care generation where looking out for number one is the prime goal, and number one is clearly the self.

What is commonly misunderstood in the lessening of focus on self is not the belief that we are somehow worthless, but that awareness of the needs of others should be a first thought and where most of our energy is place. Otherwise we end up in a very inward looking, naval gazing existence, making ourselves an island in a sea of chaos.

Ordering our lives needs to reflect our priorities. First, our duty is to God, He must be the centre of our life, we must live in humble submission to Him, whatever else we do then flows from that relationship. The care for ourselves becomes part of that, respecting His creation and recognising the Divine Spark within us. Then our focus must be to others, seeing Christ in the poor, the downtrodden and the outcast, seeing those who are without our privilege and comfort, without the ease of our lives, and doing what we can to raise them up and alleviate their suffering. Then we may turn to ourselves, and expend effort on our own needs.

How might it be best to remind ourselves of the need to focus primarily on God and then, as an outward expression of that, on others? Beginning each morning in prayer, asking for God’s blessings upon the day, on the activities before us, the situations we will be in and the people that we will meet.

One prayer that I use often is ‘Lord, help me to see others as you do, amen’ In praying this short prayer it is imploring God to be infused with His love and compassion for the world, and if I receive even a fraction of that for others, I am already ahead of what I would be able to muster from the recess of my damaged heart.

Chapter Sixty Two

images.jpeg

The Priests of the monastery

If an abbot wishes to have a  monk ordained priest or deacon he must select one from his community who has the gifts needed for the priesthood. When ordained a monk must be careful to avoid a spirit of self-importance or pride and he must avoid taking on himself any duties which the abbot has not assigned him. He must be amenable to the discipline of the Rule, all the more because of his priesthood. His ordination to the priesthood should be no occasion for him to be forgetful of obedience and the obligations of the Rule, but he must moorland more direct the growth of his spiritual life towards the Lord. He must keep his place in the community order according to the date of his coming to the monastery except in his priestly duties at the altar and unless by the will of the community he is promoted because of the good example of his monastic observance.

He must in any case be faithful to the principles laid down for the deans and the prior of the monastery. If he should be headstrong enough to behave in any other way, he will be accounted not a priest but a rebel and treated accordingly. If he ignores repeated warnings and does not reform, the evidence of this must be brought before the Bishop. If even that brings no improvement and his offences become notorious, he will have to be dismissed from the monastery, but that must be avoided unless he is so arrogant that he refuses to submit and obey. 

It would be unfair to say that Benedict is suspicious of the clerical state, but this chapter of the Rule and the previous chapter on the admission of priests to the monastery (ch. 60) show the the is wary of how the presence of the ordained can effect the community. It is, as I remarked earlier, incredibly useful for the community to have a priest available to them, to offer the sacrifice of the mass at the altar and to perform other sacramental rites, such as extreme unction and the sacrament of reconciliation (commonly, confession) but the Holy Father is aware because of the status of the clerical state, the ontological change that those who are ordained go through, it can cause ripples within their own soul and those, like the ripples in a pond, can expand outward and make waves through the community. His first aim is always the preservation of the atmosphere where all can flourish in Benedictine stability, harmoniously. So the selection of a candidate to be a priest must be done with great discernment and care, as indeed, it should in the world beyond the cloister. The effect of living in close community, however, is that even the smallest faults can be magnified.

The Holy Father does not go into detail about the characteristics that are required for the priesthood, those are well documented in other teachings of the church and Benedict does not put his own stamp upon it, but reaffirms them. Pope Francis in an address in 2014 remarked “Some human qualities that are essential for these ministers (are) hospitality, sobriety, patience, kindness, goodness of heart,” and this, it seems, is a good summary of the more comprehensive characteristics outlined in the canons and catechesis of the church. And much of what the Pope said in 2014 is in-keeping with the life of the monk. To be hospitable, for which the Benedictines have a good reputation, sobriety and patience are built into the very fabric of the Rule and kindness and goodness of heart are all qualities which living within a community help to hone. And so, there must be a particular ingredient to ensure that the one chosen for ordination is going to remain steadfast in the Rule.

When the priest is ordained it is important to note that he is not raised above the laity. Whilst ordination has unfortunately become wedded to the ideas of leadership, at the heart of the priestly calling is being recognised as the servant of others. The people of God, the populus dei, require the priest to minister to them for the good of their sanctification and spiritual life, their presence informs his ministry, and whilst he is a priest forever, it is inexplicably bound up in his service to others, a mutuality is formed – they need him to serve them and he needs them in order to fully exercise his call. It must be remembered that the priest is set apart – not raised above. Unfortunately because of the respect and deference granted to clerics some have the tendency have egos expanded and take on a more authoritarian approach. This is incogrous to the priestly state and it is exactly this sort of the priest that Benedict wishes to avoid in the community – a priest like that in the world is bad enough, one like that in the confines of the cloister is an accident waiting to happen.

So the priest in the community is not elevated in rank, unless touchingly the whole community consent that he is providing a good example and therefore can be. But Benedict does say that the standards of the priest should match that of the Dean and Prior, being a priest raises the expectations placed on the individual to be exemplary in the monastic life as well as the priestly life. And there is now also the greater supervision – not just the abbot in monastic life but the bishop in clerical life. Both holding the individual to account in the exercise of their duty and their monastic obedience. The great privilege that comes from standing at the alter, being ‘in persona Christi’, in the person of Christ for that sacrifice means the individual must strive to live a life befitting of it.

For those of us who are not trundling down the path toward ordination we need to consider how our Christian life is modelled in the secular world. There is an saying that is sometimes attributed to Gandhi when he was asked by someone what he thought of Christianity. His alleged reply was ‘I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians, they are nothing like your Christ’ – a very stark condemnation of the way in which Christians have been acting. The well known put down ‘Holier than thou’ being a way in which outward expressions of Christian piety have been linked to arrogance or superiority, exactly the same trap that the priest monk can call into with their dual calling. As a Christian in the world we should view ourselves at the servant of others, so that, to quote that famous and misattributed line from S. Francis of Assisi “Always preach the gospel, use words when necessary” (it does not appear in any of his writings but has endured none the less) – when we claim the promises of Christianity for ourselves we should be prepared to place ourselves on the bottom most rung, take the lowest seat at the table, not in submissiveness to the people around us, but in demonstration of a selflessness that comes from being redeemed by God.

As we step out into the world we, like Mary visiting Elizabeth, carry Christ with us and the impact of that must effect our daily life. Just as the priest monk feels the weight of both collar and habit, so must we feel the weight of our baptism and tread accordingly, sure footed but humbled by it.

 

Chapter Sixty One

monks-1077839_1280-1.jpg

Monastic pigrims from far away

Monks or nuns on pilgrimage from far away, who come to the monastery asking to be received as guests should be received for as long as they wish to stay provided that they are content with the local style of life they encounter and cause no disturbance in the monastery by and excess in personal behaviour. It may happen, of curse, that one of them may end something to point out in criticism about the customs of the monastery, sound arguments in a spirit of charitable deference. In that case the superior should consider the whole question with care and prudence in case it was for this very purpose that the pilgrim was sent by the Lord. Then, if later such a pilgrim wishes to embrace stability in the monastery, the request should not meet with automatic refusal, especially since it will have been possible to discern the qualities of the new postulant while still a guest.

If, on the other hand, such a pilgrim monk or nun has been revealed as a guest be overbearing and full of bad habits then not only should all further association with the community be refused but such a guest should quite only be requested to depart for fear that such a wretched example might lead others astray. But if no such negative signs are apparent it may be right to go further and no wait for a request to be accepted in the community. It may even be right to persuade such a one to stay so that others may benefit and learn from such example. After all, in all the world there is only one Lord and one King in whose service we are all engaged to fight. The superior may even perceive qualities in such a pilgrim to suggest it would be right to grant a somewhat higher position in the community order than would be justified merely by the date of entry. The same principle would apply also to a postulant from the orders of priests, and clerics, who have been mentioned above. The superior may decide to place one of them in a position higher than that dictated by the date of their entry, if he sees their monastic observance is worthy of it. 

The abbot or abbess, however, must be careful not to accept to stay as a guest any monk or nun from another known monastery without the consent of the appropriate superior and a letter of commendation. They must bear in mind the warning of scripture; do not do to another what you would not wish to suffer yourself. 

Here we have a chapter on the reception of others monks and nuns into the community when they visit as guests or on pilgrimage, and there are several important points in which the nature of the Rule of Benedict is highlighted by practice. Firstly, the fraternal element of the monastic life is highlighted when it is stated that they should be received ‘for as long as they wish’. The Holy Father’s community who refer to one another as brother and sister must demonstrate that this is a bond that goes beyond the surface level of title and word, and is tangible in action. A monk or a nun from another monastery who has taken the same vows is linked in a bond that must be respected. They are family and welcomed as such. They are not assigned to the guest house as other visitors are, and are welcomed into the choir to take their rightful place, as if this house were their own.

Benedict tempers this, however, with the proviso that they must be content to live under the local custom. This, in itself, is very telling about the nature of the Rule and the way it is implemented and indeed how the Holy Father expected it to be implemented. As we have seen in previous chapters much of the day-to-day running of each individual monastery is left to the wisdom and discernment of the superior (after having taken counsel from all the chapter of the Religious) and therefore local custom will arise. As it is with all local custom, it does not take long for that to be enshrined as ‘tradition’ even when the abbot, abbess or even the community that implemented it has all but changed.

There is an old story of a monastery that had a cat, every day the cat used to get into the oratory and disturb the prayers of the monks, so the superior ordered that during the Work of God, the cat be tied up and restrained to prevent it from occurring. The abbot left office and died and a new one was elected, and the cat, living a remarkably long time was still tied up every time the Offices were chanted. One day, the cat died, and the new abbot ordered someone to go and purchase a cat, so it could be tied up during the Work of God. Practical local custom becomes tradition.

The visiting brother or sister must therefore recognise that there will be differences in style from their house to this, as the interpretation of the Rule allowed by Benedict has been implemented to reflect the needs or context of the community. However, Benedict shows his characteristic humility, aware that interpretation may also lead to mistakes being made and the very spirit of the Rule being lost. Sometimes an outside pair of eyes, not familiar with how things are ‘done here’ may notice these and should feel able to raise them, Benedict says, charitably. The superior and community must have the humility to accept such criticism offered in fraternal love and equal humility. They are family, they should be able to assist one another in improvement of the home.

For us I think this speaks strongly about our inner self, our soul, the cell of our heart. As we walk the journey of the Christian faith through this world toward the eternal Kingdom of heaven we will meet other pilgrims on the road, those who have undertaken the same baptismal vows as us, are our family birthed through body, blood and water, and we should accompany one another for as long as each wishes. It may also be that we have to be content with the customs of others, the different ways in which they pray, the diverse way in which they express their love of God, their relationship with the Son and feel the movement of the Spirit. I think, in the Church, one of the biggest disputes that occurs is not around hugely differing views of doctrinal issues (although of course that is a cause of tension) but around Churchmanship, as unhelpful as that word may be. You only have to glance at Social Media during the significant Christian festivals and feasts to find a raft of our brothers and sisters tearing chunks off one another because of this, that or the other being ‘incorrect’ according to various customs and traditions.

These conversations are never edifying. Because they are never done with humility and in the spirit of a genuine desire to learn. They become performative pieces to demonstrate how much one knows and how little another does. They are tribal and entering into an elaborate war dance of words to be elected chief and hold supremacy in an ever diverse church. There are certain things enshrined in the canons of the church that are important and deeply matter as the expression of the church catholic and all that is believed and celebrated, and sometimes transgressions in regard do need to be corrected, but this should be done so in love and with a true demonstration of fraternal love.

It is even more problematic when we take our personal disciplines and attempts at piety and impress them upon another without concern for their own physical, mental and spiritual needs. Fasting is an obvious example. There are guidelines laid down for when fasting should occur and what it should look like, but there are also exemptions and different approaches to accommodate such things as age, medical conditions, pregnancy and the nature of the work undertaken by an individual. What would be an easy fast for one person may be a serious spiritual struggle for another. We must learn to accommodate these ‘local customs’ that have variance precisely because we are unique individuals. We can support and uphold the customs of another without it somehow diminishing ours or making our offering obsolete.

Benedict ends with ensuring the proper order remains in place, that a monk or nun should not be accepted from a known monastery without the correct papers and authority, a recognition and acknowledgement that this person remains under authority elsewhere and that cannot be assumed or consumed by the superior without proper consultation. Similarly, when we encounter other pilgrims in this life we must remember that their superior, as ours, is God alone and we cannot assume to take control by imposing upon them what He has asked of us, without due regard that His authority in their life is absolute.

 

Chapter Sixty

unnamed.jpg

The admission of priests into the monastery. 

An ordained priest who asks to be received into the monastery should not be accepted too quickly. If, however, he shows real perseverance in his request, he must understand that, if accepted, he will be bound to observe the full discipline of the Rule and may expect no relaxations. He will have to face up to the scriptural question: friend what have you come here for? He should be allowed, however, to take his place after the abbot and exercise his ministry in giving blessings and offering Mass, provided that the abbot allows it. 

He must understand that he is subject to the requirements of the Rule.. He must not make any special demands but rather give everyone else an example of humility. If any question of rank arises in the community on the score of ordination or any other matter, he must take the place determined by the date of his entry into the community not by any concession granted through reverence for his priesthood. If anyone in one of the orders of clerics asks to join the monastery, the right place will be somewhere about the middle of the community, but they too are required to make the promise about observing the Rule and monastic stability. 

The place of priests in the monastery has often been a controversial matter and one that Benedict, here, tries to address with great tact and discretion. He is writing form a very particular viewpoint in his understanding of the Orders of the Clergy and with a deference that was expected and granted because of their Office. The primary cause of this being a somewhat touchy subject is one of identity. The priest and the monk are both life long vocations, they have made vows, promised different things and are placed under authority – for the monk it is the abbot, for the secular priest it is the bishop. They have a lot of overlap in their differing callings but ultimately they have many fundamental differences. Monastic life is primarily a lay order, there is no requirement to be ordained priest in monastic life – though communities do find it useful to have a priest within their community in order to undertake the particularities of their calling – i.e. saying the Mass and offering the sacraments, rather than having to rely on an outside visitor all the time. The life of the monk has a particular focus – around the oratory, yes, but also in labour. The life of the priest has a specific focus on the altar and the work of God, but they are set apart in order to undertake this work. Here is where tension may lay.

But, Benedict is not unwilling to try, not unwilling to listen to the potential discernment of any candidate but warns that it should not be done too quickly, not to allow the deference for the clerical state to allow laxity. In fact, the priest should be expected to be even more of an exemplar of the humility demanded by the Rule because they are looked up to by others, but also that their priestly vows also demand obedience and therefore a level of humility. It is important, Benedict stresses, that their Office of Priesthood should not automatically give them any precedence – but that the Abbot should be allow them to function as a priest  – blessing and offering the mass if it is appropriate. Once again we see the characteristic balance coming through. When the priest joins, providing he has shown himself be sincere and an exemplar of the Rule in his conduct he doesn’t begin with the lowest rank – but is called up higher to take his place around the middle of the community. He is not automatically assumed to be in the seniority, as it is recognised that he will still have much to learn about the monastic life and mindsets, but equally he is not considered the lowest rank – accepting that his priesthood has brought about a significant ontological change and therefore a certain character has been granted.

This status only goes so far and Benedict reminds the priest-monk of the proper ordering of the community – that if there is a dispute regarding rank, the date of his profession is still what is taken as the marker – not his priesthood or his service at the altar. It is also important that the priest-monk accepts that their priesthood is now tied to the obedience they vow to the abbot and they should not assume to exercise their priestly function without permission, and certainly should be disappearing from the cloister to go and say mass elsewhere, again without permission. The monastery is the training ground for the true monk and not a split vocation. This must be carefully balance.

Those of us who are parish priests this similar tension may be felt between what could be described as the work of the priest – the sacraments, the work of God in the church and so on and the work of the vicar – the administration, maintenance, legal responsibility and the like. Holding these two aspects of the vocation in tandem are not unlike that of the monk-priest, who has to learn to see both the manual labour of the monastery and the priestly work of the altar as complimentary of one another – although one takes on a certain significance through Ordination the other is a part of the structure of the life that one lives. Similarly the administrative work of the vicar is what allows the priestly ministry to flourish and be preformed. The sooner we step through the mental block that has them at odds with one another the sooner we progressed to a more balance and well rounded way of life.

And that is not just for parish priests but is an approach that can be used in the tension that can be felt between our Christian and Secular life. Firstly, it is important to remember that the only thing that is truly secular is sin itself, everything else can be for the greater glory of God. We must learn to see ours lives as one complete whole rather than segregated into different sections, else we will dismiss the faith aspect as unimportant compared to our secular employ or we will resent our secular employ for keeping us away from our devotion. We cannot assume that either take precedence – the secular employment allows us the liberty and freedom to pursue our spiritual life, and the spiritual journey that we undertake will bolster our resolve and give us an inner strength in which to approach our secular work with a mind that it, in itself, is worthy and can be used to Glorify God.

In cultivating a cohesive approach to our manual work and prayerful life we undertake a particular hallowing of the day, and sanctifying of the ordinary – which is at the heart of the monastic vocation – but that in the cloister or in the world.

Chapter Fifty Nine

Three_noble_children.jpg

Children offered by nobles or by the poor.

If parents who are from the nobility want to offer to God in the monastery one of their children, who is too young to take personal responsibility, they should draw up a document like that described above (in the previous chapter – SJMC) and, as they make the offering, wrap the document with the child’s hand in the altar cloth. 

As to questions of property, they should add a promise to the document under oath that they will not themselves, nor through any other person, give the child anything at any time, nor yet contrive any opportunity whereby the child might be able in the future to acquire possessions. If they are unwilling to do this and insist on making a gift to the monastery and so merit a reward from God, they should draw up a form of donation transferring the property in question to the monastery keeping, if they wish, the revenue for themselves. Everything concerned with this property should be negotiated in such a way that not the slightest hint of personal expectations can be entertained by the child in a way which could lead through deception to ruin. Experience has shown how this can happen. 

Poor people may make the offering of a child in the same way. If they have no property at all, they simply write and offer the child with the document in the presence of witnesses. 

Of all the chapters in the Holy Rule this fifty nine is going to be the least relevant to our modern reading. Even to Benedictine houses they do not, generally, take children anymore and so the practice described above has fallen by the way side. The Rule is not edited to remove it, as it is important to preserve in full the teaching of the Holy Father but also that this chapter does, indeed, have something to teach us, both those in Religious life especially but also those of us in the world.

Firstly, a little historical context. Although it may be alien to our reading to contemplate offering a child to the monastery it was not an altogether uncommon practice in the time of Saint Benedict and beyond. In fact, it was not just the monastery that may receive children from families (especially poor families) who were looking to gain favour or social status in some way – children were often promised in marriage, to the church, to the court of the king or to various occupations. They were considered a valuable asset to the family, the property of the man of the house, and therefore could be ‘used’ in such a way. For noble families it was often the third child who was offered in some way to the church, a powerful player in social terms at that point, without even taking into consideration the Divine favour they may hope to attain. The first child, the heir, was to continue the family, the second child often sent to the military, any daughters used for politically savvy marriages and the third child, to the church. This way the family could hope to have influence in all spheres of society. For the poor it was much more about elevating their status, or, simply having one less mouth to feed at home. Poverty was such that heart-wrenching choices would have to be made, and power so fickle that even the upper-classes of the nobility had to cling to it with everything they had.

What Benedict does instil in this chapter of the Rule is the firstly the need for absolute transparency about what is happening in this interaction. The offering must be made, documented and promises sworn. This is a serious business for Benedict, and his community, and much like the will of a novice being tested by patience, in this instance the noble family in particular must put their money were there mouth is so to speak. One of the issues that Benedict highlights, as noted by his final line in the second paragraph – Experience has shown this can happen – is that the family must be very clear that their son or daughter (it was usually sons in this instance) cannot be given anything – no extra money, or allowances, or property or items – not directly from the family nor by an intermediary. The worldly wealth of a family should have no benefit to the one in the monastery.

There must be a certain separation between monk and family. The individual cannot be both a monk wedded to the Rule, community and his brothers and still play an active role in the family. Benedict is not making a judgement about the family or the world at this point (thought we know his experiences have led to a dim view of the latter) but about the monos – the single mindedness with which the monk or nun is expected to pursue God in their vocation. Various orders exercise this separation to a greater or lesser extent – the austere Cistercians who or Cistercians of the strict observance to give them their full and revealing title don’t allow family contact very much at all, neither do the even more secluded and austere Carthusians, following Bruno’s unchanged rule since the 11th Century. (Just two visits a year)

Benedict doesn’t sever contact completely and arguably this makes the work of the Religious harder. Complete separation, although a hard step to take, once it is done, is done. The contact being maintained means the monk or nun has to refine their approach to family life again and again to ensure that they are not being emotionally and spiritually pulled in a different direction. This is where the Rule can speak more obviously into the lives of those of us that do not live in community in monastic setting. We need to look at our relationships in the light of many aspects of life – not just for our physical needs, societally, mentally, financially and however many other ways they can be affected and effective, but also in the light of how they help or hinder our spiritual development.

All of our life is offered up to God – even what is most precious – like the child and that includes our relationships. Nothing is off limit and we must permit him to use them meaning sometimes hard decisions have to be discerned and chosen, which may not always be comfortable. It is one reason why the Religious in all denominations and some denominations priests don’t marry – so they cannot be pulled in different direction by the different vocations placed upon their life. For those of us who are baptised (maybe even ordained) and married – we have several distinct callings that need to be held in tension and enter into our process of discernment. I cannot, for example, change parish and move across the country following what I believe to be God’s plan without consulting my family, taking into consideration my responsibility to them, the vows made in that relationship and their part in the discernment process. It has to become more of a negotiated step-by-step process.

Obedience, as Benedict teaches, to the core principles of life in Christ are the best framework for this to be considered. Imagine applying his teaching to family decisions, where even the youngest has equally respected input.

 

Chapter Fifty Eight

30e2e27cb19fe1d02edb976e4a82a2df--catholic-school-school-days.jpg

The reception of candidates for the community.

The entry of postulants into the monastic life should not be made too easy, but we should follow St John’s precept to make trial of the spiiitsto see if they are from God. If, then, a newcomer goes on knocking at the door and after four or five days has given sufficient evidence of patient perseverance and does not waver from the request for entry but accepts the rebuffs and difficulties put in the way, then let a postulant with that strength of purpose be received and given accommodation in the guest quarters for a few days. Then later the new recruit can be received among the novices in the quarters where they study, eat and sleep.

All the way through the Rule we have seen the atmosphere of the community that Benedict is trying to cultivate, and it being one of stability and balance. Every person that leaves or arrives changes the community, for better or worse, as we have explored in previous chapters, it is therefore of little surprise that the chapter focused on those who wish to join the house is one of the longest and most detailed in the Rule. Firstly, the Holy Father examines the motives for the one who wishes to join. At the time of writing the Rule, the monastic house could be an appealing opportunity, not just for those eager to seek God but for those who are looking for an easier life. Whilst the monastic life demands poverty, there is an ease to the poverty, to be able to rely upon the order provided by the superior to ensure that a bed, roof and food is always provided. For the poorest and most common of folk at the time, Benedictine hospitality would have been riches in comparison, so motivated by a different life could be a reason. There was an autonomy to the houses, their own rules and order, and the sins of past life could be hidden away – especially those escaping from the law – similarly those who are wayward and escaping responsibility of children, or lovers, or angry husbands, may find anonymity within the monastic life. For some it was seen as a way to gain an education, the Benedictines in particular with their balance of manual and intellectual pursuits were able to provide a very comprehensive education. For these reasons the motives for joining the house and, indeed, Order, may not have been as pure as they should and so Benedict counsels against making it too easy.

It is interesting to compare his approach to our contemporary church life, where there is an obsession from the hierarchy about numbers attending Sunday services, how many people are signed up to the electoral roll and the numbers being Baptised and Confirmed. I am not, for a moment, suggesting that we should make our parish churches some closed community – but we do need, I believe, to examine our motives for signing people up – not their motives, so to speak, but ours – especially if we are the parish priest. Do numbers mean anything at all if they diminish as quickly as they increase when inevitable departures come? Baptism is not to be refused and can only delayed, our canons state, for the teaching and preparation of the candidate and those presenting them (if they are a child). Do we take this responsibility seriously? Or worry that delaying will mean they simply go elsewhere and we potentially lose our statistic. Is it better to have a smaller, more stable, faithful community that one that is constantly ebbing and flowing with the whim of those that approach? Benedict certainly thought so.

It is also worth nothing that sometimes the motives are indeed pure and the desire to seek God is zealous. But the zeal of the convert and the enthusiasm that is brings can also lead to a ‘flash in the pan’ if not mastered properly. The delay in allowing a Novice to begin in the community slows the process, and if the person continues to insist day after day after day – it is more likely they will stay the course. The monastic life should be seen as many, many marathons back to back, not a one hundred metre dash.

We also learn from this opening paragraph of chapter fifty eight that the Novices who are moving toward making vows are separated from the community – sleeping, eating and studying together in a different part of the complex. No doubt another way to keep the balance of the community intact. It means that those solemnly professed monks and nuns do not invest in those who may not eventually end up in the community, in full vows. It would be very disruptive to the routine and rhythms of the house if relationships were constantly formed and broken. Part of monastic life is learning to pray, eat and work beside the same person for life. Much like the vows of a marriage, which would not work if only one was keeping them sacred.

A senior who is skilled at guiding souls should be chosen to look after the novices and to do so with close attention to their spiritual development. The fist concern for novices should be to see whether it is God Himself that they truly seek, whether they have a real love for the Work of God combined with a willing acceptance of obedience and of any demands on their humility and patience the monastic life may make on them. They should not be shielded form any of the trials of monastic life which can appear to us to be very hard and even harsh as they lead us on our way to God. 

If novices after two months show promise of remaining faithful in stability, they should have the whole of this Rule read to them and then be faced with this challenge at the end: that is the law under which you ask to serve; if you can be faithful to it, enter; if you cannot, then freely depart. Those who still remain firm in their intention should be left back to the noviciate so that their patience may be further tested. After another six months the Rule should again be read to them so as to remove all doubt about what they propose to undertake. If they still remain firm, then after four more months the same Rule should again be read to them. By that stage they have had plenty of time to think it all over and, if they promise to observe everything and to be faithful to anything in obedience they should be received into the community. Of course, they must by now be fully aware that from that day forward there can be no question of their leaving the monastery nor of shaking off the yoke of the Rule, which in all that time of careful deliberation they were quite free to turn away from or to accept as their way of life. 

Here we are given the bare bones of the initiation procedure. The four or five days of knocking at the door in the first paragraph before being allowed to enter the guest house now pales into insignificance in the months that follow. The novice, prospective monk or nun, will have all seventy three chapters of the Rule of St Benedict, and the prologue, read to them three times over the course of ten months. In between the reading they will be taught by the novice master who will be identifying their suitability. This is a very active process of refinement, like a blacksmith working with metal, they do not begin instantly making their final piece, they first refine and purify the raw material, checking if it will be stable, if it contains weaknesses and blemishes that will blunt or break the final product. The novice master is the gatekeeper of the community – they are not looking for a perfectly formed Monk or Nun, only the work of the Holy Spirit and the stability of the community guided by the superior and the Rule can form the basis of a perfected monastic life, the novice master is looking for potential.

The reading of the Rule on multiple occasions, cover to cover, shows a warts and all rendering of the way of life in the monastery. As some of the chapters we have already encountered no doubt feel very hard by our standards, so too would some who approach the monastery or cloister be unaware of the level at which it governs the life – they may have a rose tinted romantic view of the life behind the wall, so it is important to Benedict that they should  be under no misapprehension about what is needed – else when they are professed they may disobey out of ignorance or justify behaviour in naivety. They should not be spared from the full force of the Rule and the trials of monastic life – for this is what they are committing to for the duration of their life on earth.

What would this look like in our church life? We do, in some ways, at our Baptism and repeated at our Confirmation make promises, vows if you will, about what we believe and what that means to us, informing our daily life and how we are to live. If you asked most people what their view was of the monastic life – many would no doubt mention that it was strict or ‘religious’ – but how many would feel the same about the vows of Baptism? What would be our foundational document to read over and over to ensure that we know the full expectations upon us. It is worth looking at the words that have become very familiar to us in our liturgy and prayer life. The words of the Creed, for example, the common Christian faith. When we say this words communally with our brothers and sisters, do we truly mean it? Is this our belief, are we going to proclaim that image of God as our own? Perhaps one of the best foundational texts to look at is the words of the Lord’s Prayer – how Jesus Himself taught his disciples, and us by inheritance  to pray. They are so well known to us that they trip off our tongue without consideration, easy words to say – but very hard to truly pray. For example, Thy Kingdom Come – in order to pray those three words and mean it we have to want God to be sovereign over our life, we have to be willing to give up our own self centred autonomy to give it to Him. Approaching these foundational words of the Faith in the same way the novice is expected to approach the Rule will lead to a more serious adherence to all that we are called, and baptised, to be.

When the decision is made that novices are to be accepted, then they come before the whole community in the oratory to make solemn promise of stability, fidelity to the monastic life and obedience. The promise is made before God and the saints and the candidate must reflect that, if they ever by their actions deny what they have promised, they will be condemned by the God they have betrayed. Novices must record their promises in a document in the name of the saints whose relics are there in the oratory and also in the name of their abbot or abbess in whose presence the promise is made. Each must write the document in his or her own hand or, if unable to write, ask another to write it instead; then, after adding a personal signature or mark to the document, each must place it individually on the altar. As the record lies on the altar they intone this verse: Receive me, O Lord, in accordance with your word and I shall live, and do not disappoint me in the hope that you have given me. The whole community will repeat this verse three times and add at the end the Gloria Patri. Each novice then prostrates before every member of the community asking their prayers and from that day is counted as a full member of the community. 

Of course, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the culmination of the noviciate and entrance into the monastery and the Order should be marked in a solemn ceremony in the oratory. Benedict is keen to stress the severity of this moment. It has been a long time coming, many months and must prayerful consideration of the life that the individual is to enter into, and then in doing so, they write their promises and place them on the altar. There is an almost throw away line that gives a great insight into the way of the community, where the Holy Father gives permission for someone to write on behalf of the novice if they ‘are unable to write’ – literacy was not necessarily widespread when Benedict was writing his Rule (probably another reason why earlier he says that the Rule must be READ to the novices, not that they should read it) and it is interesting to note that this is not some elite community that only allows in the educated – those who are illiterate are not barred from the Order or community. They will be taught and their will be suitable work found for their skills.

After the promise has been made before God, before the relics of the Saints and before the whole living community, the individual prostrates, demonstrating great humility, at the feet of every single member, even if they have only been professed a few hours before. This shows the low estate the novice takes, as rank is determined not by age or skill but by date of profession, it recognises the seniority of the other brothers and sisters and physically demonstrates, in this action and the accompanied request for prayer, that they have much to teach the new member in the way of the monastic life.

Although we don’t have anything so formal in our church life, those who are Baptised, or Confirmed or even received into the church from another denomination, are not expected to submit themselves in such a way to the other members of the church. But we should look upon those senior to us in the faith with great reverence. Just as Benedict expects the bones of the saints to be present as a reminder of joining the great work of God that they have undertaken before, our congregations and churches are full of living bones, whose prayers have echoed in the very place we now stand. To be attentive to all they have to teach us is important. Their wisdom and hard worn faith combined with our zealous enthusiasm, and, dare I say, youth – makes a potent cocktail of renewed vigour in the life of the church and recognises that each of us bring gifts, and each of us can learn from the other and uphold one another in faith. The novice seeks this from the elders of the community (however ‘elder’ they may be) and we would benefit form seeing our peers and elders in much the same way.

Before making their profession novices should give any possessions they may have either to the poor or to the monastery in a formal document keeping back for themselves nothing at all in the full knowledge that from that day they retain no power over anything – not even over their own bodies. As a sign of this the newly professed in the oratory immediately after the promises discard their own clothing and are clothed in habits belonging to the monastery. Their lay clothes are kept safety in case – which God forbid – any should listen to the enticements of the devil and leave the monastery discarding the monastic habit as they are dismissed from the community. The record of their profession, however, which the superior took from the altar should not be returned but should be preserved in the monastery.

This final task of the novice making their profession is sometimes the one that causes the most anxiety for the individual. In surrendering all physical items, even their lay clothes, they are trusting the monastery and the superior completely, that all their needs will be provided for. It is the ultimate test of humility and trust, and if passed, is a good indication of the way in which their monastic life will progress. Benedict earlier has mentioned in another chapter the need for integrity when it comes to handling the financial affairs of the community, and the same can be applied to this. They are to make a formal declaration that their goods are now in the hands of the poor or being used for the good of the monastery, and that nothing is held back – no safety or security, no ‘just-in-case’ or ‘rainy day fund’ – they are trusting in their provisions being met.

Although those of us living in the world cannot be expected to have the same level of detachment to our material possessions – as we do not have someone other than ourselves who will guarantee our basic needs are met, we can use this chapter of the Rule as a measure to work towards. We should, periodically, examine our possessions and see if we have far more than we need (the answer is probably yes) and if are unduly attached to any of them (the answer is probably that we are) and go about purging ourselves of that. Maybe we could go through our wardrobe and get rid of some of our duplicate items, giving them to those in need. Maybe we could repair and reuse rather than casting aside and repurchasing. Perhaps we have a collection of something that has slipped from a mere enjoyment to become and obsession and one that needs to be dealt with before it hinders spiritual relationships by tipping into a disordered state like greed or pride.

There are many warnings in scripture about the way in which we should approach wealth and material possessions and how they can be a hindrance to our spiritual journey toward the Kingdom of God. The most pertinent is perhaps the Rich Young Man who approaches Jesus and asks what he must do. Jesus says you must keep the commandments, and he is relieved because he has done those since his youth, then Jesus tells him that he must give away his material possessions and the he goes away grieving. Not just perturbed or annoyed or miffed, he is grieving, that sadness that eats away at the soul and sucks at the heart and diminished the will. This is the feeling that occurs in him because of his attachment to his wealth and it is this, Jesus knows, is what prevents him from truly following.

The monastic life shines a lamp on the darkest corners of our being and for those that are professed provides the path to rid themselves of that darkness. For those of us living in the world, the Rule should not be seen as some unattainable and therefore irrelevant ideal – no one would expect that someone in the world could live like they were in the cloister but what it can do is help us to develop a more monastic heart, a more communal spiritual life and a more rounded experience of hallowing the day.

Chapter Fifty Seven

monk-painter.jpg

Members of the community with creative gifts

If there are any in the community with creative gifts, they should use them in their workshops with proper humility, provided that they have permission of the superior. If any of them conceive an exaggerated idea of their competence in this sort of work, imagining that the value of their work puts the monastery on their debt, they should be forbidden further exercise of their skills and not allowed to return to their workshops unless they respond with humility to this rebuke and the superior permits them to resume their work. 

If any product of the workshops is to be sold, those responsible for the sale must be careful to avoid any dishonest practice. They should remember Ananias and Sapphira who suffered bodily death for their sin, whereas any who are guilty of fraud in the administration of the monastery’s affairs will suffer death of the soul. In fixing the prices for these products care should be taken to avoid any taint of avarice. What is asked by the monastery should be somewhat lower than the price demanded by secular workshops so that God may be glorified in everything. 

One of the primary incomes of monastic houses is the goods that they produce. This varies depending on the location and context of the monastery, but also the ability of any particular member, it is another example of the way that someone joining or leaving the community, in whatever way that comes, can be for the benefit or detriment. The products produce range from beer and spirits, pottery, iconography, incense, candles, altar breads, linens and vestments for church use, as well as written devotional items and carvings Benedict is very clear that those with gifts should use them, providing that they have permission to do so. As a man or woman under obedience and dedicated to the service of God, that means all of ourselves is used in that service.

When I read this chapter of the Rule one of my spiritual heroes comes to mind. Thomas Merton. When Merton arrived at the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky, USA he had formally been embarking on a career in writing, for college newspapers, articles for magazines, poetry as well as attempting to have stories published. His undertaking of monastic vows, in his mind, meant a relinquishing of this former life and he burned many of his early writings, content to disappear into the relative anonymity of the cloister. His abbot at the time recognised his God given talent to write and tasked him with producing a history of the monastery which could be given to guests and those interested. He did so, as a man under obedience, though reticent to use his gifts. The Abbot then asked him to write his life story – Thomas Merton initially refused – he could not reconcile in his mind the self publicity of an autobiography with the monastic vows he was taking. The Abbot pressed him and he, again reluctantly, agreed. The product of this obedience was ‘Elected Silence’ – later re-issued as ‘The Seven Storey Mountain’ which became a best seller and remains popular to this day. The response to it was such that the abbey gained a prominence as the home of the author Merton and the young monk began a career of writing spiritual and devotional texts, essays, poems and letters that have outlived him.

The Thomas Merton story powerfully demonstrates how obedience in using our gifts is required. We have all been given skill, talents and abilities by God. For some that is music, dance, drama, singing, speaking, teaching – for others it is creative, writing, poetry , painting, sculpture. To keep these gifts to ourselves and not use them for the greater Glory of God would be to squander them. However, Benedict warns that those who have these gifts, especially when they are financially beneficial to the monastery must balance pride and humility. To become a ‘celebrity’ in the community, sought out for skills, may make the monk or nun develop an inflated sense of self. It should be reminded to them that these skills are God given – they are a gift – and should be treated as such. With thankfulness and gratitude.

We should consider our gifts the same. Not for our benefit but, firstly, for the glory of God, and secondly, for the good of others. It may well be that we also receive the benefit to them – in the joy that we have whilst using them or the profits made from them, but we should ensure we keep ourselves in check and that this is seen as very much a byproduct and not the main purpose of the execution of our gifts.

Benedict is also very clear that the most important thing about the use of these gifts and the products they produce when it comes to financial benefit for the monastery is that first and foremost, like all material possessions, whatever comes in does not belong to the one who created, the one who sold or the one who provided the raw material – it all belongs to the community as a whole. There should be no ill feeling or jealousy regarding this, if monks were rewarded for their individual talents by being allowed to keep the proceeds it would change the focus of their work and also create tension in the community from those with talents that are less commercial, such as gifts of prayer, or cooking or such.

The money charged for these items should be less than secular workshops in order that all glory is given to God, keeping the minds of the monks and nuns on what the purpose is and, indeed, acting as an example to the world – that the pursuit of money is not the be all and end all. With our gifts, we should be prepared to offer them freely, but that is not to say we can have our talents exploited by those around us (I am certainly not suggesting that in a Monastic community there is any exploitation – it is built on a mutual understanding of giving and receiving) and we do need to ensure that we can meet our own needs, as we are not provided for in the same was as a Religious is by their superior. We should ensure that if we are to fiscally benefit from the talents, skills and gifts that we have been given we do not sink into greed, desiring as much as we can. We should be prepared to cover our costs, to give ourselves the means to support ourselves and also be prepared to give to those who cannot do as we can, and cannot support themselves for whatever reason.

Benedict is very fierce in the examples that he gives, calling to mind the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts, chapter 5 verse 1-11. He, with the knowledge of his wife, sells a piece of land and puts the money at the feet of the apostles, but keeps some back for them. A safety net, if you will. This dishonesty to the Holy Spirit, as the Apostle Peter calls it, demonstrates a lack of fear of God, a lack of trust for the community of faith and a lack courage in following the calling of Christ. Because of the deception Ananias, when challenged by the Apostle, is struck down dead. When his wife, Sapphira comes, some three hours later, and is asked about the land she lies and the same fate befalls her. Benedict uses this to warn that physical death was the punishment for those who are deceitful about money, falling to greed and building up for themselves a material wealth. But he is even more stark in his warning about the affairs of the monastery and demands honesty in that practice – to prevent the death of the soul.

Scripture tells us; ‘For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?’ (Matt 16:26 Authorised Version). This is the principle that we must keep in mind when receiving reward for our talent and skill. Is the benefit we receive showing us as someone who is working for the Kingdom of God or building a Fiefdom for ourselves, do we want to the master of our own little empire or take our place in the glorious empire of the Lord. We must therefore honour God in our talents, being thankful for our gifts in order to maintain humility and balance our pride, and point toward the riches of heaven over and above the wealth of earth. 

Chapter Fifty Six

Unknown.jpeg

The table for the superior and community guests.

The superior’s table should always be with the guests and pilgrims. In the absence of guests, members of the community, invited by the superior, may take their place but one or two seniors should always be left with the community to keep an eye on the standards of behaviour. 

This chapter shows, again, how important guests should be in the monastery, and focuses  on meals. As we saw in a previous chapter, the superior is allowed to break his or her fast in order to be accommodating to guests and pilgrims. Here Benedict takes that one step further, it is no longer just about accommodation and welcome, but generous hospitality. The superior is the most important figure in the monastery and so to be able to be in his or her presence is a gesture of welcome beyond what may be expected. Especially, as when Benedict was writing the social systems surrounding courtly interactions and such was very important to the fabric of European society. The superior shows hospitality by their availability.

For us, this demonstration of availability as a key component of hospitality shows us a way in which we should make ourselves available to those who appear in our lives, in whatever way that may be. In making ourselves available, even amidst business, we are showing in practical love the generous welcome of God. If the superior of a monastery can take time to eat with guests, even when unexpected, then we should be able to make time for those that cross our path too. Similarly to the way that we jealously guard our possessions we can also be mean with our time, choosing to focus on other things that we might prefer to be doing, or feel are more pressing, rather than investing in human relationships.

At our churches we may find it easier to talk to the people we already know and love during refreshments and ignore the newcomer or guest. Not through malice but through an apathy to invest time in someone that we may never see again, or see only fleetingly and sparingly. But investing even a small amount of time in someone, over a cup of coffee or a meal, showing genuine interest in them and their life, being in their company and accepting them as a close friend, even for a short time, is a hugely powerful act of love. The superior replaces senior members at the table with guests, how might we honour those that cross our path.

Chapter Fifty Five

Unknown-1.jpeg

Clothing and footwear for the community.

The local conditions and climate should be the deciding factor in questions about the clothing of the community, because obviously in cold climate more clothing is needed and less where it is warm. The superior must give careful thought to these questions. However, my suggestion for temperate regions is that each member of the community should receive a cowl and tunic, a scapular to wear at work and both candles and shoes as footwear. The cowl should be thick and warm in winter but of thinner or well-worn material in summer. The community must not be too sensitive about the colour and quality of this clothing; they should be content with what is available in the locality at a reasonable cost. However the superior should see to it that the garments are not short and ill-fitting but appropriate to the size and build of those who wear them.

When new clothing is issued, the old should be immediately returned to be put in store for distribution to the poor. Two tunics and cowls should be enough for each member of the community to provide for night-wear and for laundering. Anything more than that would be excessive and this must be avoided. Sandals also and other articles which are worn out should be handed in when new ones are issued. Underclothing for those going on a journey should be provided from the community wardrobe which, on return, should be washed and handed in again. Then there should be cowls and tunics available of slightly better quality than usual, which may be issued to travellers from the wardrobe and restored there upon their return. 

This chapter will be very unusual to our modern ear. Unless we grew up with siblings the idea of commonly held clothing passed from one person to another is an strange concept, and even if we are used to such from our childhood, it is most likely not practice we participate in as adults, and it never included underwear. Benedict begins with practicality, the monk or nun is to be provided with clothing that is based on the climate the monastic house is in – a house in the alps will need different attire to the south of Spain and local conditions are important. Austerity within the house should not be to the detriment of the physical and mental health of the brother or sister.

The attire of the monks and nuns serve a practical purpose. They are not concerned with fashion or style and the clothing should be made at a good price locally. It is important for the brothers and sisters to be part of the wider community that their monastic complex is bedded into, by dressing in clothing that is made from similar materials as the locals is a way to do this, symbolically. The clothing all was a practical purpose. Tunic for day to day wear, with a scapular over the to protect the tunic during work, sandals for daily wear and shoes for journeys or working in more difficult terrain, and finally, a warm cowl.

The monk and nun does not fill their wardrobe with many, many different outfits. It is part of living a simple existence and once again, ensuring that they are shielded from the temptation of being possessive, or greedy, with material goods.

How might a similar discipline look to our daily life? Whilst most of us are not in a position to wear only one type of clothing for work and leisure (though priests, on the whole, certainly could) we can employ similar principles to our own purchases regarding clothing. Maybe having two or three pairs of shoes – but for practical reasons rather than fashion – a formal shoe, a sports trainer, a walking boot. Dictated by what our activities may be, rather than what looks good or appeals to our vanity. We can make similar choices when it comes to our outfits, do we need more than one winter coat? more than one rain coat? do we need more than one suit? We only have one body with which to wear one at a time.

The monks and nuns are to return their clothing to the common wardrobe when they have served their purpose. Perhaps they have grown taller or wider during their time on the monastic life and they require new clothing. That the items are returned reinforces that this attire, even personal underclothing, is not a possession to be owned by an individual. It also means that the brother and sister is more inclined to look after it and treat it with greater care as they know someone else would be wearing it after them. Can you imagine being slapdash with the clothing and seeing a fellow member suffer because of our carelessness with the item.

We could apply a similar principle to our own clothing, thinking that after our use we will donate the clothing to a charity shop or to one of the collections that takes clothes and sends them to countries that are in need. If we have this in mind when we make our purchases it will inform what we need, why we need it and how we look after it during our stewardship of it. This sort of physical adjustment to our lives will prompt our spiritual growth.

For bedding a mat, a woollen blanket, a coverlet and a pillow should be enough. The superior ought to inspect the beds at regular intervals to see that private possessions are not being hoarded there. If anyone is found with something for which no permission has been given by the superior, this fault must be punished with real severity. In order to root out completely this vice of hoarding personal possessions, the superior must provide all members of the community with whatever they really need, that is: cowl, tunic, sandals, shoes, belt, knife, stylus, needle, handkerchief and writing tablets. Every excuse about what individuals need will thus be removed.

There is one saying, however, from the Acts of the Apostles which the superior must always bear in mind, namely that proper provision was made according to the needs of each. It is on those grounds that the superior should take into account what is truly necessary for those who suffer from an individual weakness, while ignoring the ill will of the envious, and in every decision remembering that an account must be given of it in the future judgement of God. 

The chapter ends with the balance between the desire that Benedict has to provide stability for the soul be removing the temptation to hoard material possessions and the required compassion necessary. Firstly, and most importantly, it is the superiors job to ensure that the brothers and sisters in his or her care have everything they need. Need is the important phrase, it is not want or desire, but need. The Religious must be fed, housed, given clothes and tools and therefore able to live very well. If these things are not adequately provided because of poor oversight by the superior then one could be forgiven for taking it into ones own hands to ensure survival.

For those of us in the world this principle can be adapted. We don’t have a superior to ensure that we have the basic needs but we can spend time assessing what is a requirement for our life and what is just a want or desire. It is not to say that the things we want or the desires that we have are always bad and should always be suppressed and subdued, but we should be considering the Benedictine principle of balance to provide and order to our lives. Excessive desire to possess private possessions will turn our focus upon ourselves, and our own pleasure and happiness over and above others, we may be less generous with of finances because we are spending disproportionately on what we desire to possess. The church seasons of Advent (a Little Lent) and Lent itself are good times to assess our attachment to things and work out what we truly need.

In the monastic community although the Rule is in place as a general guide to the principles that are best suited to a harmonious life, it is not a strict one size fits all. The superior is always able to make exceptions when it is prudent or compassionate to do so. Take this chapter for an example. No one, at all, under any circumstances should hoard items for themselves – BUT at the same time, the superior can made a decision to give something else to someone. A second pillow to help with their back pain, an extra blanket because they have poor circulation, two pairs of shoes because they can’t wear sandals, whatever it may be. Compassion and care always supersedes the hard and fast nature of what Rules are perceived to be. The Rule is guidance of an ideal, but Benedict recognises that human life is rarely as black and white.

It is important for us to think on this too. When we set ourselves disciplines, be that a Lenten observance, our personal Rule of Life or some other spiritual practice, we need to not compare ourselves to others – or indeed, judge their perceived laxity because of our own disciplines. We do not always know what others are carrying. The person who gives up alcohol for Lent when you fast, give up alcohol, don’t eat meat and various other things, may actually struggle far more in that one act of discipline than you do in many. Scripturally it is the parable of the widows mite. One persons offering may appear smaller in worldly terms but actually mean far, far more. We need to exercise compassion for ourselves but also for others when it comes to spiritual discipline. If we are not good at this, our priest, spiritual director or a good brother or sister in Christ to whom we can be accountable will be able to help us, to manage our goals and to prompt a healthy relationship with our acts of piety.

 

Chapter Fifty Four

Unknown.jpeg

The reception of letters and gifts in the monastery. 

No one in a monastic community may receive or send to others letters, gifts of piety or any little tokens without the permission of the superior, whether it is their parents who are concerned or anyone else at all or another member of the community. Even if their parents send them a present they must not decide for themselves to accept without first referring the matter to the superior. Then it will be for the superior, after agreeing to the reception of the gift, to decide who in the community should receive the gift, and, if it is not the one to whom it was sent, that should not give rise to recriminations lest the devil be given an opportunity. Anyone who infringes these principles must be corrected by the discipline of The Rule.

There are chapters in the Rule that will make us sit up and really take notice of the life of the Religious behind the monastery wall. Our romantic preconceived ideas about it being a peaceful life, where they drift there and here, pray, write letters and maintain a serene countenance may be skewed when we encounter some of the monastic discipline such as this. Can you for a moment imagine if it was your birthday, and someone sends you a thoughtful gift – something that is suitable to your personality and demonstrates a great love and affection for you -and someone else in your house taking it from you and giving it to your younger sister instead. It would be hard to swallow.

Benedict, when he was a young man and visited Rome, was shocked by the level of corruption he encountered – one of the biggest vices being greed. He was in the market places the clamouring for more goods, more money, and the way people would treat each other in the acquisition of wealth and ‘things’ – so the Rule strips that away. The monk and nun are to own nothing themselves, they live a common life and everything is held in common – including personal gifts that may be sent to them. This develops humility, it ensures the brother or sister is following the vow of obedience they have taken and that they are given the opportunity to grow in charity.

This is a hard chapter to translate into our modern worldly lives. We don’t live under the same authority as the Religious do, we are not bound by the same vows. However, our Christian life, as baptised people, we are under the authority of God, and it would only aid our spiritual journey toward the throne room if we were able to be less attached to worldly ‘things’ and more focused upon God Himself. One practice that I have encountered a very holy layman exercising was a principle of ‘one out, one in’ – if he was given a gift (he would always be very gracious about it and discreet about his intentions afterwards) and wanted to keep it, he would have to find another possession that he valued equally to give away to someone else, or make a similar donation to one of his chosen charities.

This is not quite the same as being given permission by a superior but in doing this he was cultivating a more healthy detachment from physical and material things – as well as considering other people – both in acts of charitable giving but also in thoughtfulness about who may enjoy particular possessions that he had.

Benedicts counsel to us is not to be overtaken by a love of worldly things, because in doing so we leave little room to love heavenly things. We find this in scripture too, in the parable of the barns where the landowner builds bigger barns to store his crops without realising that night he would die and have to make an account of his soul. When we are too attached to material goods we cannot be as focused on the inner life as we ought.