A Tale of Two Tunics

An idle thought struck me at Mass this morning. In today’s gospel, Mark 6. 7–13, we hear the Lord sending the Twelve out on what we would now call missionary work. His instructions are precise: they are to take nothing for the journey — no bread, no haversack, no coppers for their purse; they are to wear sandals but not take a spare tunic. That absence of a spare tunic has always bothered me. It is often presented as an aspect of the ‘lean, mean, missionary machine’ idea, in which those who are to preach and teach in Christ’s name are to travel light, taking nothing that is not strictly necessary, depending rather on God to supply all their material needs. As a young girl, I concluded that the first missionaries were probably dreadfully smelly. Later, I began to think that those first missionary journeys were quite short, as though, until the institution of the Eucharist (‘no bread’) and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (‘nothing for the journey’), the disciples were not fully equipped for their task. Even today, more commentaries than I care to remember later, I am still puzzling over the text.

St Benedict remarks, in the course of his chapter on the clothing and footwear of the brethren (RB 55), that when we go out of the monastery, our tunics and cowls should be better than the ones we normally wear. It is still our custom today to put on our ‘best’ habit when we have to go anywhere on monastery business. I think the reason we do so is so that, whatever the austerities practised within community, our public face should be like that of the faster, who no one should know is fasting. We represent our community best when we draw as little attention to ourselves as possible. Can the same be said of the missionary?

The life of a monk or nun is largely hidden, by its very nature; the life of a missionary, by contrast, is almost entirely public. For us, the habit preserves the privacy of the community — it may hide its penury; it certainly hides any excessive individualism. For the missionary, with just the clothes he stands up in, what we see is what we get: he or she must radiate Christ, allowing nothing to get in the way. Both missionary and monastic have the same end in view, but we approach it from different angles, so to say. My tale of two tunics may sound a bit far-fetched, but for me at least there is the germ of an idea there. Would someone like to take it further?

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5 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Tunics”

  1. Here’s a shot at something : The literal and the symbolic … [Augustine, De consensu evangelistarum, 2. 30, remarks, commenting on this passage from Mark 6 : ‘It’s clear the Lord said everything partly literally and partly figuratively.’] The monastic habit both avoids unnecessary expenditure, and is a community marker : ‘we are all in this (following Christ, following this Rule) together.’ And certainly, missionary activity isn’t envisaged as an individualistic thing : Jesus sent them out in pairs, to be embodiments of his Body. Augustine again, at same place, interprets the ‘one coat’ as a command to ‘walk simply, not with duplicity’, ‘non dupliciter, sed simpliciter ambulare’. The ‘one tunic’ precept is both about travelling light and about travelling like children of the light. Religious are called to do that like the rest of us ; literally and metaphorically, all Christ’s followers are advised against over-full wardrobes.

  2. Yes, concern about smelly missionaries distracted me but a single day’s journey makes sense. I too wear my Sunday clothes, rather than workaday wear, when going to church. Thrifty habits instilled by war weary parents and grandparents means everything has to last and go through stages. Towels are a good examples, guests only, adults only, children, dogs, dishcloth, floor cloth, paint rags; by then the holes make it suitable for compost.

  3. I am wondering if this passage is all about trust.Trusting the Lord to provide as and when we have a need. A trust that believed ,that if the disciples were about God’s business that He would be their “all sufficiency”. An “extra tunic’ implies a “just in case mentality”.God has promised to provide for all our needs(not to be confused with wants!). It reminds me of a missionary that I know, who was “sent out” with £1 (it was the 50’s)on a mission.He and his team had to pay for all the needs that the mission involved,and they were not allowed to ask for money or state their needs (they could pray!)They also had to return with £1!
    Not only did they succeed in their mission,but so much money was given to them ,that they were able to donate to overseas mission……and yes they did return with their £1.God is our all sufficiency and is no man’s debtor.

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