Of the Clothes and Shoes of the Brethren (LV:1)

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, Of the Clothes and Shoes of the Brethren, is given us on this vigil of the Immaculate Conception, and I find in this a wonderful correspondence arranged by the liturgical providence of God, for tomorrow at the Introit we shall sing:

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, and my soul shall be joyful in my God: for He hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, and with the robe of justice He hath covered me, as a bride adorned with her jewels. (Isaias 61:10)

Mary, from the first instant of her conception in the womb of Saint Anne, was clothed with the garments of salvation and covered with the robe of justice. When a man comes to the monastery it is because he longs to recover the white garment of baptism. There is a passage in the Epistle to the Colossians in which the Apostle uses very effectively the image of clothing:

Now it is your turn to have done with it all, resentment, anger, spite, insults, foul-mouthed utterance; and do not tell lies at one another’s expense. You must be quit of the old self, and the habits that went with it; you must be clothed in the new self, that is being refitted all the time for closer knowledge, so that the image of the God who created it is its pattern. Here is no more Gentile and Jew, no more circumcised and uncircumcised; no one is barbarian, or Scythian, no one is slave or free man; there is nothing but Christ in any of us. You are God’s chosen people, holy and well beloved; the livery you wear must be tender compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; you must bear with one another’s faults, be generous to each other, where somebody has given grounds for complaint; the Lord’s generosity to you must be the model of yours. And, to crown all this, charity; that is the bond which makes us perfect. (Colossians 3:8–14)

The monastic habit, a cherished sacramental, will avail us little unless we correspond inwardly to the newness of life that it outwardly signifies. Each one of us must step out of, or strip off, or cast aside the sin that clings to him. Saint John Cassian gives us a basic inventory:

There are eight principal vices that attack humankind. The first is gluttony, which means the voraciousness of the belly; the second is fornication; the third is avarice or love of money; the fourth is anger; the fifth is sadness; the sixth acedia, which is anxiety or weariness of heart; the seventh is boastfulness or vainglory; and the eighth is pride.

Sin, like certains fashions of dress, presents itself in layers. Most men go about vested in layers of sin. These are, more often than not, worn with certain accessories. Saint Paul named them: “resentment, anger, spite, insults, foul-mouthed utterance, and lies at one another’s expense” (Colossians 3:8). The monastic habit is incompatible with the wardrobe of “the old man with his deeds” (Colossians 3:9). Every monk does well to review what manner of vesture he has worn in the course of the day. Have I picked up the ugly accessories of sin: anger, spite, murmuring, rash judgment, harshness, foul language, intemperance, self–indulgence, sadness, censoriousness, pride, lust, and disobedience? Or have I studied the vesture of Our Lady and of the saints, and asked Our Lord, in his piteous love, to provide me with their array of holiness and beauty: “charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, longanimity, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, and chastity” (Galatians 5:22–23).

Each of us should ask himself on this vigil of the Immaculate Conception if he is not wearing or, perhaps, keeping in his wardrobe a few wretched, stinking garments and accessories. Cast them into the consuming fire of the love of Christ and, today, go to the Immaculate Mother of God and ask her to clothe you as see she sees fit.

It is against this background that I would have us hear Saint Benedict’s prescriptions for the clothes and shoes of the brethren. The tunic is a monk’s basic everyday garment; as such it represents humility. When a monk puts on his tunic in the morning, he does well to pray for a real participation in the humility and meekness of Christ of whom it is said, “He shall not contend, nor cry out, neither shall any man hear his voice in the streets.The bruised reed he shall not break: and smoking flax he shall not extinguish” (Matthew 12:19–20).

The leather cincture, made of the hide of an animal, represents death to earthly desires. In putting on the cincture, pray for chastity, not in a tense, anxious way, but with confidence and serenity, remembering that Saint Benedict would have us love chastity (Chapter IV). We love the things that delight us; we love the things that make us happy.

The scapular, representing the sweet yoke of Christ, is the emblem of obedience. Saint Benedict says in Chapter V that obedience without delay becometh those who hold nothing dearer to them than Christ. One who is yoked to Christ cannot walk outside of the path traced by obedience without feeling that he is pulling away from Christ and taking another direction.

The cuculla, with its generous proportions and voluminous sleeves, is emblematic of the gratuitousness of the contemplative life, of the primacy of adoration, and of the “charity that covereth a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). The ampleness of the cuculla represents the extravagance of her whose many sins were forgiven her, because she loved much (Luke 7:47). When, at the hour of death, a monk is clothed in the cuculla and laid in a humble wooden coffin, it is as if the cuculla becomes his way of saying, “Suscipe me, Domine, take Thou me to Thyself, O Lord, wrapped in the love that Thou hast never refused me for, by Thy grace, I have never despaired of Thy mercy”.


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