Tools and Clothes

One of my favorite lines in the Rule of St. Benedict comes from chapter 31, describing the function of the monastic cellarer (business manager): “Let him regard all the vessels of the monastery and all its substance, as if they were sacred vessels of the altar.” In other words, the guy in charge of the monastery’s mundane tools and equipment needs to regard those items as if they were as sacred and precious as the chalice and paten used on the altar to hold the bread and wine that will be consecrated during the Eucharistic feast. Do the math, my friends: the “vessels of the altar” are considered sacred precisely because they are containers of the Real Presence. If the cellerar (and, by extension, all the monks) are to regard even the most mundane of tools as just as sacred, isn’t this because even our most ordinary items are means by which we can encounter the Real Presence of Christ, in our labor, our work, our chores?

It’s a very simple and oblique way by which Benedict hints at the practice of the presence of God: contemplatives acknowledge that we encounter Christ not only in the Blessed Sacrament or in Sacred Scripture (wonderful as those thresholds might be), but truly in the most mundane moments of our day. In Benedict’s day, this would have been while working in the farm or cooking in the kitchen. We who live 1500 years later might also consider the sacrality of our cars and our computers, in addition to our kitchen utensils or handyman tools.

Last night I had a dream about clothes. Now, those of you who know me will acknowledge that I am hardly Mr. Fashion. Jeans and a t-shirt or polo shirt are my preferred “habit.” Yes, I try to keep myself basically clean and tidy, but I’m not much for dressing up (my “Sunday best” might involve swapping the jeans for a pair of khakis, but then again, it might not). But my dream was not about how upscale my attire might be, but rather about how I treat my clothes. In my dream I heard a voice: “If you are a partaker of the Divine Nature, shouldn’t you treat your clothes as if they were  sacred vestments?”

Such a simple, obvious extension of Benedict’s wisdom. Care for our belongings as if they were as sacred as the vessels of the altar. Care for our clothes as if they were as sacred as priestly vestments. This applies regardless of whether you are a priest or a layperson, a Catholic or a Protestant, a person of wealth or someone of modest means. It’s universal, because the love and the presence of God is universal. If you are a tabernacle of the most high, does not that suggest that even the jeans and t-shirt you wear while puttering around the house are as important as the alb and chasuble of a priestly celebrant?

Mysticism and the Divine Feminine: An Interview with Mirabai Starr
Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Jim Thornber

    I spent four years in a monastic community. I could only wish the community members were as careful with the tools and lawnmowers as they were with the chalice and monstrance. But we know it isn’t so. Although I hoped that our shared beliefs and values as members of the same community would translate into a set of similar behaviors, it never really did. I finally came to realize that my change of behavior was a personal journey, not a corporate one. Your dream about your clothes is a general word to us all, but a specific word to you. However, this post is a wonderful reminder how we should treat every gift of God in a way that shows our respect for the giver of those gifts, be it a chalice or a hat, child or car, a hammer or a job.



  • Carl McColman

    It’s true that monks often fail to live up to their own commitments and ideals — after all, they are broken, wounded, and imperfect just like the rest of us. One of the monks at the Abbey where I work not long ago made this comment about how laypeople expect monks to be perfect: “After all, if we were perfect, we wouldn’t need to be in a monastery!”

  • Jim Thornber

    Very true!! People think “monk” or “nun” and equate it with “saint.” Not hardly. Being in a monastery only made me more aware of my day by day, minute by minute need of my Savior.



  • Terry Dumyahn

    I once heard that a saint is simply a fallen person who continually decides to get back up.
    Seeing everything as holy is a wonderful way of experiencing the Divine. It requires a stillness amidst the noise and a consciousness few try to struggle to achieve every day. But it’s the process, the journey and not the prize nor destination, I suppose which counts.

  • Gary Snead

    Today, 9/13, we sang the worship song ‘Amazing Love’ written by Chris Tomlin and the last lines of the chorus are ‘It’s my joy to honor You,
    In all I do, I honor You.’ This brought back to mind this blog post. I find it divinely humorous how close Catholic and non Catholic thought and behavior can be, especially when focused on God. One other thought arises for me, the difference between sacred and sanctified. My understanding is that sacred items are thought to be so inherently and sanctified items are given their status by divine action, or perhaps we recognize some sacredness within the item but ultimately, based on the first and second commandments, only God is intrinsically sacred. What do you think, Carl?

  • Carl McColman

    Divinely humorous, for sure! I suspect at the last day God will have a good belly laugh at how much energy we Christians have wasted at keeping ourselves divided. Haven’t really thought about the sacred/sanctified distinction, but my gut tells me that you’re on to something with the recognition that only God is truly sacred, all other sacrality is given by His outpouring of love and His Spirit. And since He pours out His Spirit over all the world…

  • Leslie

    Great post! For those interested, check out Rob Bell’s (founder of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapid, MI) “Everything is Spiritual” talk. It’s available on DVD and it’s wonderful.