What is sufficient for a monk (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.

Vestimenta fratribus secundum locorum qualitatem ubi habitant vel aerum temperiem dentur. “Let clothing be given to the brethren suitable to the nature and the climate of the place where they live.” The most important word in this first sentence of Chapter LV is dentur: “Let clothing be given.” A monk has nothing except what has been given him. A monk does not provide for himself. He does not go out to shops nor does he procure clothes for himself by asking for them from family and friends. Blessed Schuster says that, as an individual, a monk lives from alms, vive de elemosina: he accepts what is given him in a spirit of mercy.

The monastery as a whole does not live from alms; we try, insofar as possible, to work for our living, even if part of our work is, for example, the newsletter In Cœnaculo, which, by reason of its quality and attractive presentation, does bring in funds. For the rest, we have D. Benedict’s highly acclaimed graphic design, D. Finnian’s remarkable remunerative work, and all of the activities related to the gatehouse and to our online shop. We have our thriving chickens and our polytunnels. All the same, no brother earns anything for himself. No brother procures for himself clothes, shoes, and other necessities. Each one is a poor man who receives what is freely given him.

A monk is always in the position of one who receives from another. This fundamental Benedictine attitude flies in the face of everything the world has to say about personal freedom and autonomy. A monk does not relinquish personal freedom and autonomy; he uses them to make a fundamental choice, which is, to be dependent on another, and to hold himself to it. Thus do we read in Chapter XXXIII:

Let none presume to give or receive anything without leave of the Abbot, nor to keep anything as their own, either book or writing-tablet or pen, or anything whatsoever; since they are permitted to have neither body nor will in their own power. But all that is necessary they may hope to receive from the father of the Monastery: nor are they allowed to keep anything which the Abbot has not given, or at least permitted them to have. (Chapter XXXIII)

Saint Benedict says, Omnia vero necessaria a patre sperare monasterii, “All that is necessary they may hope to receive from the father of the monastery.” The word omnia is significant. It cuts at the root of any claim a monk may have to being autonomous and self-sufficient. A monk is, effectively, brought back to a state of childlike dependence; it is an outward expression of the way of spiritual childhood, which, if truth be told, began, after Our Lord’s own teachings in the Holy Gospel, with Saint Cassian, who in Chapter 3 of Book I of the Institutes, describes the dress of the monks of Egypt:

They constantly use both by day and by night very small hoods coming down to the end of the neck and shoulders, which only cover the head, in order that they may constantly be moved to preserve the simplicity and innocence of little children by imitating their actual dress. And these men have returned to childhood in Christ and sing at all hours with heart and soul: “Lord, my heart is not exalted nor are my eyes lofty. Neither have I walked in great matters nor in wonderful things above me. If I was not humbly minded, but exalted my soul: as a child that is weaned is towards his mother.” (Institutes, Book I, Chapter 3)

In this regard, the radicality of Saint Benedict’s doctrine is also the faithful echo of what Saint Cassian sets forth in Book IV, Chapter 5 of the Institutes:

Wherefore each one on his admission is stripped of all his former possessions, so that he is not allowed any longer to keep even the clothes which he has on his back: but in the council of the brethren he is brought forward into the midst and stripped of his own clothes, and clad by the Abbot’s hands in the dress of the monastery, so that by this he may know not only that he has been despoiled of all his old things, but also that he has laid aside all worldly pride, and come down to the want and poverty of Christ, and that he is now to be supported not by wealth sought for by the world’s arts, nor by anything reserved from his former state of unbelief, but that he is to receive out of the holy and sacred funds of the monastery his rations for his service; and that, as he knows that he is thence to be clothed and fed and that he has nothing of his own, he may learn, nevertheless, not to be anxious about the morrow, according to the saying of the Gospel, and may not be ashamed to be on a level with the poor, that is with the body of the brethren, with whom Christ was not ashamed to be numbered, and to call himself their brother, but that rather he may glory that he has been made to share the lot of his own servants. (Institutes, Book IV, Chapter 5)

How can we not, in this Holy Week, relate Chapter LV of the Holy Rule to the 10th and 14th Stations of the Cross: Jesus is stripped of His garments, and Jesus is placed in the tomb. In the 10th Station, we see Jesus stripped naked, utterly deprived of everything. Contemplate this mystery and you will begin to understand what Saint Benedict means in Chapter XXXIII: “Let none presume  . . . to keep anything whatsoever; since they are permitted to have neither body nor will in their own power.” Nudum Christum nudus sequere. Naked to follow the naked Christ: this adage was dear to Saint Jerome, but subsequent generations of monks recognised in it the underlying ethos of Chapters XXXIII and LV of the Holy Rule. In the 14th Station, we see the Body of Jesus laid in the tomb of another, a resting place given him by Saint Joseph of Arimathea. This is the ultimate poignant fulfilment of Our Lord’s own words: “The Son of man hath not where to lay his head” (Luke 9:58).

This is the mystery that Mother Mectilde contemplates in what she calls, in The True Spirit, the 12th and 14th “states of the Host”: in the 12th state, she contemplates Jesus’ abandonment to His Father’s Providence. Jesus was, even in death, abandoned to His Father’s Providence, of which Joseph of Arimathea was the instrument. In the 14th state, Mother Mectilde contemplates the utter poverty of Jesus hidden beneath the veil of the sacred species. What is poorer, what is more naked than the Host lying on the corporal? The linen of the corporal points back to the clean linen shroud provided by Joseph of Arimathea. Rightly does the Byzantine Divine Liturgy sing on Holy Saturday:

The noble Joseph, when he had taken down Thy most pure body from the Tree, wrapped It in fine linen and anointed It with spices, and placed It in a new tomb. (Troparion of Holy Saturday)

A monk is to be content with the clothes that are provided: omni vilitate vel extremitate (Chapter VII), even if it is “the meanest and worst of everything.” This being said, the abbot must take care that the clothes provided fit each one: “that they be not too short for those who wear them, but of the proper length.” The monastic habit is never supposed to make a monk look ridiculous. On the contrary, evangelical poverty and a certain austere elegance—Blessed Schuster’s famous signorilità benedettina— go hand in hand. Each brother is responsible for keeping his tunic and scapular clean and free of unsightly stains and spots. A damp cloth often suffices for removing spots from one’s tunic or scapular. Our tunics and scapulars must be well-ironed, free of wrinkles and creases that make them look like they have been slept in for a week.  Each brother is also responsible for keeping his shoes clean and polished.

The abbot must see to it that the zeal for simplicity and austerity does not deteriorate into miserliness and niggardliness. Nothing is more foreign to the Benedictine spirit of generosity and spaciousness than a stingy, penny-pinching approach to things that are needed. The psalmist says, Dispersit, dedit pauperibus, “Open-handed he maketh distribution to the poor” (Psalm 111:9).  Saint Benedict exemplifies this in the list of things that he would distribute to each monk: “a cowl, tunic, shoes, stockings, girdle, knife, pen, needle, handkerchief, and tablets.” And he adds, “so that all plea of wanting anything may be taken away.”

Necessity is a relative assessment. What one brother deems necessary, another brother can easily go without. And what one brother finds superfluous, another may find useful. Apart from being good fathers of the monastic family, the abbot and cellarer must be like good mothers. A monk must never be made to feel as if he is submitting a request to the superintendancy of a business. The monastery is the domus Dei, the household of God, in which all are treated with the affection and dignity due to sons of the family, ut nemo perturbetur neque contristetur in domo Dei, ” that no one may be troubled nor grieved in the house of God” (Chapter XXXI).

For us Benedictines, disappropriation (what the mendicant Orders and modern institutes call the vow of poverty) and chastity fall under the vow of conversatio morum, “conversion of manners.” The three monastic vows—stability, conversion of manners, and obedience—are interlocking components of a whole. Whenever one of the components is weakened, the whole risks falling apart. Blessed Schuster writes: “The vows of religion are so bound up together, that one of them cannot stand without the others. Should there be a falling away from the observance of poverty, chastity will be the next thing to go.”

This chapter on the clothes and shoes of the brethren reminds me of certain things that were still being inculcated in novices when I began my own monastic journey so many years ago. We used to call it la bienséance monastique, which means monastic decorum or propriety. It was the subject of a weekly conference by the Father Zelator. Monastic decorum is neither fussiness nor pharisaical hair-splitting. It is, rather, one of the elements that, by showing us how to act with respect and dignity, gives a profoundly human quality to our life together. The tradition was, for example, that a monk habitually kept his hands under the scapular. One’s gait was measured and peaceful. One learned to close doors quietly and to set things down without tossing or slamming them. Such minor observances or customs do not diminish our spontaneity or freedom. On the contrary, they foster a climate of monastic gentlemanliness in which each one learns to live with his fathers and brothers in serenity and joy.

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