Sunday, March 30, 2014

CHAPTER 33: Whether A Monk Ought to Have Anything of His Own

In a monastic community, the vice of personal ownership must be torn out by the very root so that no one may presume to give or receive anything without the permission of the abbot; nor should a monk have anything whatsoever as his own—neither a book, nor a tablet, nor a writing utensil—nothing.  Because monks more so than anyone else, have given up everything they own to God, even their own bodies and their own wills.  If they need something, they should go to the Father of the monastery; and no one should have anything that the abbot has not specifically given him. Let all things be common to all, and let no one call or take to himself anything as his own.

We’ve all heard the expression “Money is the root of all evil.”  But that’s a misquote of Saint Paul’s first letter to Timothy which actually reads, “The love of money is the root of all evil” (6:10).  The difference is crucial because, after all, there is nothing inherently evil about currency.  In fact, without currency, there would be no such thing as civilization.  What Jesus was talking about is that mistaken sense of ownership or entitlement that we have toward the material world—the feeling that says, “I can do anything I want with this because it’s mine.  And while I’m at it, I think I’ll have more.”

Everything God creates is good.  Even things like slugs and mold and glob-fish and proboscis monkeys are beautiful in their own icky sort of way.  It is our attitude that needs changing.  And it has been that way since the Garden of Eden.  If we humans weren’t constantly running around treating the world like we owned it, this earth of ours would be literally perfect.  This is one of the many reasons why monks resolve never to own anything; not because the world is bad but because it is so good.  The monk’s poverty, therefore, frees him not only from undue attachment, greed, and jealousy, but it actually enables him to view the world as a gift, and to enjoy it all the more.

A while back, one of our older monks celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of his solemn vows.  There was a big party, and all the people who love him showed up.  They all brought presents.  After the party, I overheard one of the novices say to him, “Congratulations, Father, but I’m afraid I have nothing to give you for your anniversary.”  To which he responded, “Nothing?  Why, that’s just what I’ve always wanted!” 

Remember what Job said when he lost his house, his farm, his servants, his family?  “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.  Blessed be the Lord” (Job 1:21).  Job could remain happy—even grateful—in the face of catastrophe because he never really saw this stuff as his to begin with.

So here’s an interesting exercise: think of some thing that you really like but you don’t need.

Think about it.

Do you have it pictured in your mind?


Now I want you to give it away.

Can you do that?

Alright, fine.  You don’t really have to give it away.  But how much did it hurt to think about?

Like Saint Augustine said, “It is better to need less than to have more.”

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

CHAPTER 32: The Material Goods of the Monastery

        Let the abbot appoint a reliable brother to be in charge of the monastery’s material goods.  This brother should be in charge of distributing these things as they are needed.  He should also be in charge of collecting them after they’ve been used.  And he should keep a list so that he won’t forget what he has loaned out.  If anyone should handle the material goods of the monastery in a sloppy or careless way, let him be reprimanded.   If he does not amend, let him come under the discipline of the Rule.

When I was seventeen, I burned a hole in the living room carpet.  I didn’t do it on purpose, but let’s just say I “wasn’t thinking” when I set the hot kettle of popcorn on the rug in front of the TV.  A few minutes later, my mother was standing in the middle of the room, looking at that blackened pit in front of the television with tears in her eyes, saying, “How much of this house do you plan to destroy before you finally leave for college?  Just let me know so I won’t get too attached.”  That was a few weeks after I had decided to juggle bowling balls in my bedroom and several months after I had backed the family car into the front porch.  I remember thinking “Geez.  I didn’t mean to do it.”  But in retrospect, I can see why she was so upset.  It’s easy to be sloppy with someone else’s stuff.  Saint Benedict foresees this danger in his monasteries, which is why he devotes three chapters to the care of material possessions.
Contrary to popular belief, monks do not take a vow of poverty.[1]  Nonetheless, Saint Benedict makes it clear that no monk is to have anything of his own.  But it is precisely for this reason that the monk must treat everything in the material world with extraordinary care: in his eyes, it all belongs to God.  Now apply this way of thinking to the world at large.  It is, in a manner of speaking, “on loan” to us from God.  Before long, we’ll be dead and someone else will be in charge of it.  Even the stuff we “own” will belong to someone else some day, no matter how hard we cling to it.[2]
So regardless of how you feel about ‘climate change’ or ‘species extinction’ or ‘resource depletion’, the natural and material world should be treated with enormous care because it just doesn’t belong to us.  We have no more right to burn a hole in the ozone layer than we have a right to burn a hole in someone else’s carpet.  It’s a matter of respect—not for nature itself, but for nature’s Architect and Lord.

[1] We also don’t take a vow of chastity.  But more on that later.
[2] I find it darkly amusing how kings in so many ancient cultures tried to hold on to their material possessions after they died.  Museums are full of artwork and armor that were buried with their owners in the expectation that they could enjoy it in the afterlife.  One Sumerian king even left instructions for his servants to be buried alive with him! 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

CHAPTER 31, Part 2: The Cellarer continued...

Let him be in charge of everything, but let him do nothing without the command of the abbot.  Let him do what has been ordered him and not grieve the brethren.  If a brother should make an unreasonable request, let him not sadden the brother with a cold refusal, but politely and with humility refuse him. Let him provide for the sick, the children, the guests, and the poor with all care, knowing that, without doubt, he will have to give an account of all these things on judgment day.

I particularly like this bit about how the cellarer should respond to an unreasonable request.  As a teacher, this happens to me all the time.  I get an email at nine o’clock the night before a paper is due asking if I can recommend sources; I get a letter from a parent demanding the rationale behind a grade I assigned over a month ago.  Another kid asks for a 7am “help session” when he doesn’t even do his homework.  But what really gets my goat is when a kid asks for something they don’t need as though he deserved it.  I once had a seventh grader tell me, “This isn’t what we pay you for.” (As if he or anyone ever paid me for anything!)
To be sure, this is not a problem unique to teachers.  As a lifeguard in Galveston, Texas, I used to marvel at the stupidity of the people who came to swim at my beach: parents who napped while their children swam in the rip current, tourists who tried to eat dead fish they found on the sand, swimmers who would run screaming from the surf when they spotted a dolphin fin…  A guy once asked me (I’m not joking) if “that thing” was Mexico.  He was pointing at the horizon.  He couldn’t figure out why the water “just stopped.”
To be sure, it is a great temptation to answer with laughter or sarcasm or anger when presented with unreasonable demands.  But what real good would that do?  And who would it help?  Besides that, aren’t we always making unreasonable demands of God?  I stay up too late, speed off to work, and pray for ‘no red lights.’  Then, of course, I’m infuriated when the traffic is slow.  God is patient with our stupidity and incompetence, so shouldn’t we be patient with others’?  I think this is part of what Jesus meant when he said, “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”  God responds to all our idiocy with kindness, patience, love, and generosity.  Imagine if He answered, “Oh sure.  Like I really care what grade you make on your History Test.  Come back when you have a real problem.”  Instead, He says, “Are not five sparrows sold for two small coins?  Yet not one of them has escaped the notice of God.  Even the hairs of your head have all been counted. Do not be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows.”  God is infinite, so you can be sure that some small part of Him really cares whether you pass your history test—and that part is infinite too.

Let him regard all the vessels of the monastery and all its substance, as if they were sacred vessels of the altar.

          This sentence deserves to stand on its own.  Theologically, it is one of the most profound passages in the Rule because it articulates an essential aspect of Saint Benedict’s spiritual vision.  For monks, you see, material things have spiritual significance.  This explains why, for over 1500 years, monasteries have been so prosperous.  It also explains why, every few hundred years, the monks have to save civilization.
Although the monastery is a community that is fundamentally devoted to the world of prayer, the very tools and stones and dirt of the monastery are themselves part of that mission.  By our vow of stability, monks create a place (called a cloister) where heaven and earth fuse together.  Nothing, therefore, that is within its walls can be considered “dirty” or “unworthy” of God.  It may be misused or misunderstood, but you can’t really write it off.  So when heretics or barbarians (or barbarian heretics) start to run around burning stuff down, the monk’s first instinct is to run around saving it.

Thomas Cromwell
Not a very pleasant fellow...
This happened during the late third century when the Vandals invaded North Africa, and again when the Christians of late antiquity abandoned their pagan heritage.[1]  It happened during the Iconoclastic Controversy of the 8th Century and again during the English Reformation, when Cromwell and his buddies started knocking the heads off statues.  And it rather looks as though it might start happening again now that our own ‘intellectual elite’ have decided, in the words of Charles Dawkins that “Faith is the great cop-out.”
When, in time, this civilization of ours begins to crumble under the weight of its own bigotry and excess; and like every great civilization before it, it falls to pieces.  Even then, we don’t need to worry.  Because just as they have in ages past, the monks will quietly, joyfully, prayerfully pick up the pieces, store them in some safe, quiet place, and carry on.

[1] For more on this, have a look at a great book called How the Irish Saved Civilization.

Friday, March 14, 2014

CHAPTER 31: The Kind of Man the Cellarer Should Be

Let there be chosen from the brotherhood as cellarer of the monastery a wise man, of settled habits, temperate and frugal, not conceited, irritable, resentful, sluggish, or wasteful, but fearing God.  The cellarer should be like a father to the whole community.

‘Cellarer’ is monkish for ‘treasurer.’  He’s the guy who keeps track of all the stuff: clothes, tools, money, and most importantly, food.  Part of the reason you join a monastery is so that you won’t have to worry about these kinds of things; but someone has to keep track of them, so the abbot chooses a cellarer, and this is the man to ask when you need a new toothbrush or a new habit or a sack lunch.

In its own way, the office of cellarer is a powerful position in the monastery, which is why it is so important that he be humble, mild mannered, and wise.  Moreover, material things can be a great temptation, even in a spiritual community (see the story of Judas for more on that), so the cellarer has to be the sort of person who can watch over the monastery’s possessions without becoming too attached to them.

At the same time, however, this office is important because the things themselves are important.  Throughout the centuries, Christian sects of one sort or another have slipped into the error of believing that our existence could be neatly divided between the spiritual and the physical—that the spiritual world was good and the physical world was bad.  To be sure, the spiritual is more important than the physical (your soul is more important than your body, for example) but you have to be careful not to draw too clear a distinction.  To do so is not only wrong, but dangerous, because as soon as you start to scorn the physical world, you become capable of abusing it.  I think this is most likely to happen when Christianity is divorced from the Sacraments and reduced to a “religion  of the book.”   It is the Eucharist above all (that miraculous fusion of physical bread with the divine essence) that protects us from this heresy.  It also reveals a world of mystery and miracle.  When we have accepted this truth that all creation—both spiritual and physical—is good, we can say with the Jesuit poet, Gerard Manly Hopkins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God."

Saturday, March 1, 2014

CHAPTER 30: How Boys Are to Be Corrected

Every age and understanding should have its proper discipline. Whenever, therefore, boys or immature youths (or any who fail to understand the seriousness of excommunication) are guilty of a serious fault, let them undergo strict fasting or be disciplined with corporal punishment, so that they may be healed.

These days, we tend to shy away from corporal punishment, but in the Middle Ages, they beat kids like it was going out of style.  For that matter, they beat everyone: wives, criminals, adulterers, sailors…  There were all sorts of laws about who could beat whom and how many times and what sort of stick they were to use.  (If you don’t believe me, look up the ‘rule of thumb.’)  What is interesting about Saint Benedict’s take on discipline is that he is so careful to limit corporal punishment and focus on its purpose.  Truly, there are some people—kids in particular—who just won’t get it unless you ‘speak their language.’  A bully, for example, may never quite understand the gravity of his sin until he runs into someone who fights back.
Since my monastery runs a school, most of our monks have worked in the classroom at one time or another.  Each, of course, has his own stile of teaching, and some are more lenient than others, but there was one monk who had a particular reputation for strictness.  He had served in the armed forces during World War II, and a rumor spread through the school that he had been in charge of interrogating prisoners of war—a rumor that I’m pretty sure wasn’t true.  While he was lecturing, the kids knew that monkey business[1] would not be tolerated.  As I was walking by his classroom one day, I heard a kid complain, “I thought monks were supposed to be nice.”  To which he answered, “Attilathe Hun ravaged Europe.  He burnt to the ground a huge swath of the continent from Kazakhstan to France.  But he avoided the monasteries.  And that wasn’t because the monks were ‘nice.’”
Jesus Purifies the Temple, By Rembrandt
            Truly, Jesus had nothing to say about being nice.  But he had a lot to say aboutbeing good, and that was not exclusive of some very harsh words—and deeds.  Look for ‘hypocrites’ in the New Testament, and you’ll see what I mean.  And when you ask yourself, “What would Jesus do?” remember that freaking out, flipping tables, and whipping people are not necessarily out of the question.[2]  If strictness is what is needed, Saint Benedict is fully prepared to use every option at his disposal.
            Benedictines are peaceful creatures, but that doesn’t necessarily make them pacifists.  To be sure, we are the sheep of His flock.  But the flock needs sheepdogs too.

[1] No pun intended.
[2] I’m pretty sure I didn’t think this up myself, but I can’t find a proper source for it either.