At the gate of the monastery
let there be placed a wise old man,
who knows how to receive and to give a message,
and whose maturity will prevent him from straying about. (Rule of Benedict, Ch 66)
My first thought when I read this the other morning was, what the heck does receiving and giving a message have to do with being the Porter, or guestmaster, of the monastery? The words seemed to jar me awake, they were incongruous and out of place.
Then I thought about a monastery in Benedict’s time, or for, say, 500 years thereafter. From the little I know about the history, it seems there was an almost daily stream of guests who showed up at the monastery gates looking for hospitality, at least for a safe place to spend the night. One of the functions of the Porter was to act as a buffer between these guests and the monks living an enclosed existence within the gates of the community. Benedict seems to have thought it better to have one person in contact with the world than have the entire community exposed and perhaps distracted by these visitors.
Still, in those days before cell phones and the internet, it’s certainly possible that some of those guests had business with the monastery, perhaps with the abbot, or with the cellerar. They might not expect to meet with either of those officials in person, but were probably forced to rely on the Porter to convey whatever message they might wish to be conveyed. It would be very important that the Porter be able to reliably receive the message and convey it to the intended recipient. Also, and this may be a more important issue, those messages might not be appropriate for the whole community to be informed of. It would be important to have a “wise old man” as the Porter because he would, presumably, be someone who could be relied on to keep his mouth shut. He wouldn’t be a gossip.
When I thought about all this, the passage made a bit more sense. But then, I wondered how, or if, this might apply to someone following the Rule today. It seems to me to apply in a couple of different ways. First, Benedict is obviously anxious that as many of the monks as possible maintain their “life style” as much as possible. He doesn’t want them to experience unnecessary exposure to temptations or distractions from the quiet life they have chosen. The role of the Porter is intended to assist with that. Oblates today, don’t have a Porter to help them maintain a sense of separation from the culture we live in. We have to create our own “buffer” against all the noise and distraction of modern life. We have to try to maintain a sense of what we are about as Benedictines and be self disciplined enough to make the right choices; it’s not easy, but we should try to learn discernment in the situations we find ourselves in and the people we choose to associate with. As I said, it’s not easy.
Another point is that we do well to avoid gossip and, as the old saying goes, mind our own business. We should know what concerns us and what doesn’t. I’m learning that’s a sure way to ensure greater peace in my life.
One quick disclaimer. When I mention that Oblates practice a certain “withdrawal” from our culture and that we should discern who we associate with, I don’t mean we should isolate ourselves. After all, the Porter is the agent of welcome and hospitality in the monastery. His role is to allow selective contact with the world, he’s not a guard meant to keep the world out.
So, once again, with words that seems completely out of place, there is still a valuable lesson to be learned from Benedict’s Rule. He’s worth paying attention to.