Friday, December 07, 2007

Reading for Dec 7

Today's reading from the Rule of St. Benedict

April 7, August 7, December 7
Chapter 55: On the Clothes and Shoes of the Brethren

Let clothing be given to the brethren
according to the nature of the place in which they dwell
and its climate;
for in cold regions more will be needed,
and in warm regions less.
This is to be taken into consideration, therefore, by the Abbot.

We believe, however, that in ordinary places
the following dress is sufficient for each monk:
a tunic,
a cowl (thick and woolly for winter, thin or worn for summer),
a scapular for work,
stockings and shoes to cover the feet.

The monks should not complain
about the color or the coarseness of any of these things,
but be content with what can be found
in the district where they live and
can be purchased cheaply.

The Abbot shall see to the size of the garments,
that they be not too short for those who wear them,
but of the proper fit.

Let those who receive new clothes
always give back the old ones at once,
to be put away in the wardrobe for the poor.
For it is sufficient if a monk has two tunics and two cowls,
to allow for night wear and for the washing of these garments;
more than that is superfluity and should be taken away.
Let them return their stockings also and anything else that is old
when they receive new ones.

Those who are sent on a journey
shall receive drawers from the wardrobe,
which they shall wash and restore on their return.
And let their cowls and tunics be somewhat better
than what they usually wear.
These they shall receive from the wardrobe
when they set out on a journey,
and restore when they return.

Some thoughts:

Ah! The wardrobe! Here's something to challenge us. Do our individual wardrobes begin to reflect such Benedictine simplicity? Do we even want them to? How many outfits and for which purposes do we have clothes in our closets? And shoes? To what extent do our jobs dictate how many outfits we should have? To what extent do we allow fashion dictate our choices? To what extent could we, if we were really honest with ourselves, pare down our wardrobe and do with less?

I am enchanted with the detail that those going on a journey are given underwear. This implies to me that in the original community none was worn. Given that the monks were not to complain about the coarseness of the cloth, lack of underwear could be troublesome.

I appreciate also the respect and courtesy implied that the monks going on a journey should dress somewhat better than usual. Dressing for the occasion is something one almost never sees here in San Diego where casual reigns. I even read a Miss Manners column recently where someone wrote to her complaining of a wedding invitation which came with a statement about the attire that the bride and groom preferred for the church service: suits and ties for men or at least a sport coat with nice trousers; for women, no exposed bosom, b are back or arms and skirts at least knee length. The invitee was outraged but Miss Manners pointed out that what was outrageous was the need to define the appropriate dress code, a need all the more implied by the invitee's apparent lack of knowledge that how we dress sends a message.

For those who may not know her work, Miss Manners is a columnist in the the Washington Post on the subject of etiquette.

Insight for the Ages: A Commentary by Sr Joan Chittister

Maimonides, one of the finest and best educated minds in twelfth century Jewish history, writes in the Mishneh Torah "The dress of the wise must be free of stains; they should not wear the apparel of princes, to attract attention, nor the raiment of paupers, which incurs disrespect." Clothing, in other words, was to clothe, neither to adorn nor to diminish the human person. Clothing was clothing.

Benedictines differ in their literal interpretation of the passage on clothing in the Rule. Some groups focus on the types of clothing described and devise a uniform from a sixth century wardrobe--a long dress, a cowl to protect against weather that was cold and damp, a scapular. Other groups emphasize that the clothing worn should simply be local and approved by the local prioress or abbot. Whatever the present demonstration of the passage, both groups believe in simplicity, sufficiency and a guard against excess. Slavery to style is not Benedictine. Excess is not Benedictine. Ostentation and pretension and fads are not Benedictine. Slovenliness and dirt are not Benedictine. The Benedictine is clean, simple and proper to the time and place because the stewardship of the universe demands a commitment to order, harmony and rightness if it is to survive. The Benedictine is one of the world's uncomplicated types who have what is necessary for every occasion and nothing more.

Dress is a mark of values and aspirations and ideals. It is as easy to call attention to ourselves by too little as too much; as easy to lose sight of what we really are about in life by too much as too little. If the chapter on clothing has anything to say to the modern world at all, it is certainly that we need to be who we are. We need to look inside ourselves for our value and not pretend to be what we are not. We need to stop putting on airs and separating ourselves out and pretending to be what we are not. Fraud is an easy thing. The honesty of humility, the humility of honesty is precious and rare.

Taking care of the self has something to do with taking care of the universe. If we do not care about our presentation of self, it is unlikely that we will care about littering the countryside or preservation of resources or stewardship of the earth. Being sloppy is not a monastic ideal. Just because a thing is not useful in the monastery anymore does not necessarily make it useless. It may, in fact, still be very useful to someone else and so should be given away. We owe what is useless to us to the poor. What is no longer important to us is to be made available to the other, in good condition, with quality and care. There is a Benedictine virtue in washing things and hanging them up and folding them nicely and keeping them neat and giving them to people who can use them, not because they are not worth anything but precisely because they are still worth something.

Benedictine spirituality recognizes the fact that a thing may become valueless to us before it actually becomes valueless. In that case it is to be given to someone else in good condition. Benedictine spirituality does not understand a world that is full of gorgeous garbage while the poor lack the basics of life.

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