April 7, August 7, December 7

The clothing distributed to the monks should vary according to local conditions and climate, because more is needed in cold regions and less in warmer. This is left to the abbot’s discretion. We believe that for each monk a cowl and tunic will suffice in temperate regions; in winter a woolen cowl is necessary, in summer a thinner or worn one; also a scapular for work, and footwear – both sandals and shoes.

Monks must not complain about the colour or coarseness of all these articles, but use what is available in the vicinity at a reasonable cost. However, the abbot ought to be concerned about the measurements of these garments that they not be too short but fitted to the wearers.

Whenever new clothing is received, the old should be returned at once and stored in a wardrobe for the poor. To provide for laundering and night wear, every monk will need two cowls and two tunics, but anything more must be taken away as superfluous. When new articles are received, the worn ones – sandals or anything old – must be returned.

Monks going on a journey should get underclothing from the wardrobe. On their return they are to wash it and give it back. Their cowls, and tunics too, ought to be somewhat better than those they ordinarily wear. Let them get these from the wardrobe before departing, and on returning put them back.

Benedict, in his wisdom, realises that the essentials are important, so he makes sure that the rule provides them. And he also knows that essentials can become an unnecessary focus of desire. Desire is the ‘I want’ of the ego that can morph into an illusory ‘I need’. Two pairs of shoes seen as essential can become three, four, five; a wardrobe expands beyond the essentials to a new idea of what essential is. In the minimal, we can experience what the essentials actually are. The rule sets this minimum so that our ideas of what is essential do not change to include the unnecessary: ‘anything more must be taken away as superfluous.’

The rule provides simply (today some might say frugally) and includes in the practical running of a contemplative community a kind of fail-safe for excessive desire around the essentials of clothing and footwear. If our lives are practically simple, then desire has fewer places to manifest as attachment.

There can be poverty in having too much if this too much has us holding too tightly to what we call our possessions. An African proverb says, ‘many cows mean many worries.’ Fewer cows (or their equivalent) mean less worries and potentially more attentiveness to the ones we love and the God with us as this love.

At the heart of the relational is the Divine Life. If we are not giving attention to the relational, then we cannot attend to God. After all The Gospel of Luke has Jesus saying ‘the kingdom of God is among/within you’ not your stuff[1] (Luke 17:21). And the rich man of Luke’s Gospel could not break the possessive relationship he had with his stuff, a break that is part of the process of letting go into the fullness of communion with divine Love (Luke 18:18-23). We all have things we hold too dear and in so doing place them between ourselves, others, and God.  

To put it simply, an uncluttered life (both externally and internally) has a real chance of experiencing the depths of divine communion in God. The rule, in its wisdom and practical clarity, is faithful to this spiritual truth. External simplicity serves the among you of Luke 17:21 and internal simplicity serves the within you. Both affect the other.  

And possessions are not just material. What about our time, our knowledge, our resources? What about our very selves? The reality of sacrifice as a giving of ourselves lives on in marriage and committed relationship, in family, in workplaces – anywhere there is a project, a reality, a group, a situation that is bigger than me, asking for our attention. Benedict knows this and trains us in a yes to it through the sharing of a minimum of essentials.

But when he heard this he was overcome with sadness, for he was very rich. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! Yes, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ (Luke 18:23-25, RNJB)

[1] The Greek word entos, used in this passage from Luke, can be translated as both among and within.