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.
Oh dear! Again, by modern standards, this part of the Rule seems harsh – especially with Christmas coming and most people thinking of giving nice presents to their families and friends (and receiving some!)
While historically Benedictines have not taken vows of poverty – meaning they could have no personal possessions or any special favors, goods and items in the monastic community are the property of the community. It isn’t impossible that they’d be allowed to keep a letter or a gift – as long as the Abbott/Abbess authorised it. Presumably knowing that the monastic superior had allowed it would prevent the complaints, grumbles, murmurs, and rumors that Benedict knew would destroy community as gossip and discontent might well do.
The monastic superior must have known each member of the community very well, to know what might lead someone astray or give ‘opportunity to the devil’ and what would be safe to allow because it would be an encouragement in the monastic life. Similarly, if the Abbott/Abbess chose to forward a gift to someone else, the original recipient must take this in good part (perhaps a gift of food, which would be denied to the monk himself, would be given to a sick or frail monk to build him up.)
No doubt there would sometimes be family letters telling of family news: a birth, a wedding, a death, perhaps? Any letter that contained anything inappropriate or of a tempting nature, however, would most likely be disallowed?
At the root of the RB there is so much sound common sense!
Receiving a letter though, is such a pleasure in life, and such an encouragement – to know one is not forgotten, to be able to read news from loved ones across the country or across the world, to exchange ideas, to feel supported and motivated… Maybe these days more of us receive our letters in electronic form rather than in an envelope with a postage stamp, but it comes to the same thing.
Being able, for instance, to receive e-mails from others all over the world, to become acquainted with other people’s views and experiences, really widens one’s understanding of God, faith, worship and service, and many other things besides.
I would really find it *very* hard indeed to go without letters, and to know that one had arrived for me and I wasn’t allowed to have it would be unbearable!
Having done quite a lot of study on cults, one of the key factors is a closed community with a charismatic leader who is usually very authoritarian and dogmatic, who becomes a ‘Messiah’ figure and promotes a ‘them and us’ culture, not allowing cult members contact with those outside the cult, who are denounced as being evil. Cult members are usually discouraged even from having any communication with their families. They then become trapped in the cult, which gradually moves further and further away from orthodoxy.
How did/do monastic Benedictines avoid this kind of spiritual disaster? I can see that a wise and God-fearing monastic superior would be alert to these kinds of dangers, but what if that person had a loss of faith, or fell prey to the seduction of pride and power? (I don’t mean any offense by asking these questions – I’d just like to know what other checks and balances there are. So very much responsibility seems to rest on the shoulders of the Abbot/Abbess.)
Here is a prayer for all Abbots and Abbesses and Christian leaders:
High King of heaven your reign is characterised by justice, mercy and love. In your great kindness, pour these qualities on all whose vocation is to lead Christian communities, that by the power of your Spirit, they may have discernment in all circumstances. Visit, we pray, your wisdom upon them and grant them the fulness of your grace; bless them always with your presence so that they may turn to you and find you there; give them strength for the battle within as well as for the worldly battles and fill them with compassion for all who choose to follow your Son, our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ: Amen.
(I regret to say that when I copied out this prayer, I neglected to note the source.)