CHAPTER XXXII. Of the Iron Tools and Property of the Monastery
10 Mar. 10 July. 9 Nov.
Let the Abbot appoint brethren, on whose manner of life and character he can rely, to the charge of the iron tools, clothes, and other property of the Monastery; and let him consign to their care, as he shall think fit, the things to be kept and collected after use. Of these let the Abbot keep a list, so that as the brethren in turn succeed to different employments, he may know what he giveth and receiveth back. If any one treat the property of the Monastery in a slovenly or negligent manner, let him be corrected; and if he do not amend, let him be subjected to the discipline of the Rule.
After treating of the cellarer of the monastery, who, «above all things must have humility», Saint Benedict enjoins the abbot to charge brethren, on whose manner of life and character he can rely, to look after the iron tools, clothes, and other property of the monastery. It is characteristic of Saint Benedict’s government that, while the abbot alone appoints monks to the various areas of responsibility in the monastery, the abbot sees to it that these responsibilities are shared among many lest any one brother be excessively burdened. The abbot must identify those men in the community who are best suited to look after the monastery’s property. Some monks are suited to the care of books in the library; others are suited to the care of machines and heavy equipment; others are suited to stewardship of the land; still others are suited to take care of the community’s furnishings, clothing, and household items.
We read today the first of a group of three chapters (XXXII, XXXIII, XXXIV) in which Saint Benedict treats of things. Things are important in Benedictine life. There are three categories of things: the necessary, the useful, and the superfluous. When asking for the purchase or use of something, one must ask oneself if the thing under consideration is necessary, useful, or superfluous. The abbot and cellarer do their best never to deprive a brother of what is necessary. Given our austere budget, we must sometimes go without useful things. As for superfluous things, they take up valuable space, become clutter and, eventually go into a bin.
The spirit of reverence for matter that pervades the sacred liturgy overflows into all of life. Among the sons of Saint Benedict there can be no disdain for material things, no indifference to harmony, order, and cleanliness. A monk’s cell, no less than the common places of the monastery, must be clean, in good order, and marked by a chaste austerity. One’s habit must be kept clean and well–pressed. One’s shoes are to be polished. Even a monk’s personal hygiene redounds to the glory of God. A Benedictine monastery is a place where beauty is at home. All things have a doxological and eucharistic finality as expressed in the Benedicite that we sing at festive Lauds: “Bless the Lord, all ye works of the Lord, praise and exalt Him above all forever”. Similarly, after the main meal we say, Confiteantur tibi, Domine, omnia opera tua, et sancti tui benedicant tibi, “Let all thy works, O Lord, praise thee: and let thy saints bless thee” (Psalm 144:10).
In his commentary on this chapter, Blessed Schuster makes a point of saying that Benedictines have always cultivated a kind of elegance of manner, a certain refinement, an appreciation for good workmanship, for the beauty of forms, and for the gentlemanly comportment that he calls signorilità. This Benedictine refinement has nothing to do with fussiness or snobbishness. It eschews haughtiness, artificiality, and putting on airs. It does, however, have everything to do with a profound reverence for the image of God in man and for all created things. This signorilità or refinement of manner is expressed in the details of daily life. For example, we never serve a guest coffee in a paper cup; always, there is the proper cup and saucer. We never serve a guest milk in a plastic jug; there is the proper pitcher. The flowers in a guest’s room or at one’s place in the refectory are to be kept fresh. The Benedictine refinement of manner begins in taking care of things—ordinary material things—and in respecting good workmanship and the tools that the workman uses in plying his craft.
Saint Benedict wants the abbot to know not only who is in his household, but also what is in his household at any given time, hence the importance of an inventory of tools, supplies, and resources. The Benedictine monk is a worker in the service of the Lord Christ, our true King. In the worker’s bearing and appearance, as well as in the place where he works, and in the things needed for his work, there can be nothing slovenly or neglected. It is the abbot’s duty to correct those brothers whom he sees falling into untidy habits, or slovenly ways, or carelessness.
The observance of six practical precepts can facilitate the achievement of good order, efficiency, and responsible stewardship:
1. If you borrow something, return it.
2. If you open something, close it.
3. If you take something away, put it back.
4. If you soil something, clean it.
5. If you break or lose something, own up to it.
6. If you need something, ask for it, in the proper way and at the suitable time.
All of this being said, good organisation begins in one’s own cell and work area. It is good to sort through one’s things regularly and eliminate all that is superfluous: weekly, monthly, and in a major way at the Embertides.
The monastery is, first of all, the house of God; then, it is our home, the place wherein it is “good and pleasant” for us to “dwell together in unity” (Psalm 132:1). Nothing is more alien to the Benedictine view of things than the modern consumerist trend toward disposable items. We have, as Benedictine monks, to resist the encroachments of materialism and consumerism. There is a kind of Western materialism that thrives on the throw–away economy. Benedictines will always prefer the permanent thing, the well–crafted thing, the thing that is beautiful as well as functional. Modern families have few or no heirlooms, treasured things preserved and lovingly handed down from generation to generation. The traditional Benedictine family cherishes things and so enjoys a culture of precious heirlooms, things handed down, preserved with care, and handled with reverence.