Letters, tokens, or any gifts whatsoever (LIV)

CHAPTER LIV. Whether a Monk ought to receive letters, or tokens
6 Apr. 6 Aug. 6 Dec.

By no means let a monk be allowed to receive, either from his parents or any one else, or from his brethren, letters, tokens, or any gifts whatsoever, or to give them to others, without permission of the Abbot. And if anything be sent to him, even by his parents, let him not presume to receive it until it hath been made known to the Abbot. But even if the Abbot order it to be received, it shall be in his power to bid it be given to whom he pleaseth; and let not the brother to whom it may have been sent be grieved, lest occasion be given to the devil. Should any one, however, presume to act otherwise, let him be subjected to the discipline of the Rule.

Today’s chapter can only be understood in the light of Our Lord’s words in the Gospel:

And there went great multitudes with him. And turning, he said to them: If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whosoever doth not carry his cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26-27)

These words were addressed to the great multitudes walking behind Him. Saint Luke says, “And turning, He said to them . . . .” Et conversus dixit ad illos. In addressing the great multitudes, Jesus turned and showed them His face. He did this so that the sight of His countenance might communicate to those chosen by His Heart the singular grace of leaving all for love of Him. Saint Benedict speaks of this grace in Chapter IV, Nihil amori Christi praeponere, “To prefer nothing to the love of Christ,” and again in Chapter LXXII, Christo omnino nihil praeponant, “Prefer nothing whatever to Christ.”

Each of us experiences the separation from father, mother, brethren, sisters, and dear friends differently. For one brother, the separation from father, mother, and family is a sacrifice costly above all others. For another, the more painful sacrifice lies in renouncing the intimacy of friends. Still another brother may hardly feel at all the pain of separation from family in the beginning. Some men may even feel a certain relief, especially if their experience of family life was marked by conflict, abuse, or trauma. Others will be affected by the initial sacrifice of family ties only after years of life in the cloister. Not infrequently, the pain of separation from family comes back to a monk when he reaches mid-life. He finds himself without a spouse and without children, after having left mother, father, brethren, and sisters. This can be an occasion of grace: an opportunity to be renewed in one’s first choice, lest Our Lord say:

But I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first charity. Be mindful therefore from whence thou art fallen: and do penance, and do the first works. (Apocalypse 2:4-5)

I knew a man who was, in a certain sense, driven to the cloister by the sufferings of a series of childhood traumas. Let us call him Malcolm. Poor Malcolm didn’t see this at the time. He thought he was truly seeking God when, in fact, he was fleeing from a situation that was objectively intolerable and seriously damaging. Malcolm could have gone in any one of a number of danger-ridden directions, but by God’s providence, he fled to a cloister. Actually, Malcolm fled to several cloisters in succession, but that is another tale for another time. A secular psychologist, analysing Malcolm’s story, would have seen it as a reaction of flight in the interest of self-preservation. Happily, God placed along Malcolm’s torturous path one or two wise elders who recognised that, although the motive of flight that brought him to the monastery was defective, it allowed him to reach a space in which the deeper and purer motive could be brought to light: the love of Christ.

Malcolm did not have an easy time of it. Just when he thought that the devouring dragons of his past had been slain or, at least, lulled into permanent hibernation, they would rise again from the depths of his psyche spewing fire and threatening to devour him. There were, nonetheless, several significant occasions of healing that contributed to the purification of his motives. With each successive purification, Malcolm found a corresponding healing in the relationship with his family. Even though, at the origin of Malcom’s monastic vocation, there was an impulse of flight from the abusive situation in which his family life was bound up, Malcolm was, in the end, free to detach himself from his family for the love of Christ. It took years of suffering and prayer before Malcolm was able to sort out the motives that brought him to the monastic life, but when he did, he was able to see, with immense gratitude, that the sufferings he endured as a child were the very means by which Divine Providence permitted him to take a course of flight that would, in the end, lead him to the Heart of Christ.

I tell Malcolm’s story to illustrate that a monk’s relations with his family are, more often than not, messy and complex. There are very few vocations today that come from a stable, harmonious family, free of neuroses, untouched by addictions, living together happily in a thoroughly Catholic house wherein everything is tidy and perpetually cheerful. Saint Benedict treats in Chapter LIV of the letters, tokens, or gifts that parents may bring or have sent to their son in the cloister. Saint Benedict does not forbid the reception of such letters and gifts absolutely; he  makes it dependent on the permission of the abbot. The abbot or—in the case of novices, the Father Master—is to exercise vigilance and decide prudently, in each case, what is best for the brother concerned.

Given that Saint Benedict speaks here of letters, the same principle applies, by extension, to the use of the telephone, to the exchange of emails, and to the various other means of electronic communication with our parents and loved ones. If one were to read through the Declarations and Statutes of various monasteries from fifty or a hundred years ago, one would be surprised at the detailed precautions envisaged with regard to correspondence. Outgoing letters, for example, were always given unsealed to the abbot to be posted. Incoming letters were opened by the abbot before being given to the monk to whom they were addressed. We may smile at these quaint precautionary measures, or be appalled by them. It remains that they correspond in spirit to the letter of Chapter LIV.

You will note that Saint Benedict leaves the whole matter to the discretion of the abbot: the word abbot occurs three times in the text. In all that pertains to a monk’s communications with his family, the abbot is bound to take into account each one’s personal history. He must further take into account the culture, sensibility, age, health, and religious convictions of a monk’s parents. At no time should the parents of a monk be made to feel that they are being penalised, or alienated, or refused the honour and affection due to them. It sometimes happens, in fact, that of all the siblings in a family, it is the son who is a monk who remains in closest communication with his parents. I know from personal experience that when one’s parents reach great old age, it is an act of filial piety to communicate with them more frequently than one would have done in the earlier seasons of life. Preferring nothing to the love of Christ does not conflict with a rightly-ordered filial piety. On the contrary, our relations with our parents and loved ones may contribute significantly to the spreading abroad of the sweet fragrance of Christ Jesus.

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