The fifteenth of the tools of good works in Chapter 4 of St Benedict's Rule is 'to clothe the naked'.
For the monk, this was generally a corporate task: elsewhere in the Rule, St Benedict instructs for example, that when the brethren received new clothes, the old ones were to be returned and stored in the clothesroom for the poor (RB 55).
The monastic tradition of charity
The primary purpose of monasticism is not charitable works, but rather the worship of God. Nonetheless, charity has always been an integral part of every form of Christian life. St Benedict actually dedicated one of the chapels at Monte Cassino to St Martin of Tours, who is a particular model of this tool of Good Work, as Pope Benedict XVI has pointed out:
"...Martin of Tours († 397), the soldier who became a monk and a bishop: he is almost like an icon, illustrating the irreplaceable value of the individual testimony to charity. At the gates of Amiens, Martin gave half of his cloak to a poor man: Jesus himself, that night, appeared to him in a dream wearing that cloak, confirming the permanent validity of the Gospel saying: “I was naked and you clothed me ... as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:36, 40)." (Deus Caritas est)
The Pope went on, in his first encyclical, to draw our attention to this motivation in the entire monastic impulse:
"Yet in the history of the Church, how many other testimonies to charity could be quoted! In particular, the entire monastic movement, from its origins with Saint Anthony the Abbot († 356), expresses an immense service of charity towards neighbour. In his encounter “face to face” with the God who is Love, the monk senses the impelling need to transform his whole life into service of neighbour, in addition to service of God. This explains the great emphasis on hospitality, refuge and care of the infirm in the vicinity of the monasteries. It also explains the immense initiatives of human welfare and Christian formation, aimed above all at the very poor, who became the object of care firstly for the monastic and mendicant orders, and later for the various male and female religious institutes all through the history of the Church."
The charitable action of the Church
And so too today, we have organizations like St Vincent de Paul who offer recycled clothing cheaply to the poor.
It is worth reflecting a little, however, on the appropriate accompaniments to this charitable endeavour though, for too often it seems our proper response to immediate needs, such as clothing, is shorn of the appropriate context for our action.
In his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI pointed out that action for social justice cannot be an excuse to abandon the charitable works of the Church. And he also pointed out that those works should have a distinctive character, not just look identical to any other charity:
"Following the example given in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Christian charity is first of all the simple response to immediate needs and specific situations: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for and healing the sick, visiting those in prison, etc...We are dealing with human beings, and human beings always need something more than technically proper care. They need humanity. They need heartfelt concern. Those who work for the Church's charitable organizations must be distinguished by the fact that they do not merely meet the needs of the moment, but they dedicate themselves to others with heartfelt concern, enabling them to experience the richness of their humanity. Consequently, in addition to their necessary professional training, these charity workers need a “formation of the heart”: they need to be led to that encounter with God in Christ which awakens their love and opens their spirits to others. As a result, love of neighbour will no longer be for them a commandment imposed, so to speak, from without, but a consequence deriving from their faith, a faith which becomes active through love (cf. Gal 5:6)...by their activity—as well as their words, their silence, their example—they may be credible witnesses to Christ."
Visible witness, even in secret
And it is this dimension of visible witness that was traditionally reflected in the wearing of the monastic habit. Here is the story of St Benedict's own reception of the habit, from St Gregory's Life. Fleeing the community of Affile because of his new found fame at having worked a miracle:
"Benedict, desiring rather the miseries of the world than the praises of men: rather to be wearied with labor for God's sake, than to be exalted with transitory commendation: fled privately from his nurse, and went into a desert place called Subiaco, distant almost forty miles from Rome: in which there was a fountain springing forth cool and clear water; the abundance whereof does first in a broad place make a lake, and afterward running forward, comes to be a river. As he was travelling to this place, a certain monk called Romanus met him, and demanded whither he went, and understanding his purpose, he both kept it close, furnished him what he might, vested him with the habit of holy conversation, and as he could, ministered and served him."