2 We mean that without an order from the abbot, no one may presume to give, receive 3 or retain anything as his own, nothing at all—not a book, writing tablets or stylus—in short, not a single item, 4 especially since monks may not have the free disposal even of their own bodies and wills.
Rule of Benedict (RB) 33:2-4
10[The cellarer] will regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, 11 aware that nothing is to be neglected.
18 Necessary items are to be requested and given at the proper times, 19 so that no one may be disquieted or distressed in the house of God.
Rule of Benedict (RB) 31: 1, 6, 10-11, 18-19
A while back I was stopped by a State Patrol officer for failing to come to a complete stop at the stop sign at the intersection of the highway leading out of town. I am originally from California and I did what people in most parts of the country refer to as a “California stop,” failing to come to a full and complete stop at the stop sign. (In California we used to call it a “Hollywood stop.” I don’t know what they call it in Hollywood.) As I showed him my license and registration he looked rather puzzled and asked “do you own this car.” I said “well…it’s complicated.”
Actually it isn’t that complicated but I was so preoccupied with hoping I wouldn’t get a ticket I couldn’t afford that I wasn’t thinking very clearly. The truth is that it is very simple. I don’t own a car, a home, a bank account or much of anything apart from way too many books and a variety of odds and ends.
Of course Benedict would probably be deeply shocked and dismayed at how much “stuff” his modern sons and daughters accumulate in modern monastic life, but by the standards of most people we live fairly simply.
In our little town, three miles from the monastery, our cars are known as the “nun-mobiles.” They are all used Toyota Corollas. They aren’t the biggest, flashiest cars in the area, they aren’t the most beaten up rattle-traps, all in all they are pretty unobtrusive, and I think they reflect who we are and how we try to live. Cars are regarded as important, necessary, functional objects to be treated with great care and reverence and shared equally among everyone according to need.
If a sister needs a car for her work she gets the use of a designated car as long as she needs it. If someone is living and working at the monastery there are several cars available for everyone’s use. Anytime someone needs to go to an appointment, run an errand or use a car she uses a sign out sheet to put down her name, what car she needs and when. She takes the keys and puts them back when she comes back. If someone needs a car to go somewhere overnight or farther than the next real town, she asks the sister in charge of cars, tells her where she’s going, when and how long she will need the car. The sister in charge then looks at her schedule and reserves a car.
The whole system works, but it does a take a greater degree of mindfulness than having your own car. Quick, unplanned trips to town in the afternoon don’t always work, that seems to be a popular time and often all the cars are signed out. Peak travel time in the summer can mean that last minute long-distance travel can’t happen or requires the juggling of a limited supply of cars.
For some of us it also means thinking of cars as strictly transportation, a shift away from treating them as a very large purse on wheels, which had been how I always treated my vehicles. Before I came to the monastery, when I bought a new pickup truck, a friend of mine looked at it and said: “Wow, look at all the room in back to throw your soda cans!”
I suppose that is the main difference between a personal car and a monastic car. The car is not my own, it isn’t even like renting a car where I can act as if it is my own for a little while. Cars at the monastery are truly communal, truly treated like Benedict’s sacred vessels of the altar. We try hard to remember to put the front seat back before we put the car away. There are little tags to indicate that the car has less than a half tank of gas, and the sister who goes out of her way to fill up a half empty car with gas receives silent blessings from many people. Of course the sister who forgets to turn off the headlights, leaves the radio on and the seat pushed way up is subject to equally silent, but considerably less charitable thoughts. Car announcements and reminders seem to take up an inordinate amount of time at weekly house meetings.
Teresa of Avila is supposed to have said that God can be found among the pots and pans. I suspect that if she were alive today she would agree that God is most certainly to be found among the cars. For most Americans cars are our ultimate symbol of freedom. No matter what the price of gas, how limited our income or circumstances, we feel we have to own our own car. Cars express who we are, the politically correct hybrid, the politically incorrect Hummer, cars are rolling manifestations of our egos and values. We are our cars.
That is what makes monastic life so different and ultimately challenging to the surrounding culture. In a society that sees individual car ownership ranking perhaps even above free speech as a constitutional and God-given right, we don’t own our own cars and aren’t even guaranteed access to them wherever and whenever we want. Our individual needs are subordinate to the needs of community. I can’t do whatever I want whenever I want. My needs will be met, if I have an emergency and need to get to the hospital that will certainly happen. But if I want to take off on an unplanned trip to the movies, I may have to wait in line.
In a culture characterized by unconscious narcissism it can be a shock to think that perhaps everything isn’t about me. Monastic life is about us, not me, and not only us, but about the lowest common denominator of us. We finally installed automatic door openers on the garages because as we get older fewer and fewer of us could wrestle open garage doors, especially in winter snow and ice. We no longer buy stick shift cars because so few people could drive them. We accommodate the folks with less ability rather than assuming that cars are a privilege of the elite.
Monastic life is a culture of enough. Not too much, not extreme asceticism, just enough. We get what we need, not always what we want. We share, we learn to be patient with ourselves and others through the everyday trials of living with people who don’t put up notes to say the car is less than half full of gas, who don’t turn off the windshield wipers before they turn off the car and our chagrin when we are one of those people.
It has become popular to ask: “what would Jesus do,” and in the latest version: “what would Jesus drive?” Personally I just hope that he would be comfortable in one of our nun-mobiles and that he would also be forgiving when some of us drive off and forget to close the garage door after having complained about those who do.