Of the Reception of Pilgrim Monks (LXI:1)

CHAPTER LXI. Of the Reception of Pilgrim Monks
15 Apr. 15 Aug. 15 Dec.
If any monk who is a pilgrim come from distant parts, and desire to dwell in the Monastery as a guest, and if he be content with the customs which he there findeth, and do not trouble the Monastery by any superfluous wants, but be satisfied with what he findeth, let him be received for as long a time as he will. And if reasonably and with humility he reprove and point out what is amiss, let the Abbot prudently mark his words, in case God perchance hath sent him for this very end. If afterwards he desire to bind himself to remain there, let not his wish be denied him, especially since during the time he was a guest his manner of life could well be ascertained.

In Saint Benedict’s day it was not uncommon for monks to go on pilgrimage, or to be sent abroad on a mission, or to journey in search of an elder with special charismatic gifts. It was only normal that such monks should seek the hospitality of monasteries along the way. Saint Benedict assumes that the monk on a journey may stay for some time as a guest of the monastery. He has no objection to this provided that the guest monk be content with the observance such as he finds it, and enter humbly into the life such as it is lived, without troubling the community by making unreasonable demands. Saint Benedict says that if the visitor is satisfied with what he finds, he may be received for as long a time as he will. In this little sentence, we see both Saint Benedict’s wisdom and his largesse of spirit.

The visiting monk who is content with the observance that he finds in a monastery, already gives evidence of having the indispensable, the foundational monastic virtue: humility. In contrast, the visiting monk who criticizes what he finds in a monastery, observing that things are done differently, or more strictly, or less strictly than in other monasteries, already gives evidence of having a prideful, critical, carping spirit. Such monks may travel the world in search of a monastery that corresponds to their ideals and never find it, because pride prevents them from submitting humbly to what is. God gives Himself in what is, in the humble and imperfect realities of a life marked by frailty, poverty, and the accommodation of infirmities. In such a life there is great scope for fraternal charity, for the practice of mercy, for the mortification of one’s own preference, the renunciation of one’s own will, and for obedience.

Today’s Chapter follows Chapters LXVIII, LXIX, and LX, all of which treat of those who, in one way or another, seek to be incorporated into the monastic family. In times past, it would not have been usual for a man to visit several monasteries before asking to be admitted into the monastery of his choice. The opportunities for travel were not what they are today. In the 1950s and 60s, for example, a young man would have written to various monasteries and, in reply, would have received what was called at the time “vocational literature.” Even then there were lads who prided themselves on accumulating great collections of vocational literature and who would pore over the various brochures in much the same way as other lads would pore over their collections of baseball cards. Since that time, the internet has become the means by which young men garner knowledge of monasteries near and far. Travel has become easier; it is not unusual for an earnest young man to visit two, three, four, or even five monasteries, before choosing to engage seriously with one of them.

The danger in all of this is that such earnest young men, in their immaturity and pride, may set themselves up as connoisseurs and judges of all things monastic, in the end finding nowhere the monastery that measures up to the exacting standards of their fantasy. The man who, in all simplicity and humility, accepts what he finds in a given place has the best chance of being able to persevere in the monastic life.