That there may be no need for the monks to wander abroad (LXVI)

CHAPTER LXVI. Of the Porter of the Monastery
24 Apr. 24 Aug. 24 Dec.

At the gate of the Monastery let there be placed a wise old man, who knoweth how to give and receive an answer, and whose ripeness of years suffereth him not to wander. He ought to have his cell near the gate, so that they who come may always find some one at hand to give them an answer. As soon as any one shall knock, or a poor man call to him, let him answer, “Thanks be to God,” or bid God bless him, and then with all mildness and the fear of God let him give reply without delay, in the fervour of charity. If the porter need help, let him have with him one of the younger brethren.

The Monastery, however, ought if possible to be so constituted that all things necessary, such as water, a mill, and a garden, and the various crafts may be contained within it; so that there may be no need for the monks to wander abroad, for this is by no means expedient for their souls. And we wish this rule to be frequently read in the community, that none of the brethren may excuse himself on the plea of ignorance.

For Saint Benedict, there is but one gate giving entrance to the monastery. The gatehouse of the monastery constitutes at once a point of separation from the world and a point of communication with it. The porter of the monastery is the guardian of the enclosure; at the same time, he is the welcoming face of the monastery. Saint Benedict would have the porter be a wise old man. Wise and old! These qualifications have to do not so much with chronological age as with affective and spiritual maturity. The porter who is affectively immature risks using his post as a means of gratifying his own neediness. The porter must be a wise man, an astute judge of human character, and so united to God by the ceaseless prayer of heart, that he can effectively serve as a mediator, that is, as one “who knoweth how to give and receive an answer.”  It is often to the porter that people often confide their sufferings, their cares, and their intentions of prayer.

Those who come to the monastery are not to be kept waiting. Saint Benedict insists on the answer without delay, and not just any answer. To the poor and to seculars, the porter answers Deo gratias! (Thanks be to God). To clergy and to monks, the porter answers Benedic! (A blessing please). The porter is, in the ordinary course of things, the first to welcome Christ in the visitor, the pilgrim, and the guest. The porter is the first to exercise the courtesy of love that is expressed in the lovely sequence of words that Saint Benedict uses: mansuetudo, timor Dei, fervor, caritas, festinanter. Each of these words corresponds to an aspect of the courteous love with which the porter greets and welcomes Christ in those who call or knock: mildness, fear of God, warmth, charity, promptness.

We must do everything possible to forestall situations in which visitors and guests arrive at the monastery and, finding no one to greet and welcome them, begin to wander about looking for a monk, peering through windows, and trying doors. We are not yet sufficiently numerous and well-equipped to have a porter present in the gatehouse at all hours, but this remains the Benedictine ideal and it is as practical and necessary today as it was in ages past.

The second part of Chapter LXVI treats of enclosure. Enclosure is for us monks what the desert was for the early Fathers of Egypt and Palestine. Like the desert of the monks in Egypt, monastic enclosure severely limits our opportunities for contact with the outside world. It places distance and silence between us and between a vast multitude of potential social contacts. Like the desert of the Fathers, monastic enclosure limits exchanges with our families and friends.

Today, in ways that the Fathers of the Desert and monks of past centuries could never have imagined, monastic enclosure eliminates the nefarious influence of the social media. Make no mistake about this: there are electronically transmitted bits of news, sights, sounds, and impressions that trouble and dissipate the psyche. These things are incompatible with the inner purity and silence necessary for ceaseless communion with God. The internet has become a grave threat to monastic life. Monastic enclosure today must address the question of the social media and take a firm stand with regard to it. Evagrius Ponticus writes:

It is not possible to live as a monk, and at the same time continue to visit towns, where the soul is filled with various images which she receives from the outside. (Letter 41, in Walled About With God, translated and edited by Br David Hayes, O.S.B., 2005, p. 154)

Saint Benedict would have the monastery so constituted that all things necessary may be contained within it; so that there may be no need for the monks to go abroad, for this, he says,  “is by no means expedient for their souls.” The monastic enclosure is our desert. It is the place of solitude in which it pleases Our Lord to fufill for us what He promised through the mouth of the prophet Osee: “Therefore, behold I will allure her, and will lead her into the wilderness: and I will speak to her heart” (Osee 2:14).

It is not enough for a monk to observe enclosure by staying, so to speak, on the right side of the wall. A monk must, with the passing years, come to love the enclosure of the monastery and to sing himself what was sung for him when he was welcomed as a postulant: “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). Saint John Paul II, speaking to the Carmelites of Lisieux in 1980, said:

Love your separation from the world, perfectly comparable to the biblical wilderness. Paradoxically, this wilderness is not emptiness. It is there that the Lord speaks to your heart and closely associates you in his work of salvation. (Osservatore Romano, 23 June 1980, p. 15).

There are three degrees of monastic enclosure. The first is concrete and material; it has to do with remaining physically in the enclosure of the monastery. Certain temptations correspond to this first degree: curiosity, restlessness, a need to get out and see different faces, different places, different things; but also homesickness, a longing to be with family and friends, and a desire to experience, if only from time to time, the comforts that brought one solace and gratification in the world. It is an old temptation: “We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free cost: the cucumbers come into our mind, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic” (Numbers 11:5).

The second degree is ascetical; it has to do with grasping the value of the enclosure and preferring it to contact with the world to the point of loving the enclosure of the monastery.  Hæc requies mea in sæculum sæculi; hic habitabo, quoniam elegi eam. “This is my rest for ever and ever: here will I dwell, for I have chosen it” (Psalm 131:14). The temptations that correspond to this degree of enclosure attack the vow of stability. “Ah, in such and such an abbey, the doctrine is purer, the discipline more rigorous, the choir more harmonious, the architecture more beautiful, the abbot wiser, and the brethren holier.” Such thoughts must be unmasked for what they are and, as Saint Benedict says in Chapter IV, dashed against the rock who is Christ.

The third degree is mystical: here monastic enclosure becomes a vast space of communion with Christ and with the Church. It is here that a monk begins to say with Saint Thérèse:

Yes, I have found my place in the Church, and it is You, my God, who have given it to me. It is heart of the Church, my mother, I shall be love, and in this way I shall be all things, and so my dream shall be fulfilled. (Autobiographical Manuscript B)

The temptations against this third degree of enclosure are more subtle than the others. They have to do with self-absorption, with isolation, and with a morbid preoccupation with the cultivation of an illusion of virtue that is, in effect, a refusal to die to self and to enter into the self–emptying of the Victim Christ, the Hostia perpetua. The third degree of enclosure is the humble submission to what is in the here and now. It is to this that Saint Benedict points in the conclusion of the Prologue:

But as we go forward in our life and in faith, we shall with hearts enlarged and unspeakable sweetness of love run in the way of God’s commandments; so that never departing from His guidance, but persevering in His teaching in the monastery until death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ, that we may deserve to be partakers of His kingdom. Amen.


Add a comment