Chapter 55: The Clothing and Footwear of the Brothers

1 The clothing distributed to the brothers should vary according to local conditions and climate, 2 because more is needed in cold regions and less in warmer. 3 This is left to the abbot’s discretion. 4 We believe that for each monk a cowl and tunic will suffice in temperate regions; 5 in winter a woolen cowl is necessary in summer a thinner or worn one; 6 also a scapular for work, and footwear–both sandals and shoes. 7 Monks must not complain about the color or coarseness of all these articles, but use what is available in the vicinity at a reasonable cost. 8 However, the abbot ought to be concerned about the measurements of these garments that they not be too short but fitted to the wearers. 9 Whenever new clothing is received, the old should be returned at once and stored in a wardrobe for the poor. 10 To provide for laundering and night wear, every monk will need two cowls and two tunics, 11 but anything more must be taken away as superfluous. 12 When new articles are received, the worn ones–sandals or anything old–must be returned. 13 Brothers going on a journey should get underclothing from the wardrobe. On their return they are to wash it and give it back. 14 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.

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

The first half of this Chapter is devoted to the clothes that the brothers should wear. We note immediately that Saint Benedict was a person who understood that there are other climates than his own and that monks must adjust their clothing to fit the climate. He leaves this to the Abbot’s discretion.

After the Second Vatican Council, many communities experimented with different types of habits. Before that time, most Benedictine monks had a very similar habit with some variations with the scapular. The Swiss and the English had enormous and long hoods on the scapular, the English hood detachable and the Swiss hood integrated with the scapular. Perhaps the most common scapular and hood were from the Beuronese reform.

We see right away that Saint Benedict thinks in terms of a uniform habit. Each monk has the same habit in a particular house. And if it gets hot, then often the cowl is dispensed. Monks need more clothes in winter, even in temperate climates.

Color and coarseness of material should not be a problem for the monk. Today many monks want a clerical wardrobe, a monastic wardrobe and a lay wardrobe so that “they will not stand out” when they are with various people. This seems clearly against the thinking of Saint Benedict. We monks should always look like monks. We have only one identity and that identity is being a monk.

We also note that Saint Benedict wants the monk who is outside to look a little better than he might look inside the monastery. And he also give the traveling monk underwear, which is not normally worn in the monastery. Today, most of us take it for granted that we use underwear, but we must imagine another culture where cloth was very expensive and clothing was kept to a minimum!

Our spirituality invites us to pray about our own clothing and how we present ourselves as monks in our own time. Do we need to have a lot of clothing? Do we need to have various forms of dressing? May the Lord guide us!

Chapter 55. The Clothing and Footwear of the Brothers, Verses 15-21.

15 For bedding the monks will need a mat, a woolen blanket and a light covering as well as a pillow. 16 The beds are to be inspected frequently by the abbot, lest private possessions be found there. 17 A monk discovered with anything not given him by the abbot must be subjected to very severe punishment. 18 In order that this vice of private ownership may be completely uprooted, the abbot is to provide all things necessary: 19 that is, cowl, tunic, sandals, shoes, belt, knife, stylus, needle, handkerchief and writing tablets. In this way every excuse of lacking some necessity will be taken away. 20 The abbot, however, must always bear in mind what is said in the Acts of the Apostles: Distribution was made to each one as he had need (Acts 4:35). 21 In this way the abbot will take into account the weaknesses of the needy, not the evil will of the envious; 22 yet in all his judgments he must bear in mind God’s retribution.

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

Now we turn for a moment to how the monks are to sleep. These guidelines can still work fairly well today. We don’t expect to go into a monk’s cell and find something out of a designer magazine! Instead the bed should be simply. We use two sheets in our culture. We usually have more than one blanket in the winter when the temperatures are below zero. Some brothers have bedspreads. We usually have mattresses rather than a mat, but some brothers prefer mats.

We can understand that in the time of Saint Benedict there was no privacy at all for the monk. They slept in the same room, they ate in the same room, the prayed in the same Church, the did Lectio in the same room, etc. So if the monk wanted to have something for himself and not share it with others, under the bed was about the only private place! Most monasteries today give each monk a cell and that creates a much larger area to be inspected! But for at least some monasteries there is still an importance attached to having as little as possible and to inspecting rooms regularly so that monks keep an attentive discipline to what they have “for their use.”

The Abbot needs to supply everything that the monk needs. Today those needs include a few more clothes, more shoes, more desk appurtenances, generally a computer, etc. Saint Benedict is clear that the monks should have what they need. And as in the case of wine, when Saint Benedict speaks about drink, so also in the area of modern needs many monks are convinced that they need quite a few things! So the Abbot is once again striving to listen to the Lord and insist on an austerity in the things that a monk has while at the same time he must listen to the brothers and honestly give each one what he needs for a good monastic life.

Let us strive to follow the admonitions of Saint Augustine that we work to have less so that others can have more.