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Clothing and Footwear

Wednesday, August 7, 2024
Chapter 55

The clothing distributed to the members should vary according to local conditions and climate, because more is needed in cold regions and less in warmer. This is left to the discretion of the prioress or abbot. We believe that for each monastic a cowl and tunic will suffice in temperate regions; in winter a woolen cowl is necessary, in summer a thinner or worn one; also a scapular for work, and footwear--both sandals and shoes.

Monastics must not complain about the color or coarseness of all these articles, but use what is available in the vicinity at a reasonable cost. However, the prioress and abbot ought to be concerned about the measurements of these garments that they not be too short but fitted to the wearers.

Maimonides, one of the finest and best educated minds in twelfth century Jewish history, writes in the Mishneh Torah "The dress of the wise must be free of stains; they should not wear the apparel of princes, to attract attention, nor the raiment of paupers, which incurs disrespect." Clothing, in other words, was to clothe, neither to adorn nor to diminish the human person. Clothing was clothing.

Benedictines differ in their literal interpretation of the passage on clothing in the Rule. Some groups focus on the types of clothing described and devise a uniform from a sixth century wardrobe--a long dress, a cowl to protect against weather that was cold and damp, a scapular. Other groups emphasize that the clothing worn should simply be local and approved by the local prioress or abbot. Whatever the present demonstration of the passage, both groups believe in simplicity, sufficiency and a guard against excess. Slavery to style is not Benedictine. Excess is not Benedictine. Ostentation and pretension and fads are not Benedictine. Slovenliness and dirt are not Benedictine. The Benedictine is clean, simple and proper to the time and place because the stewardship of the universe demands a commitment to order, harmony and rightness if it is to survive. The Benedictine is one of the world's uncomplicated types who have what is necessary for every occasion and nothing more.

Dress is a mark of values and aspirations and ideals. It is as easy to call attention to ourselves by too little as too much; as easy to lose sight of what we really are about in life by too much as too little. If the chapter on clothing has anything to say to the modern world at all, it is certainly that we need to be who we are. We need to look inside ourselves for our value and not pretend to be what we are not. We need to stop putting on airs and separating ourselves out and pretending to be what we are not. Fraud is an easy thing. The honesty of humility, the humility of honesty is precious and rare.

Whenever new clothing is received, the old should be returned at once and stored in a wardrobe for the poor. To provide for laundering and night wear, every member will need two cowls and two tunics, but anything more must be taken away as superfluous. When new articles are received, the worn ones--sandals or anything old--must be returned.

Those going on a journey should get underclothing from the wardrobe. On their return they are to wash it and give it back. Their cowls and tunics, too, ought to be somewhat better than those they ordinarily wear. Let them get these from the wardrobe before departing, and on returning put them back.

Taking care of the self has something to do with taking care of the universe. If we do not care about our presentation of self, it is unlikely that we will care about littering the countryside or preservation of resources or stewardship of the earth. Being sloppy is not a monastic ideal. Just because a thing is not useful in the monastery anymore does not necessarily make it useless. It may, in fact, still be very useful to someone else and so should be given away. We owe what is useless to us to the poor. What is no longer important to us is to be made available to the other, in good condition, with quality and care. There is a Benedictine virtue in washing things and hanging them up and folding them nicely and keeping them neat and giving them to people who can use them, not because they are not worth anything but precisely because they are still worth something.

Benedictine spirituality recognizes the fact that a thing may become valueless to us before it actually becomes valueless. In that case it is to be given to someone else in good condition. Benedictine spirituality does not understand a world that is full of gorgeous garbage while the poor lack the basics of life.