Monastic Habits Good and Bad

Yesterday and today we are reading chapter 55 of the Rule, on the clothing and footwear of the brethren. Not a very promising subject for reflection, you might think. Don’t monks and nuns just do what they’ve always done, and wear an odd sort of dress that is meaningful/romantic/quaint/ridiculous, depending on your point of view? Not quite.

Benedict’s little treatise on clothing has some interesting points to make. First of all, he is concerned, as elsewhere in the Rule, to avoid every appearance of luxury; so he lists what he thinks is sufficient for every monk to have and no more. He is well aware that we can amass unnecessary items, which then become possessions (see previous post). He has no time for scruffiness or sloppiness and wants monks away from home to dress rather better than they do in the monastery. He also seems to expect them to do their own laundry. In a monastery of nuns, none of this comes as a surprise. We have a summer habit and a winter habit, a pair of shoes and a pair of sandals, plus a ‘best habit’ trottted out on important occasions. We also have work-clothes, ‘the scapular for work’ mentioned in the Rule, and I think we are good about the laundry. But notice that Benedict is remarkably flexible about the actual form of the habit. ‘The monks must not complain about the colour or coarseness of any of these items [of clothing] but make do with what can be obtained in the district where they live and can be bought cheaply.’

A whole theology has grown up around the monastic habit which is indeed beautiful, and for those of us privileged to wear it, deeply significant. A habit such as ours probably also works out marginally cheaper than wearing lay clothes because it can be patched and darned so often; but Benedict is much more relaxed about it than many of our contemporaries. I am happy to wear a traditional habit but I hate the way in which some attack those who don’t, especially religious sisters. Belittling the dedication of others, making puerile jokes about them, presuming to dictate what they should wear isn’t very pleasant; worse still, it suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of what the habit is and the place it plays in our lives. We don’t take the habit on ourselves; we receive it at our Clothing as something that has been passed down from generation to generation. It is a sign, no more, no less, of our having taken the yoke of the Rule upon our shoulders. That commitment, that dedication, goes far deeper than what we wear.

The Saxon princess Edith, a nun of Wilton, was rebuked by Bishop Aethelwold of Winchester for wearing a purple tunic above her hair-shirt (a common practice then) with the words, ‘Man looks at the outward show; the Lord looks at the heart’. In return, he received the best put-down ever given by one saint to another, ‘Quite so my Lord; and I have given mine.’

 

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Washing Up a Way to Heaven

For once we begin reading RB 48, On Daily Manual Labour, on Monday, the day when the working week begins for most people. The first line of this chapter, Otiositas inimica est animae, ‘Idleness is the enemy of the soul’, is much beloved of monastic cooks as they plonk yet another huge pan in front of the novice assigned to washing-up duties. Irony apart, it is a sentence worth pondering, as is the rest of the chapter.

Our society exalts the value of leisure. Until comparatively recently, the idea of earning enough to be able to retire early was widely seen as a positive goal. Advertisements exhorted us to ‘relax’ with this product or that (does that explain the ads for discount sofas one finds in every newspaper these days? Ed). The good life was seen, not in Platonic terms, but in terms of having as much as possible for as little effort as possible. Credit card companies had a great time and very few bothered about the mountain of debt we were piling up.

We know better now. We know that Mr Micawber was right, although we still wish he weren’t. I will probably be under siege for saying so, but protests against public sector cuts are a little unrealistic. Cutting the deficit isn’t just a mantra of the Coalition Government, it is essential and there is bound to be pain for all of us. I’m not suggesting that Benedict’s meditation on the value of work is a corrective to all the sloppy thinking we have indulged in, but I do think it says something we don’t hear often enough. What we do has spiritual value. It has value whether the world thinks it important or not. Knowing that won’t lessen the grease on the pan, but it does make cleaning it, potentially at least, a noble and gracious act. What price washing-up as a way to heaven?

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Care of the Sick

If you don’t know chapter 36 of the Rule of St Benedict, On the Care of the Sick, I recommend it as a corrective to sloppy thinking about those who are unwell or who have become infirm because of age. Benedict maintains a balance between meeting the genuine needs of the sick and preventing their carers from being exploited or becoming exhausted. It is Christ who serves through us and Christ who is served in us. That thought may not be enough to stop us being irritable or demanding or whatever, but it may help in stressful situations where it is ‘the other person’ who is the cause of all our woe (or so we believe). If you would like to listen to RB as it is read in the monastery, please go here and click on the ‘RB Box’ in the sidebar.

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