Sent on a journey (LXVII)

CHAPTER LXVII. Of Brethren who are sent on a Journey
25 Apr. 25 Aug. 25 Dec.

Let the brethren who are about to be sent on a journey commend themselves to the prayers of all the brethren and of the Abbot, and at the last prayer of the Work of God let a commemoration be always made of the absent. Let the brethren that return from a journey, on the very day that they come back, lie prostrate on the floor of the Oratory at all the Canonical Hours, while the Work of God is being performed, and beg the prayers of all on account of their transgressions, in case they should perchance upon the way have seen or heard anything harmful, or fallen into idle talk. And let no one presume to relate to another what he may have seen or heard outside the Monastery; for thence arise manifold evils. If any one shall so presume, let him be subjected to the punishment prescribed by the Rule. And he shall undergo a like penalty, who dareth to leave the enclosure of the Monastery, or to go anywhere, or do anything, however trifling, without permission of the Abbot.

In today’s Chapter LXVII, Saint Benedict continues to treat of monastic enclosure. Yesterday, he said that the monastery had to be so constituted as to eliminate, insofar as possible, every pretext for leaving the enclosure. Saint Benedict recognises that, in spite of every such provision, monks will be obliged, at least from time to time, to undertake a journey either for medical care, or because of obligations to his family, or for study, or for participation in some event that the abbot deems worthwhile and profitable to the monastery. The first thing to understand with regard to such journeys is that a monk undertakes them under obedience and as one who is sent forth: missus. A journey undertaken with the blessing of obedience has a definite time of departure, a specific aim in view, and a time of return.

A monk does not undertake a journey in order to indulge a fancy for idle lollygagging. Saint Benedict says elsewhere that “idleness is an enemy of the soul.” If this is true of the monk who remains within the enclosure, it is doubly true of the monk who finds himself outside. I have known monks, sent out of the monastery for a legitimate reason, who lost, in one week’s time, much of the discipline, peace, and regularity they had gained, at great cost, by two, or five, or ten years in the cloister. The monk sent on a journey must be aware of the challenges that will have to face. He will be assaulted by unfamiliar or long-forgotten sights, and sounds, and encounters, and discoveries. He will be weakened by fatigue. He will find himself having to answer questions, and engage in conversations, and humour the trivial interrogations of the curious and the ignorant. His body clock will be all unwound and the rhythm of the monastic horarium will be broken. His nerves will be set on edge by the incessant noise and other sensory stimulations. Monks sent out to rest sometimes return to the monastery more fatigued than when they left.

While occasionally, a short absence from the monastery may redound to the benefit of a monk and of the community, the risks and the long-term effects of every absence are not negligible. In Chapter L, Saint Benedict says, “Let not those who are sent on a journey allow the appointed Hours to pass by; but, as far as they can, observe them by themselves, and not neglect to fulfil their obligation of divine service.” Even outside the enclosure, a monk remains a monk from head to toe; he is not dispensed from his bounden service of the Divine Majesty. He is to observe the monastic hours of prayer insofar as he is able “in godly fear, and on bended knees.” This may not be easy. It may require a certain amount of ingenuity and planning. Long past is the day of the neighbourhood parish church, within walking distance and open from dawn to dusk, such as I knew it as a young man. Secular homes are often filled with the abrasive sound of the media from early in the morning until late at night. It may be difficult to find a quiet corner. I have known monks on a home visit obliged to withdraw to the remotest corner of the back garden in order to have even a few moments of quiet. Such behaviour may be looked upon with suspicion and may even vex family members who see it as queer and anti-social. The monk thus inconvenienced will learn to respond always with good cheer, affability, and suppleness.

Our practice is that a monk never remove the monastic habit, even while traveling or while spending time with one’s family. There are, nonetheless, particularly thorny family situations in which loved ones hostile to the Catholic faith or to the monastic vocation may respond to so much as the sight of the holy habit with resentment, or anger, or hurt. One can almost hear certain people’s thoughts: “He is grievous unto us, even to behold: for his life is not like other men’s, and his ways are very different” (Wisdom 2:15). In such exceptional situations a prudent ἐπιείκεια (epikeia) must be exercised, provided that the abbot has been made aware of the circumstances and given his blessing to a certain pia consideratio (kind consideration, see Chapter XXXVII).

The community, remaining in the enclosure of the monastery, will be aware of the dangers, temptations, and hardships of the brother sent out on a journey, the frater missus. The frater missus remains present in the community’s prayer, and this at every Hour of the Divine Office. We extend the same intercessory prayer to our Oblates, for they are, in a certain sense, fratres missi, brothers and sisters on a mission.

When a monk returns home to the enclosure of the monastery, he must take care, lest in recounting the experiences of his journey carelessly and imprudently, he place a stumbling block in the way of his brethren. It is by no means salutary to recount everything seen and heard outside the monastery. What is the principle here? It is the teaching of the Apostle:

For the rest, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever modest, whatsoever just, whatsoever holy, whatsoever lovely, whatsoever of good fame, if there be any virtue, if any praise of discipline, think on these things. (Philipppians 4:8)

I must add that the same injunction is applied to excursions out of the enclosure by way of the internet. When I said yesterday that the internet has affected monastic observance in an unprecedented and global way, penetrating even into the desert monasteries of Egypt and the remoteness of Mount Athos, the holy mountain, I wanted to emphasize that more than the invention of the printing press, the telegraph, the telephone, and the television, the internet has opened a breach in monastic enclosure everywhere. Used rightly and with prudence, the internet can be a boon, a real advantage. It can facilitate necessary purchases, research, study, and communication with the absent brethren, the fratres missi, and, when necessary, with other monasteries. At the same time, so often as a monk makes use of the internet, he will be exposed to temptations of vain curiosity, if only to look quickly at the latest news reports. Every use of the internet is an egress from the enclosure of the monastery. The brethren allowed to use the internet are also fratres missi, brothers on a mission. They must not abuse of the blessing given them to use the internet, nor may they indiscriminately report in community things seen and tidbits of news gleaned from it.

These provisions for the observance of monastic enclosure are neither narrow nor scrupulous. They are imbued with realism and prudence. They are founded on the corporate inherited wisdom of holy monks down through the ages. Saint Benedict gives a ritual expression to the need for a frater missus to be cleansed and enveloped in intercessory prayer when, after a journey, he returns to the enclosure of the monastery. He may perchance, while outside, “have seen or heard something harmful, or fallen into idle talk.” For this reason, he is to “lie prostrate on the floor of the Oratory at all the Canonical Hours, while the Work of God is being performed, and beg the prayers of all.” For us, concretely, the blessing asked and received before and after every egress from the enclosure of the monastery corresponds to this prayer. Before and after longer absences, there are the prescribed prayers given in the breviary and in the antiphonal. As for the fratres missi themselves, they do well to pray the Itinerarium (Prayers for a Journey) as indicated in our liturgical books.