April 6, August 6, December 6
In no circumstances is a monk allowed, unless the abbot says they may, to exchange letters, blessed tokens or small gifts of any kind, with their parents or anyone else, or with a fellow monk. They must not presume to accept gifts sent them even by their parents without previously telling the abbot. If the abbot orders acceptance, they still have the power to give the gift to whom they will; and the monk for whom it was originally sent must not be distressed, “lest occasion be given to the devil” (Eph. 4:27; 1Tim. 5:14). Whoever presumes to act otherwise will be subjected to the discipline of the rule.
What might the motivations be for giving or receiving a gift or a letter? This chapter is about the relationships that shape and inform this kind of giving and receiving, and the effects these would have on personal and communal life.
What might it mean for the life of a marriage if someone outside the marriage (a parent, a friend) was sending letters or giving gifts to the husband or the wife? If it became a problem, somehow undermining the trust between partners, then a counselor or friend might just recommend an action like these recommended in the rule.
Perhaps a community member is highly regarded, be it for their commitment to growth in God; maybe they have something that another member desires, be it material or a personality trait. In some there might be the temptation to form a ‘special relationship’, one that seeks the attention of this other too much. Gifts and inappropriate communication might be the result. This chapter provides a way to approach this tendency.
What might be our reaction when someone re-gives the birthday present we gave them? What might we be attached to in the giving? A sense of pride, the happiness in giving, our expectation of the receiver’s response. Has the gift been given more for our benefit than anything else?
Benedict does not want our relating to get in the way of our seeking God. For the God seeker, relationships must serve the seeking. That said, relating does get in the way in communities, be the community intentional, a family, a relationship, a friendship. This tendency is well developed in us long before any encounter with the rule.
Without this seeking the human heart tends to find something, or someone else to fill its ‘God-shaped hole’. When this happens, the fullness of a union with God is lost to us. The rule is about establishing and re-establishing a primary bond with God in the psyche. This is what the God-seeker longs for. As monastics and contemplatives nothing must get in the way of our seeking God. The rule does not compromise on this.
However, here again, like in other parts of the rule, the rule seems to undermine its own discipline with an exception: ‘Under no circumstances…unless the abbot say…’. While the discipline is in keeping to no circumstance, the community leader can provide an exception to the discipline. The rule’s discipline is always wise, loving, flexible, and discrete – ready to make an exception so that the Holy Spirit can work on hearts and minds. Wise exception is part of the discipline.
Today, this chapter might be seen as an unnecessary restriction on the rights of the individual. Surely, I can give a gift to, or communicate with, anyone I choose? Once again, the rule asks us to notice what motivates us and to see the reasons why we do the things we do. In this age of the individual the onus is on the person to do the work of becoming aware. Wise spiritual leadership and a meditating community supports this work, participating in a healing that leads away from the desire for what we think we need, and into the true love we seek.
So this I say to you and attest to you in the Lord, do not go on living as the gentiles do in the futility of their mind, darkened in understanding, and estranged from the life of God, because of their ignorance, and the hardness of their hearts. In their insensitivity they have abandoned themselves to licentiousness for practising to excess every kind of uncleanness. (Ephesians 4: 17-19, RNJB)