CHAPTER LI. Of the Brethren who go not very far off
2 Apr. 2 Aug. 2 Dec.
Let not the brother who is sent out on any business, and hopeth to return that same day to the Monastery, presume to eat while abroad, even although pressed by any one to do so, unless perchance he have been bidden by his Abbot. If he do otherwise, let him be excommunicated.
The principle of Chapter LI is that a monk remain a monk no matter where is sent or what he is doing. For Saint Benedict, a monk does not leave the enclosure of the monastery without being sent out to attend to some business that cannot otherwise be transacted satisfactorily. The prohibition of taking a meal while outside the monastery does not mean that a monk ought to allow himself to fall into a state of weakness from hunger and thirst. It is entirely appropriate that a monk sent to do things in Dublin or to Drogheda should allow himself a cup of tea and a scone, or any other suitable refreshment.
What Saint Benedict prohibits is the leisurely and protracted meal, taken in the company of people of the world, with the copious food and wine that characterises Mediterranean hospitality. A shared meal is always an intimate experience; it may lead to unguarded conversation and to exchanges that are regretted later or that may linger in a monk’s memory like a tune that he cannot get out of his head. The monk sent out of the monastery, or even called to the parlour, does well to pray, Pone, Domine, custodiam ori meo, et ostium circumstantiæ labiis meis. “Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth: and a door round about my lips” (Psalm 140:3).
At a deeper level, Chapter LI invites us to be amatores fratrum et loci, “lovers of the brethren and of the place.” For a monk, there is no place like home. His joy is to abide in the company of his fathers and brothers. When he is away from the monastery, he looks forward to the happiness of returning to it. And when he is in the monastery, his heart is content and grateful to be in domo Domini, “in the house of the Lord” (Psalm 133:1).
For better is one day in thy courts above thousands. I have chosen to be an abject in the house of my God, rather than to dwell in the tabernacles of sinners. (Psalm 83:11)