Organized Selfishness?

One of the most damning things that can be said about any organisation or institution is that it has become self-serving. Benedictine communities, in particular, are always at risk of descending into organized selfishness. It is not that we give way to really big sins (though some, alas, have), but we can become tolerant of those we consider small — and many communities have the resources, in terms of buildings and opportunities, to acquiesce in them. That doesn’t mean that everything is bad, but we may become mediocre. The Office, as Dom David Knowles once remarked, can be kept up with every appearance of care and attention long after the heart has gone out of a community, but the signs of selfishness multiply. Our comfort becomes important. Little indulgences in the matter of food or drink or holidays are not questioned or are brushed aside as trivial. Once, when I was attending a monastic bursars’ meeting, the men discussed the level of holiday money each monk should be given. Against the names of the nuns’ communities were the initials n/a, not applicable. When I said it should stand for ‘not available’, I was laughed at; but my point was serious. Women are just as likely as men to become tired or need a break from regular duties at times, but to assume that every monk needs at least one holiday a year and nuns never is plainly stupid. The Rule exhorts us to consider need and acknowledges that needs differ.

I don’t think, however, that Benedictines should take all the blame for appearing at times insensitive to others. Many communities, especially of women, are financially hard-pressed. There’s a lot of hard work and sacrifice going on behind the scenes. But outsiders can be very demanding or unrealistic in their demands. Whenever someone decides to tell us what to wear, for example, I tend to adopt my ‘blotting-paper expression.’ We do, in fact, wear a traditional habit, happily and contentedly, but it is far from being of the essence. Benedict’s only concern about monastic clothing is that it should be suitable for the climate, available in the locality and fit the wearer (RB 55). Those most anxious to fulfil their own fantasies about monastic life are usually the last to consider the cost, difficulty or even the safety of maintaining a particular form of habit. It is the same with the activities in which we engage in order to keep our communities going and to serve the wider community. One of my Facebook followers regularly reminds me of the disapproval of some people of our online engagement. I don’t rise to the bait because I can see that many of those who have been loudest in their criticism are now rushing to take advantage of live-streaming, social media and the opportunities offered by the latest technologies. I rejoice in that because it is a way of reaching out to those who would never knock on the monastery door.

I think we can sometimes forget that we do not become monks and nuns for ourselves alone. We have a role in both Church and society that we must fulfil, faithfully, generously, unselfishly. We pray unremittingly, yes; but we know our prayer won’t always be as whole-hearted as it should. We are hospitable, of course; but there are limits to our hospitality and what we can manage, and we should not feel guilty when others say to us ‘you should’ which is actually shorthand for ‘it is my opinion that’. Our community lives won’t always be sweetness and light, but we can try to be kind and honest and accepting. Above all, we can do our best to be open to grace, to the transformation wrought by the Holy Spirit (RB 7. 6-70). We can show that we love the young, reverence the old, care for the earth and everything in it as though it were a sacred altar vessel, bow down before Christ in the stranger and in one another, do what is better for the other and, hopefully, ‘at length, under God’s protection, attain the loftier heights of wisdom and virtue’ (RB 73.9).

I write of Benedictines, but it is my hope there is something here for everyone.

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The Monastic Habit

Today I must repair my winter habit. It is more than twenty years old —patched, darned, with several new panels inserted into it over the years where the girdle (the long leather belt we wear) has rubbed against the middle or my knees have worn holes. It is the work of many hands: the original habit-maker, and successive darners, repairers and general lookers-after, of whom I am the last and least competent. It is, in its way, a collaborative work, rather like community itself. It has adapted itself to the changing shape of my body and the different activities I’ve undertaken in response to obedience. It is worn and shabby, at the opposite end of the spectrum to the gorgeous vestments some clergy like to wear when officiating at the altar. But it is not just a set of clothes. It is, I would dare to say, my Wedding Garment for the Kingdom, my armour for the battle, a constant reminder of my vows.

Like the vocation it symbolizes, the monastic habit is not something we choose for ourselves or assume at will: it is always given, its colour and form determined by the community which confers it. When I was clothed in 1981, I was given the habit by D. Elizabeth Sumner. From her I can trace backwards, by name and date, the way in which the habit was bestowed and received as far as 31 December 1623, when the first nuns of the Cambrai community were clothed. I can go back further still, though there I would trace a double course, through the English Benedictine Congregation to Dom Sigebert Buckley and beyond, to the pre-Reformation English Benedictine houses, and through the three nuns of Brussels who helped the nascent Cambrai community. There is thus a long chain of being symbolized by my habit.

‘How romantic,’ sigh some, but to me there is nothing romantic about the monastic habit. It is too serious for that. From Evagrius onwards, many have attached an allegorical meaning to its several parts, but the real point is the commitment it signifies and the obligations it entails. They are what matter. In the old Clothing Registers we find against many a name ‘Shee went away.’ I often wonder what became of those who had worn the habit for a while then found that monastic life was not for them. Many, perhaps the majority, took from their brief experience of the cloister something valuable, something that changed the way in which they viewed the world henceforth. Perhaps they learned more quickly than those of us privileged to wear the habit every day that the real change takes place underneath.

Maybe I should look on my habit not so much as a Wedding Garment or battle armour as a school tunic, a sign of my willingness, indeed my need, to learn? That fits the Schola Dominici idea rather better, doesn’t it? Life-long learning, here we come!Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail