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Clothing and Footwear

Thursday, August 8, 2024
Chapter 55

For bedding monastics will need a mat, a woolen blanket and a light covering as well as a pillow.

The beds are to be inspected frequently by the prioress or abbot, lest private possessions be found there. Anyone discovered with anything not given by the prioress or abbot must be subjected to very severe punishment. In order that this vice of private ownership may be completely uprooted, the prioress or abbot is to provide all things necessary: that is, cowl, tunic, sandals, shoes, belt, knife, stylus, needle, handkerchief and writing tablets. In this way every excuse of lacking some necessity will be taken away.

"The best way to know God," Vincent Van Gogh wrote, "is to love many things." Things do not destroy us. It is the way we approach things that entraps us. The Rule of Benedict provides for human needs without frugality, without abstemious control, without small-mindedness and without indulgence. False asceticism is not a Benedictine virtue. Deprivation is not a Benedictine ideal. On the contrary, the point of Benedictine life is to live simply, joyfully and fully. Benedict wants the monastic to have enough, to have it from the community and to avoid hoarding, accumulating, consuming and conniving. The Rule recognizes that people who lack the necessities of life often spend their time either consumed with thoughts of subsistence or struggling against bitterness and clawing for survival. On the other hand, people smothered by things run the risk of slipping into indolence or becoming blinded to the important things of life. In striking a balance between the two, Benedictine spirituality seeks to free the body so that the soul can soar. It is a gift long lost in a consumer society.

The abbot and prioress, however, must always bear in mind what is said in the Acts of the Apostles: "Distribution was made as each had need (Acts 4:35)." In this way the prioress and abbot will take into account the weakness of the needy, not the evil will of the envious: yet in all their judgments they must bear in mind God's retribution.

Self-control is one value in the lexicon of monastic spirituality but compassion is another. Benedict may expect simplicity from the monastic but he clearly expects great largesse from the abbot and the prioress. The function of authority, in other words, is to hold the Rule aloft in the community, to be clear about its standards and respectful of its values, without ever using the Rule as an excuse to frustrate people or irritate them or control them.

There is a great deal of pain administered in the interest of virtue. Righteousness allows no exceptions. As a result, laws meant to free the spirit so often enslave it to ideals far beneath its purpose. Benedictine spirituality, practiced in the little things of life like the distribution of clothing that calls for a minimum and then allows more, says that we must always grasp for what we cannot reach, knowing that the grasping itself is enough.