A wise old man [sic] should be placed at the monastery gate, who will know how to take a message and give a reply and whose age means that he will not be tempted to wander about. This porter should have a room next to the gate so that anyone who arrives will always find someone there to deal with enquiries.
Part of the wisdom of the Rule is that it assigns important and specific tasks to the appropriate people. Here we have a wise and older member of the community assigned the task of porter. This person is asked to being attentive to the gate or the door, dealing with anyone who may be inquiring and seeking entry, as well as attentive to whatever circumstance may be visiting the community itself.
At first the assigning of an older member seems strange. Why not someone younger? They surely would have more energy for the job and be more efficient? What Benedict wants here, however, is not just someone to meet the world as it comes to the monastery. He also wants someone appropriate as Porter so that the world outside the monastery meets the spirit of the community ‘in person’ at the entrance.
Perhaps during the course of our lives we have met someone who ‘personifies’ a group, a community, a movement? They are, in the way they act and live, a kind of ‘embodiment’ of the spirit of a place, of what the members of a community or a group aspire to be. It seems natural that this person is oftentimes older. Their years of membership have allowed the unique gift of presence and approach that a particular way of life engenders to mature them into a more or less faithful example of this presence and approach.
As soon as someone knocks or a poor man [sic] calls him, he should reply, ‘Thanks be to God’ or ‘Your blessing, please’. His response should be given promptly and with great gentleness, inspired by fear [reverence] of God and with the warmth of love. If this porter needs help, one of the younger brothers [sic] should provide assistance.
In the words the Rule uses to describe the Porter, we hear the traits of a mature Benedictine Christian:
Promptness – born out of a commitment to a loving enterprise bigger than us. Promptness indicates that self-gratification is being forgotten and that a life of service in love is at the centre of our lives.
Openness. Fear is being replaced, overcome with the joy and humble confidence of a person ready for whatever life may have. God is in all and nothing can change this. A hope we don’t create is what we live in. Christian and human openness to life points to a life in union with the hope of Christ.
The warmth of love. Warmth indicates tangible presence. Like a lit hearth on a cold winter night, a person in touch with divine love at their centre can communicate a ‘spiritual glow’ to those around them. They do this in a way they do not think about. This warmth serves life and the other being served.
Gratitude. As we mature in the Christian and human life it dawns on us more and more that all of life is gift. Some of life may not start out as gift, however, the gift of divine love in life is always working to ensure that all of life serves the transfiguration of everything and everyone into love. The Porter can know this, through deep experience. A person of spirit can experience gratitude bursting through the limits of the conscious mind. All that is left is to say is ‘Thanks be to God’ as we await the blessing to come.
Welcome. An open person is a welcoming person. We all can struggle with being welcome. Maybe we think we don’t have enough energy to be welcoming, or the time. A maturing and integrating person experiences welcoming as more and more a part of the energy of life, rather than as a cost to this energy. To give time to being welcoming is also an act of faith – time that seems lost becomes time being simply attentive to what is in front of us. A life lived more and more in the present moment sees that there will be time for all that serves the present moment.
Great gentleness. A human life growing in spirit and Spirit is a life deepening in profound non-violence. As we grow we see violence not only in the gun, the bomb, and the fist. We see it also in the loud voice, the bodily movement shaped by hate, and the perfectionism we subject ourselves and others to. Love changes us into people of great tenderness, acute gentleness, and vulnerable compassion. The old, wise person at our own door to life is what Benedict invites us all to become.
Reverence. Rather than fear, perhaps reverence can be described as an awe-filled wonder and amazement. God and life can leave the wise speechless. Words fall and pass like autumn leaves on the wind. What is left is what describes the experience of God and life best: silence. The wise speak sparingly from silence.
These traits develop in us as we practice living in the present moment. Just as the Porter is asked to be awake at the entrance to the monastery, so too we are invited to be aware of whatever is claiming our attention. Whatever these may be, we can grow in meeting them at the door of experience with a welcome, with gratitude, in openness and gentleness.
The meditator, at the time of meditation, practices giving attention to divine love at the centre. Over time we discover that this love is with us as we stand at the door of the experience of life. We come to realise that the wise, old man at the entrance is (at first) more the Christ in us than us. We are more the younger learning how to provide assistance. In time, and with grace, we will learn enough from Christ to porter our own experience of life.
This chapter does ask each of us the question ‘how do you porter life?’ Can we sense these traits of maturity forming in us as we live? What is our basic stance to life? Does life still cost us? Is gift breaking into consciousness? Can we sense the invitation to let go into the flow of life growing stronger in us?
Rumi, in his poem The Guest House, speaks to the same inner themes as this chapter:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
‘Meet them at the door laughing…’ Like a Porter, we can become a kind of wise fool welcoming life with a gentle and playful wisdom born of deep transformation. To be playful in and with life is to live life like a healthy child – open and loving, embracing what comes as gift. This is what can await us as we toil with grace in life, maturing into who we most deeply are: love for life. Divine wisdom meets us and kisses us at the gate.
Sent her [wisdom] forth from the holy heavens, and from the throne of your glory send her, that she may be with me and toil, and that I may learn what is pleasing in your sight and what is right according to your commandments. (Wisdom 9:10-11)