Skip to main content

The Sleeping Arrangements of Monastics

Saturday, June 29, 2024
Chapter 22

Members are to sleep in separate beds. They receive bedding as provided by the prioress or abbot, suitable to monastic life.

At first glance, the paragraph seems pathetically mundane for anything so exalted as "the most influential monastic Rule of all time." It is, on the contrary, exactly paragraphs like this that make the Rule so influential.

In a culture of peasants who came out of clans where whole families slept in one room--and still do in many poorer areas of the world--Benedict proclaims a policy of at least limited privacy and simplicity and adaptation. Benedict wants an atmosphere of self-sacrifice, true, but he also wants people to have opportunity for reflection. He wants no living situation to be so austere that both sleep and thinking become impossible in the cold of winter. In Benedictine spirituality people get what they need, both beds and bedding, both privacy and personal care.

The lesson is a good one when we are tempted to think that extremism is a virtue. As far as Benedictine spirituality is concerned, there is a very limited spiritual value in denying the body to the point where the soul is too agitated to concentrate on the things of the spirit.

If possible, all are to sleep in one place, but should the size of the community preclude this, they will sleep in groups of ten or twenty under the watchful care of elders. A lamp must be kept burning in the room until morning.

The dormitory is of ancient origin in the monastic tradition. It carried the concept of community living from the chapel to the dining room to bedtime itself. The common life was indeed a common life for twenty-four hours out of every day, with all the difficulty and all the virtue that implied. Nevertheless, the sleeping arrangements present in monastic communities of the sixth century were not all that different from family circumstances of the same period. Nor were bedrooms in communities of manual laborers the study centers they were to become as monastics of later centuries became more engaged in intellectual labors.

What is important in the paragraph is not so much the sleeping arrangement itself as the underlying caution it presents to an era in which independence, individualism and personal space have become values of such magnitude that they threaten the communal quality of the globe itself. The question becomes: What part of our lives do we really practice with others? Has our claim to the private and the personal evicted the world from our space, from our hearts?

They sleep clothed, and girded with belts or cords; but they should remove their knives, lest they accidentally cut themselves in their sleep. Thus the members will always be ready to arise without delay when the signal is given; each will hasten to arrive at the Opus Dei before the others, yet with all dignity and decorum. The younger members should not have their beds next to each other, but interspersed among those of the elders. On arising for the Opus Dei, they will quietly encourage each other, for the sleepy like to make excuses.

In this instruction, monastics are formed to be modest--dressed even in bed, unlike a good proportion of the population of the time, and simple--willing to wear the same thing at night that they did during the day, and ready--quick to respond to the will of God at the first sound of the call. They are trained, too, to "quietly encourage each other" in the daily effort of rousing the soul when the body is in revolt.

Personal modesty, simplicity, readiness and encouragement in life may well be the staples of community living, of family life, or decent society even today. What, after all, can shatter any group faster than the one person who is dedicated to being conspicuous, overdone, resistant or self-centered?