Of the Clothes and Shoes of the Brethren

CHAPTER LV. Of the Clothes and Shoes of the Brethren
7 Apr.  Aug. 7 Dec.
Let clothing be given to the brethren suitable to the nature and the climate of the place where they live; for in cold countries more is required, in warm countries less. This must therefore be considered by the Abbot. We think, however, that in temperate climates a cowl and a tunic should suffice for each monk: the cowl to be of thick stuff in winter, but in summer something worn or thin: likewise a scapular for work, and shoes and stockings to cover their feet. And let not the monks complain of the colour or coarseness of these things, but let them be such as can be got in the country where they live, or can be bought most cheaply.

Let the Abbot be careful about the size of the garments, that they be not too short for those who wear them, but of the proper length. When they receive new clothes let them always give up the old ones at once, to be put by in the wardrobe for the poor. For it is sufficient for a monk to have two tunics and two cowls for wearing at night, and also for washing: whatever is over and above this is superfluous, and ought to be cut off. In the same way, let them give up their shoes, and whatever else is worn out, when they receive new ones. Let those who are sent on a journey receive drawers from the wardrobe, and on their return restore them washed. Their cowls and tunics also, which are to be a little better than those they ordinarily wear, let them receive from the wardrobe when setting out on their journey, and give them back on their return.

Chapter LV is given us on this feast of Saint Gaetano, and I find in this a wonderful correspondence: the liturgical providence of God.

And for raiment why are you solicitous? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they labour not, neither do they spin. But I say to you, that not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as one of these. And if the grass of the field, which is to day, and to morrow is cast into the oven, God doth so clothe: how much more you, O ye of little faith? Be not solicitous therefore, saying, What shall we eat: or what shall we drink, or wherewith shall we be clothed? For after all these things do the heathens seek. For your Father knoweth that you have need of all these things. Seek ye therefore first the kingdom of God, and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matthew 6:28–33)

How important it is that a monk live with his eyes open to the created beauty that surrounds him . . . to the lilies of the field. The monk who never allows his gaze to rest on a flower, a tree, a bird in flight, a sunrise, a field moved by the wind, is much to be pitied. As a monk grows in purity of heart—and this by passing through humiliations, scorching temptations, and seasons of darkness—he begins to discover in created beauty a reflection of the uncreated beauty that shines on the face of Christ. I am reminded of the words of the Irish poet, Joseph Mary Plunkett (1887–1916):

I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.

I see his face in every flower;
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but his voice—and carven by his power
Rocks are his written words.

All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree.

It is against this background that I would have us hear Saint Benedict’s prescriptions for the clothes and shoes of the brethren. In Saint Benedict’s vision of monastic life all things are invested with a sacramental potential. The cellarer of the monastery is to “look upon all the vessels and goods of the monastery as though they were the consecrated vessels of the altar” (Chapter XXXI). Similarly, the clothes and shoes of the  brethren protect and adorn the members of Christ’s Body. Saint Benedict would have his monks present a dignified and appearance: there must be nothing ill–fitting, unkempt, soiled, or otherwise unsuitable.

Although the customs regulating the form and use of the cowl (cuculla), tunic, and scapular, have varied down through the ages, these three items of clothing remain, even today, distinctively Benedictine. The cuculla, with its generous proportions and voluminous sleeves, is emblematic of the contemplative life. It is worn in choir daily at Matins, Lauds, Terce, Holy Mass, and Vespers, and for adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament, save on exceptionally warm summer days. The cuculla is also work for special ceremonies and solemn occasions. Formerly, it was the custom in many places to wear the cuculla almost continuously outside of the times of manual labour. The tunic, a plain ankle–length robe, held in place by a leather cincture, representing death to earthly desires, is a monk’s basic everyday garment. The scapular, representing the sweet yoke of Christ, is made of two panels descending from the shoulders to the hem of the tunic; the hood is attached to the scapular. Formerly, the scapular was a kind of apron for work; today, at Silverstream and in several other monasteries, we don a sturdy blue tunic suitable for strenuous activity.

Saint Benedict requires that the clothes of the brethren be “not too short for those who wear them, but of the proper length”. The abbot himself must have an eye to the suitability of his monks’ clothes. Saint Benedict even makes provision for brethren on a journey to wear  clothes “a little better than those they ordinarily wear”. A Benedictine monk is, at one and the same time, always and everywhere, the Lord’s own “workman” (Prologue) and a gentleman in the service of “the Lord Christ, our true king” (Prologue). His clothing expresses, then, both the humility and nobility of one who “prefers nothing whatever to Christ” (Chapter LXXII).

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