Thursday, August 06, 2009

Rule of St Benedict Reading for August 2, 2009

April 6, August 6, December 6

Chapter 54: Whether a Monastic Should Receive Letters or Anything Else

On no account shall a monastic be allowed
to receive letters, blessed tokens or any little gift whatsoever
from parents or anyone else,
or from her sisters,
or to give the same,
without the Abbess's permission.
But if anything is sent her even by her parents,
let her not presume to take it
before it has been shown to the Abbess.
And it shall be in the Abbess's power to decide
to whom it shall be given,
if she allows it to be received;
and the sister to whom it was sent should not be grieved,
lest occasion be given to the devil.

Should anyone presume to act otherwise,
let her undergo the discipline of the Rule.

Some thoughts:

This section always seems to offend us moderns. This is, of course, because we read it with modern eyes and we bring modern expectations to the text. When we do that, though, we lose out. Benedict's milieu was the late ancient world/early medieval.

The impetus for the 1st monastics, the Desert Christians, was the desire to be in the world but not of it, in strict obedience to those same words spoken by our Lord. When Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire a huge number of Christians believed that Christian faith would be contaminated since it was now part of the world. Christians in their thousands left the cities for remote places where they could escape the contamination they feared and singleheartedly pursue the love of God.

They were in turn visited by other Christians who wished to learn from them who in turn took what they learned home and monastic communities began appearing all over. But these new generations shared with the Desert Christians the fear of contamination by the world and the desire to be obedient to the Lord's spoken words to be in the world but not of it. In essence, this is a purpose of the Rule of St Benedict: to create an environment, where uncontaminated by the world, monks could singleheartedly pursue the love of God.

Which brings us to today's reading. When a person entered the monastery, all ties with the family were broken. The monk had a new family. I read once that at some point, when a person was going to join a religious community, a funeral was held for that person. I don't remember where I read that or when that was the custom, but it does give us a sense of how thorough the break was between monk and family. The families knew it as much as the monks did.

OTOH, this doesn't mean that families accepted it. Possibly Benedict suspected the letters and gifts to attempts to get the monk back. Possibly he thought of them as sources of temptation or distraction from prayer. Possibly the gifts were a source of envy. The point, I believe, is that nothing is to separate the monk from the pursuit of God.

There is something to be said for this. The dividing line between being in and the world but not of it is blurred. I know Christians who think it is an outmoded concept. IMO, since Jesus said it, it still obtains. We Christians are still to be in the world but not of it, as hard as that is to practice. So when I read this passage, that is what it says to me: that I am in but not of this world and I need to look hard at the inevitably compromises I make.

Having said all that, let me also add that in the books I've read about modern day monastic communities, letters from families are allowed, gifts are allowed and the religious get to take vacations to go and visit their families. So this part of the RB has more or less been amended. We also know from European history that family ties ran deep and even though one was in a monastery, one could still wield some heavy duty political clout.

When I read the RB, though, I try to put all of what I know of history and present day practices out of my mind in the attempt to understand what it meant in the 6th century when Benedict wrote it. Because it seems to me that is the only way I can then apply it to my life.



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