Chapter 54: Letters or Gifts

St Benedict's Rule: Chapter 54: Letters or Gifts

In no circumstance are monastics allowed, unless the prioress or abbot says they may, to exchange letters, blessed tokens, or small gifts of any kind, with their parents or anyone else, or with another monastic. They must not presume to accept gifts sent them even by their parents without previously telling the prioress or abbot. If the prioress or abbot orders acceptance, they still have the power to give the gift to whomever; and the one 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 this one that the community leader is asked to do here.

Perhaps a community member is highly regarded, be it for their commitment to growth in God and self; 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 could 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, ideally, must serve the seeking. That said, relating does get in the way in communities, be they intentional, families, marriages, friendships. It is well developed in us long before any encounter with the rule.  

However, without this seeking the human heart tends to find something, or someone else. 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.   

But 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 prioress or 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? The rule here (once again) is asking us to give attention to what motivates us and 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 I say this, and insist in the Lord, that you no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding, being alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardness of their hearts. (Ephesians 4: 17-19, NET)

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