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).