I remember, when I was in grade school, the first day of school after Christmas break. “I got the Six Million Dollar Man doll!,” I said, or I’d have my new Matchbox car in my pocket, ready to show it off. The first thing said to my friends was a report on what I received at the holiday. I’d listen too to the haul my friends took in for Christmas, and we’d share stories of all the treasures hoarded in our rooms. My family had more than enough, and every Christmas and birthday was a chance to add to the toy pile in my room. Some friends, though, had less than me, and I remember noticing the difference when I visited their homes. Some kids in class, too, were from poorer families, and I remember the few who didn’t have lunch money and received the subsidized lunches at the cafeteria. I wonder how they felt when I was gushing away about my treasure trove of gifts.
Benedict, in chapter 54 of the Rule, forbids monks from receiving gifts and letters. “He must not presume to accept gifts sent him even by his parents without telling the abbot,” Benedict says. This is shocking to most of us. Benedict even says the Abbot may take the gift and give it to another monk. Imagine the Abbot taking the newly unwrapped gift you received from your parents back home and walking across the room and giving it to the monk who really annoys you. My first thought is, “Take it easy, Benedict. There’s nothing wrong with an innocent gift from another.”
Benedict, though, is trying to create a community where all are equal. He doesn’t allow private ownership, and the only rank within the community is based upon when each monk entered the monastery. Imagine one monk constantly receiving lavish gifts from his own family while another monk, from a poorer background, receives nothing. If that arrangement continued the equality and humility of the community would fall apart.
I like gifts, giving and receiving them. Even in my 40’s I still daydream about what will be under the Christmas tree. Humble gifts can bring joy and can be a generous expression of love between people. I realize gift-giving won’t be abolished in any of our lives. Maybe, though, we might learn to share some of the abundance so that there’s more of the equality Benedict is promoting. Next Christmas, when you walk away from the Christmas tree you might tithe from your gifts, giving a portion of them so they might be shared with some who have little or none.
"In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome." - Rule of St. Benedict