Saturday, September 27, 2014

CHAPTER 56: The Abbot’s Table

          The abbot's should always eat with the guests. When, however, there are no guests, he should feel free to invite any of the brethren he desires. However, he should make sure that one or two of the seniors always remain with the brethren for the sake of discipline.

This chapter might strike the reader as a little unfair.  The abbot gets to hang out with the guests while everyone else is ‘disciplined’ by a senior monk.  In fact, the abbot may be getting the raw end of the deal.  It may look like fun to wear fancy duds and boss people around, but the abbot has to do all the things that his monks manage to avoid—like paying bills, going to meetings, overseeing the facilities, asking for donations, and, yes, talking with visitors.  His job is to be a sort of buffer between his monks and the outside world.
So there’s a parallel here with the life of a teenager.  You’re essentially an adult, and yet your parents get to do all sorts of things that they probably won’t let you do: buy a car, drink beer, stay out past midnight, go to unchaperoned parties...yet they also have to pay taxes, go grocery shopping, work from nine to five…  Their freedom comes at a price.  Were you to swap places with your parents for a day or two (and more than a few movies have been made about this) I think you’d find that being a parent is less fun than it looks.
The abbot, therefore, worries about material things so that his monks can focus on their prayers.  He pays the bills and imposes discipline so that his monks won’t have to use up their time making those kinds of decisions.  When someone invites me out to dinner, I just say, “The abbot won’t let me.”  And when someone asks me to say a funeral or go out to lunch or referee a rugby game, I say, “Let me ask the abbot.”  And if I don’t want to do one of these things, I ask the abbot to say “No.”  Similarly, when someone asks you to stay out past midnight, you can just say, “I have a curfew.”  And when they want you to have a beer at a party, you can just say, “My parents will know that I’ve been drinking.”
When you think about it in these terms, “discipline” is actually something that gives you freedom.  G.K. Chesterton used an interesting metaphor for this: he imagined a group of kids playing soccer next to a cliff.  The game is really boring, and the players are really timid because they’re all afraid of falling off the edge of the field.  No one will take the corner kicks, and every time the ball strays to the left, the game has to stop.  Then someone comes along and builds a big sturdy fence, and all of a sudden the kids can enjoy themselves.
Sure, some rules can be oppressive, but a good rule—like a true doctrine or that big, sturdy fence—actually frees you to do be yourself.  That’s how the psalmist can sing, “Your Law to me, O Lord, is sweeter than honey in the mouth” (Ps 119:103).

Saturday, September 20, 2014

CHAPTER 55: How a Monk is to Dress

     Let clothing be given to the brethren according to the circumstances of the place and the nature of the climate in which they live. In warm climates, a cowl and a tunic should be enough for each monk: the cowl should be of heavy material in the winter but thinner in the summer: so too with his scapular and shoes. Let the monks not worry about the color or the texture of all these things, but let them be such as can be bought more cheaply. Those who receive new clothes should always return the old ones, to be put away in a wardrobe for the poor. It is sufficient for a monk to have two tunics and two cowls, for wearing at night and for washing. Anything else should be taken away. So, too, let them return socks and other old clothes whenever they receive new ones. Let those who are sent out on a journey receive trousers from the wardrobe, which, on their return, they should return, washed. For their bedding, a straw mattress, a blanket, a cover, and a pillow should be sufficient. These beds must, however, be frequently examined by the abbot, to guard against the temptation to hide personal possessions. And that this vice of private ownership may be cut off by the root, let everything necessary be given by the abbot; namely, cowl, tunic, stockings, shoes, girdle, knife[1], pen, needle, towel, and writing tablet; so that the monks won’t worry that they lack what they need. 

     There are a couple of terms in this chapter that need to be explained.  The cowl (cucullus in Latin) was originally a cap or a hood that peasants wore outdoors.  It covered the head, neck and shoulders.  Over the centuries, it has evolved into something that looks like a big black raincoat with wide sleeves, and its function is primarily ceremonial—though it is warm.  In most monasteries, only those who have made it to Solemn Vows are allowed to wear the cowl, so you can tell who the most established members are because they’re the ones who dress like Batman. 
      The scapular is more interesting still.  Saint Benedict may well have invented the word because it can’t be found in any writing before his time.  The scapular hangs from the shoulders (scapulae in Latin) and looks like an apron.  If you come from a pious Catholic family, you may well be familiar with the brown scapular, which the Carmelites popularized in the 1300s.  If the hood and cowl are symbols of the monk’s commitment to prayer (as Saint John Cassian said), then the scapular represents his commitment to work.
      Trousers are another thing altogether.  Times have changed, and what once served as underwear (trousers and tunics) now serve as standard clothing for anyone.  Moreover, cloth in general is cheap, and standards of hygiene have evolved, so we rarely share clothing at all.  Still, the spirit of the law applies: the monk owns nothing, not even the clothes on his back.  So whatever he isn’t using on a regular basis should be returned or thrown away.  In my monastery, there’s a collection of stuff in a closet upstairs that we call “the dead man’s pile.”  We call it that because, when a monk dies, all his stuff goes into that pile.  But pretty much anything you don’t need ends up there eventually—old habits, desk lamps, gloves, sandals, alarm clocks, wrist watches…and, yes, the occasional pair of trousers. 
     And yet, even with all these safeguards against personal ownership, a monk can still slip into materialism:  he can become obsessed with the cut and quality of his habit, the beauty of monastic custom, the quality of his vestments, and the trivialities of liturgical practice.[2]  Alternatively, he can grow careless and disheveled, calling his negligence “detachment” and his sloppiness “humility” when they’re really just different forms of self-absorption.
     Both errors are manifestations of what we in the monastic life call “singularity”—the temptation to set yourself apart—in a selfish way—from everyone else.  But joining a monastery (like joining any military force, or for that matter, any group at all) means giving up a measure of your personal identity in order to take on the identity of the larger group.  To put it biblical terms we “put on Christ” (Gal 3:27).  Thus, as one of our monks liked to say, “If you don’t look good, the Church don’t look good.”  A Christian should look the way he or she wants the Church to look: not shallow, lewd, or faddish; but noble, beautiful, dignified, and smart.

[1] Notice the bit about the knife?  I love that!
[2] Not that such concerns don’t have their place, mind you.  As a hobby, perhaps, or even a scholarly pursuit.  But always one must keep in mind the Lord’s own precept: the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27).

Sunday, September 14, 2014

CHAPTER 54: Whether a Monk Should Accept Gifts

Unless the abbot gives his explicit permission, a monk should never receive letters, tokens, or gifts of any kind, either from parents or any other person.  If his family sends him something, let the monk not presume to accept it before it has been approved by the abbot.
            A monk should love the world, but should not be attached to it.  He should be grateful for God’s gifts, but not cling to them.  We call this “detachment,” and it is a necessary virtue for the monk precisely because he gives up everything to be with Jesus.  But detachment isn’t just a concern for monks.  All Christians should live with the understanding that the beauty of the material world is God’s gift, and enjoy it as such—but not be too stressed out when it seems to slip away.

             Not too long ago, I lost my keys.  Truth be told, I lose my keys pretty often.  I leave them hanging from keyholes, wedged between sofa cushions, sitting in drawers and abandoned in coat pockets…  I once found my keys on the butter shelf in the refrigerator.  This time was different, though, because I’d been in the kitchen when I lost them, and I distinctly remembered taking them out of my left pocket to open the pantry.  One monk had passed through during the time I was there.  He had spoken to me briefly while I was opening the door and lingered a while in the pantry with me.  “Don’t lose you’re your keys,” he’d said to me with a wink before he left, and a few moments later, I realized they were gone.  Now, this particular monk has a fondness for practical jokes, so I had a strong suspicion they could be found on his person.

            I can’t say I was amused.  My life is messy enough without having other people come in and mess it up for me.  So I marched off to find him.  He was in the calefactory reading.  “Where are my keys?” I said, a fist planted on each hip.

            “Excuse me?” he answered, smiling over his book.

            “Where did you put my keys?”

            The smile broadened, and he shook his head.  I could tell from the look on his face that he knew exactly where my keys were.  At the same time, I also realized that yelling at him would accomplish nothing.  So I sighed and shook my head and sat down in a chair across from him.  “Please, Brother, if you know where my keys are, just tell me.”

            “Brother,” he said, “they’re hanging out of your left pocket.”

            I looked down, and there they were, caught on a thread, swinging from my hip.

            Little disciplines like asking permission from the abbot help to remind the monk that no material possession—not even a set of keys—is worth disturbing your peace of mind.  You may not have an abbot or a superior to go to, but in general, there’s always someone standing between you and what you want.  Try to think of that person as a gift—a reminder from God—to focus on what’s really important.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

CHAPTER 53: How Guests Are to be Welcomed

All guests should be received as Christ, because He will say: "I was a stranger and you took Me in" (Mt 25:35). And let due honor be shown to every one of them, and especially to fellow Christians and travelers. When, therefore, a guest is announced, the Superior and the brethren should welcome him with every mark of charity. Let the greatest care be taken, especially in the reception of the poor and travelers, because Christ is especially present in them.

     After sixteen years of teaching, there are two things I’ve learned about my students:  they can be very, very funny; and they can be very, very annoying.  I had one student in my seventh grade English class who stands out in my memory as excelling all the others in both these qualities.  His name was Chad, and he considered it his special vocation to question me in such a way as to lead me as far as possible from any relevant topic of class discussion.  (Creative genius is a lot like nature, I think.  99% of what it produces is just useless.  But that remaining 1% is worth waiting for, so I tended to give Chad at least one shot every day.)
     This particular afternoon, Chad raised his hand in the middle of a class discussion on the literary merits of Edmund Spenser and said:  “If Jesus loves us so much, why doesn’t he just come down and show himself to us?”  This, of course, struck me as profoundly irrelevant to the topic at hand, but at the same time, I needed material for my next homily, so I decided to run with it.
     “Jesus does show himself to us,” I told him, “every time we receive the Eucharist.”
    “Right. Right.”  He said, “but what I’m asking is: Why doesn’t he personally, physically come down and visit with us?”
     “He does,” I answered.  “In the Eucharist, he personally, physically comes down and visits with us.”
     “That’s not what I mean,” he said, “I want to know why Jesus doesn’t make personal, face-to-face appearances to people like you and me.”
     “Well he does that too,” I said.  “You just have to be patient.”
     Chad wasn’t going to be put off that easily.  “So you’re telling me,” he said, “that you have personally, physically, met Jesus Christ face-to-face.  You’ve seen him.  You’ve personally seen God.” 
      I looked him in the eye and I said, “Yes, Chad, I have.”
     “Fine!” he said, “Then what does he look like?”
    There was a nervous silence in the classroom as he and the other students waited for my answer.  And for a moment or two, I was a little afraid I was going to have to back down.  But the answer came to me.  “Chad,” I said, “I have met Jesus.  Face to face. And you know what?  He looks a lot like you.
    “You see, Mother Teresa used to say that we should serve Christ in ‘the distressing disguise of the poor.’  And this used to bother me a little because I thought Mother Teresa loved the poor; but clearly she found them just as icky as I do.  By her own admission, she found their presence disturbing.  But what she could see (and I couldn’t) is that whenever you find someone distressing or annoying or off-putting in any way, that’s a sure-fire way of knowing that the person you’re dealing with is Jesus.  You want to know what Jesus looks like?  Think of the one person in the world who annoys you the most.  And there you have it.  That’s what Jesus looks like.”
     It is true that guests often arrive at inconvenient times.  It is also true that they can sometimes be demanding or rude.  But hospitality is a special vocation for the Christian, and he must resolve to be heroically patient and charitable, drawing superhuman power from the sacraments and from his prayer.  Thus, in the faces of those who distress us the most, we are given power to discern the very face of God.
A few of my students.  You can probably guess which one is Chad.