Monastic Practices Decorum


“Decorum brings a quality of graciousness and propriety to everything we say or do.  Decorum manifests itself in externals of speech and actions.  Decorum of itself is not a sign of sanctity or purity of heart but in the monastic life decorum may be considered the spontaneous expression of an interior harmony, and the exterior reverberation of an inner gracefulness and dignity.” C Cummings


This is my favorite chapter in the entire book of Monastic Practices.  It is a short chapter, but filled with imagery that any human being could learn from.  No one speaks about decorum any more.  It is something out of an old Emily Post discussion on good manners.  But Monastic Decorum is essential to the monastic and the christian life.

Decorum is the first notable and palpable feeling one has in the presence of other Monks and Nuns.  It is hard to describe at first.  Here in the Jerusalem Community it is evident in the way the monks and nuns treat each other, with much reverence and respect.  Decorum is felt by the lack of hurriedness and business as the monks and nuns go about their daily duties.  No one is seen running, and no one is seen with their cell phones in hand.  (I have to admit I did see the Prior of one monastery checking his emails or a text message at lunch time under the table giving me some indication that this was a very busy day for him.) 

Monastic Decorum is palatable in how Monks and Nuns eat together.  They pour water into the other’s glass before they pour their own.  The invited guest is always invited to serve themselves first before the others.  Overt noise is almost always avoided in any circumstance.  Most advise and directives are give in a very low tone, audible but not loud or filled with emotion.  Smiles are sincere but not false or exaggerated.  In every treatment with each other or guests there is a “civility” that permeates all interactions.  This is something that is rarely seen in today’s society.  It is also something that is deeply needed for us to get along in the future as human beings. 

Personal Decorum (neatness, order, flow)

“Decorum looks in two directions, towards self and towards others.  Loving self respect and loving respect of others determine the propriety of our speech or behavior.”

C Cummings

I am not a “neat freak”.  But I have always liked the Anglican principal of “order and decency” (both in church and in home).  It speaks greatly  to the religious and spiritual endeavor.  When there is little order and little decency, there is chaos, untidy-ness, distracting visuals, and usually, though not always, a sign that behind  the lack of Personal Decorum, lies some spiritual if not emotional issues that needs urgent attending to. 

There are certain places where I live that for me are always being tidied up and cleaned, that is the kitchen and my personal prayer space or altar.  They are the two places where I tolerate the least amount of disorder or uncleanliness.  They are both sacred spaces to me since it is there in these spaces that I am fed both physically and spiritually.  Other spaces in my house are normally “under construction” in other words a little messy until they get their weekly go about.  My personal or physical appearance has always been important to me without exaggeration.  I had a Monk friend from the Holy Cross who taught me how to say Mass when I was in Seminary at General in New York City.  He told me that he had his nails done every week, because if he was distributing communion he did not want people to see his dirty hands or finger nails,  and wanted to give the highest respect to the Sacrament. 

I knew another priest who had spent his first years in Seminary in a Russian Monastery.  I am not sure what his influence was, but he was always untidy, unkept, loved to wear Sandals where his feet were difficult to look at because they were so poorly cared for, and odd odors not of sanctity surrounded him most of the time.  These for me perhaps are two extremes of Personal Decorum.  I think that the “via media” in this is always the best bet.  We are all called to live lives that are orderly and give and show respect for both ourselves and those around us.  Our personal Decorum and the living spaces we share are  certainly a sign of of the beauty that God wants us to share with others.   

Words and Actions

I read somewhere that you can tell how long someone has been a monk by the way that he or she closes a door.  I was struck last week with the Jerusalem Community when the monk in charge of visitors (the french Sheldon) suggested that I not close the door into the hallway manually, but used the key  to open and close the door so as not to disturb the others.  I was also chided for leaving a little too much of my legs show under my habit where I wear shorts instead of long pants in the presence of the Sisters of the community when in the chapel.  He quickly added,  that for the Men in the community this was not an issue.  I had to smile.  What we say, and what we do speak of an interior demeanor and disposition.  We should never be prudish, which some religious tend to be, but we should always be cautious not to offend others by our speech or by our actions.  I confess that this is an area where I really have to constantly work on especially with the people who live and work closest to me.  I tend to be flippant, sometimes arrogant, short tempered and even grumpy around those closest to me.  I am guilty of what our author says are “primitive, boorish, standards of conduct, and of those who expect their rude, uncouth, behavior to be acceptable to others. (this may be a “man” thing.) 

Anima (male and female)

“If the anima has not been accepted and integrated by old age, the result is likely to be a crotchety, or miserly or senile, or rude old man, instead of a wise, good humored , respectable senior who is appreciated by all.”  C Cummings. 

All of us know someone like the persons described above.  Both the integrated and the non-integrated person in this case.  Anima, says our author, is an equal  and respectable flow between the feminine and the masculine characteristics of our persona or self.  It is about finding balance within our souls and characters.  This is a lifetime duty to find that balance and always has to be under self observation and check. 

Decorum in Community

“Courtesy, is a social technique that eases the collision and strife and friction that sociality is.”

Lack of common courtesy abound in modern day living.  It is first and foremost found on our nations highways and streets.  It is then found in the places where we interact socially such as shopping centers and restaurants.  Finally it is found in our social interactions both at work and at home.  Monastic Decorum is filled with “common courtesies”.  It may be the way monks serve each other at table during meals.  It may be the lack of interrupting ones conversation.  It may be the gentle smile that un-intrusively recognizes the presence of the other in the room.  I suppose for many of us this sense of courtesy seems more like a huge imposition on “individual freedom and expression.”  This of course speaks highly of the cultural values that we deem so important especially in American society.  Many if not most other cultures outside the United States value more the self impositions we place on ourselves in order to better get along and respect those around us than that of having to have always the right answer or belong to the right political party and be on the right team.  We are not the center of the Universe.  Take a look at yourself sometime from Google Earth and see if you are there.  It may take a while to realize that we are such a small part of the big picture yet interdependent of everything and everyone around us.  Evelyn Underhill said it perfectly when she said, “God sees each one of us in relation to God’s Eternity, sees each one of us as little things that God is making for Himself.  God sees us within a spiritual world surrounded and conditioned by spiritual forces of which we know hardly anything at all, but which are infinitely more important and more powerful than all the things we fancy matter a great deal.” Light of Christ

There is a wonderful saying in spanish, “el se enoja, pierde.” (the one who gets angry looses).  This little proverb is not about winning or losing but about common courtesy and Decorum.  It is a gift that we can all give to ourselves and to each others in order to live a truly “well mannered life”. 

Pax Benedictina +

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