10 October 2018
An urban myth or a church
legend … is there a threat
from two stout monks?
Urban myths are so popular that they never seem to die or fade away, they are difficult ot dispel, and they are simply recycled retold in new forms.
One popular urban myth concerns organ harvesting. A man on a business trip is seduced by a beautiful woman … or he pays for an escort. He wakes up the next morning in a bathtub full of ice to find one of his kidneys has been removed for sale on the black market.
In the recycled version, he wakes up to find she has left, leaving behind a scrawl in lipstick on the bedroom mirror, telling him what is now infected with.
Another urban myth tells of a woman on holiday in an exotic resort. She swallows an egg whole, but thinks nothing of it until her stomach starts to bloat and she wonders whether she is pregnant. She goes to her doctor but a scan reveals the egg has hatched and a lizard is living inside her.
These stories are not pleasant, yet we insist in believing them and telling them over and over again because there seems to be some moral in the tale, however perverse that may be.
But there are church myths too, and they are recycled among clergy as readily as urban myths. I heard yet again this week of the popular legend of the ‘two stout monks’ in the Rule of Saint Benedict.
According to this church myth, the Rule of Saint Benedict includes the following advice:
If any pilgrim monk come from distant parts, with a wish to dwell as a guest in the monastery, and will be content with the customs which he finds in the place, and do not perchance by his lavishness disturb the monastery, but is simply content with what he finds: he shall be received, for as long a time as he desires.
If, indeed, he finds fault with anything, or exposes it, reasonably, and with the humility of charity, the Abbot shall discuss it prudently, lest perchance God had sent him for this very thing.
But if he has been found lavish or vicious in the time of his sojourn as guest, not only ought he not to be joined to the body of the monastery, but also it shall be said to him, honestly, that he must depart. If he does not go, let two stout monks, in the name of God, explain the matter to him.
In my stays in Ealing Abbey and Glenstal Abbey, or my visits to Rostrevor Abbey, Mount Melleray or Roscrea Abbey, I have never heard this legend. But it is still repeated wherever priests are gathered together.
A version of this passage was included, with some errors in a translation of Chapter 61 of Saint Benedict’s Rule, in the book Select historical documents of the Middle Ages (1892), translated and edited by Ernest Flagg Henderson, and reprinted in 1907 in The Library of Original Sources, vol IV, edited by Oliver J Thatcher.
Another version was published in Hubbard’s Little Journeys (1908), but that translation omits the recommendation that the guest might become a potential permanent resident, and replaces the words ‘lavish or vicious’ with ‘gossipy and contumacious’ and the words following ‘he must depart’ were originally ‘lest, by sympathy with him, others also become contaminated.’
However, no phrase corresponding to the last sentence about ‘two stout monks’ appears in the Rule of Saint Benedict. Yet it is a popular myth, with several reputable publications repeating the error. Indeed, although one source attributes the passage to a Chapter 74 in the Rule of Saint Benedict, the rule contains only 73 chapters.
An early source for the quotation is the University of California, Berkeley faculty club, which for years posted a version of the passage on its bulletin board in Gothic script, but without attributing the quotation to Saint Benedict.
But the Rule of Saint Benedict is subject to many interpretations. An article published by Assumption Abbey in North Dakota challenged the traditional translation of the Benedictine motto, Ora est labora, as ‘To Pray is to Work.’
Instead, it argued that that interpretation is a result of urban legend and that the actual motto is Ora et labora, ‘To pray and To work.’ This would embrace two major aspects of monastic life, prayer and work.
Perhaps, as we discuss, laugh and disagree about both, we could call in two stout monks to uphold or to refute these assertions.