Benedictine Gift Giving

Fr. Adrian Burke, OSB
Thursday, August 3, 2023

He must not presume to accept gifts sent to him even by his parents without previously telling the abbot." 
Rule of St. Benedict 54.2

Within the holy Rule of St. Benedict lies a little chapter that has caused me some measure of discomfort over the years. For many of us today, gift-giving is so much a part of our usual way of demonstrating appreciation for another that it's hard to imagine how else we can express it! Somehow our words are no longer enough.

Monks, according to the Rule, must be more indifferent about gifts. We are not forbidden to receive gifts, only to do so without the permission of the abbot! This is perfectly consistent with all of Benedict's directives.

For Benedict, the abbot, who is believed to hold the place of Christ in the community (RB 2.2), decides all things for the community and its members, and is responsible to provide for the monks' ordinary needs. "A monk discovered with anything not given him by the abbot must be subjected to very severe punishment" (RB 55.17).

Benedict warns, however, that though he will allow a monk to receive a gift with the abbot's permission, [the abbot] "still has the power to give the gift to whom he will, and the brother for whom it was originally sent must not be distressed, lest occasion be given to the devil" (RB 54.3-4). That last bit, a reference to Ephesians 4:27, is key to understanding the reason for this precept.

Envy and jealousy are poison to a community's cohesion. These are what one feels - and they are feelings even before they become something more - that can motivate us to act in a self-centered way.

When one covets what another enjoys, this easily leads to envious behavior, treating the other in a resentful manner even as it undermines a sense of gratitude for what one has already. Jealousy is a selfish regard for our own possessions, even our time! This can lead to behavior that undermines generosity, another vital Christian character trait.

The Benedictine Rule prescribes "holy indifference" - he mustn't be distressed - a kind of "detached" attitude that allows one to be free from what the world, or to be more specific, society and culture, convinces us we "need" to feel complete or whole.

The serious Christian realizes that his or her human dignity is rooted in God, not in one's possessions; and that true freedom, for the sake of which Christ became human (Gal 5.1), enables us to love generously, selflessly, and thus to become more what God intended us to be from the beginning - like God!