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The Porter of the Monastery

Saturday, August 24, 2024

At the door of the monastery, place a sensible person who knows how to take a message and deliver a reply, and whose wisdom keeps them from roaming about. This porter will need a room near the entrance so that visitors will always find someone there to answer them. As soon as anyone knocks, or a poor person calls out the porter will reply, "Thanks be to God" or "Your blessing, please" then, with all the gentleness that comes from reverence of God, provides a prompt answer with the warmth of love. Let the porter be given one of the younger members if help is needed.

Of all the questions to be asked about the nearly 1500 year old Rule of Benedict, and there are many in the twentieth century, one of the most pointed must surely be why one of the great spiritual documents of the Western World would have in it a chapter on how to answer the door. And one of the answers might be that answering the door is one of the arch activities of Benedictine life. The way we answer doors is the way we deal with the world. Benedict wants the porter to be available, "not roaming around" so that the caller is not left waiting; responsible and "able to take a message," so that the community is properly informed; full of welcome; prompt in responding to people "with the warmth of love"; and actually grateful for the presence of the guest. When the person knocks--whenever the person knocks--the porter is to say, "Thanks be to God" or "Your blessing, please," to indicate the gift the guest is to the community. The porter is to be warmth and welcome at all times, not just when it feels convenient. In the Rule of Benedict, there is no such thing as coming out of time to the monastery. Come in the middle of lunch; come in the middle of prayer; come and bother us with your blessings at any time. There is always someone waiting for you.

The chapter on the porter of the monastery is the chapter on how to receive the Christ in the other always. It is Benedict's theology of surprise.

The monastery should, if possible, be so constructed that within it all necessities, such as water, mill and garden are contained, and the various crafts are practiced. Then there will be no need for the members to roam outside, because this is not at all good for their souls.

We wish this rule to be read often in the community, so that none of the members can offer the excuse of ignorance.

If there is any chapter in the rule that demonstrates Benedictine openness to life and, at the same time, models a manner of living in the midst of society without being consumed by it, this is surely the one. Guests are welcomed enthusiastically in Benedictine spirituality but, at the same time, life is not to be frittered away on work, on social life, on the public bustle of the day. The community is to stay as self-contained as possible so that centered in the monastery they stay centered in their hearts. More, this balance between public and private, between openness and centeredness, between consciousness of the outside world and concentration on interior growth is to be remembered and rehearsed over and over again: "We wish this rule to be read often," the rule says plaintively so that the monastic never forgets that the role of the committed Christian is always to grow richer themselves so that they can give richly to others. Abba Cassian, a desert monastic, told the following story: "Once upon a time, we two monks visited an elder. Because he offered us hospitality we asked him, "Why do you not keep the rule of fasting when you receive visiting brothers?" And the old monastic answered, "Fasting is always at hand but you I cannot have with me always. Furthermore, fasting is certainly a useful and necessary thing, but it depends on our choice while the law of God lays it upon us to do the works of charity. Thus, receiving Christ in you, I ought to serve you with all diligence, but when I have taken leave of you, I can resume the rule of fasting again."

The person with a monastic heart knows that the Christ and their salvation are not in religious gyrations of our design alone; they are in the other, our response to whom is infinitely more important than our religious exercises.