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Whenever a guest knocked at the door, the porter replied ‘Deo Gratias’, opened the door, and greeted him with the Benedictus. Thereafter, he humbly asked what the visitor wanted, bowed and seated the visitor in his cell while he went to announce the arrival to the abbot.

The porter or his helper, manned the abbey gate from Lauds to Compline each day. He was a monastic official of some standing, and several monks who held this post were promoted to the abbacy. He wore the scapular while working and whenever the Offices were sung in the church he was to pull up his hood and remain in silence. At the end of Compline the porter closed the gate and returned to the cloister.

Gatehouse at Roche abbey
© Cistercians in Yorkshire Project
<click to enlarge>
Gatehouse at Roche abbey

The porter represented the abbey to the outside world and mediated between outsiders and the community. He welcomed visitors (the exact procedure that he should follow is detailed fully in the twelfth-century customary of the Order), announced their arrival and communicated their requests to the abbot. Above all the porter ensured that they did not disrupt monastic life within. Whereas the Benedictine houses appointed an almoner to dispense charity on behalf of the community, this was the task of the Cistercian porter – he distributed food and clothing to the poor and at Beaulieu Abbey, Hampshire, it was the porter’s responsibility to select thirteen poor people to be fed and lodged in the abbey’s hospice each night. The porter was also to exercise discretion and was not to give alms to women of the neighbouring villages – except in times of famine – or to those who were too lazy to work.(1)