Monastic responses

If tithing can be faulted because it lets us off too easily, then monastic life can be seen as an attempt to give everything to divine service. From this perspective, it’s not an escape from money issues, but rather a way of redressing real-life situations that society often fails to honor with monetized values. The work of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity would be a prime example.

The range of monastic response is incredible: not just the Roman Catholic orders, but Eastern Orthodox, Episcopal, even Shaker and Ephrata in the American Protestant past, as well as Zen Buddhist retreat centers and Hindu yoga ashrams in the United States. Paradoxically, the rules of each order free its members to focus on performing vital work that is historically accorded little or no monetary value: prayer and meditation; care for orphans, the mentally retarded, psychologically troubled, the dying, or chronically sick; teaching and studying, copying manuscripts, and archiving; maintaining the order and responding to its needs, as well as extending hospitality and refreshment to sojourners and visitors.

In Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, poet and essayist Kathleen Norris offers insight as a Presbyterian who is renewed in her stays with nearby monks: “Ora et labora, work and pray, is a Benedictine motto, and the monastic life aims to join the two. This perspective liberates prayer from God-talk; a well-tended garden, a well-man cabinet, a well-swept floor, can be a prayer.”

Remarkably, much of the curiosity in modern America about monastic life focuses on the struggles with the discipline of celibacy, rather than questions about personal possessions and income. It’s likely more adult Americans have endured periods without sex than periods without possessions. A former nun confessed the most difficult times in her convent arose when the sisters would receive permission to indulge in something like ice cream, and then had to agree on one flavor. Maybe you can’t get more down-to-reality than that.

“I regard monks and poets as the best degenerates in America,” Norris writes in The Cloister Walk (1996): “Both have a finely developed sense of the sacred potential in all things; both value image and symbol over utilitarian purpose or the bottom line; they recognize the transformative power hiding in the simplest things, and it leads them to commit absurd acts: the poem! the prayer! what nonsense! In a culture that excels in creating artificial, tightly controlled environments (shopping malls, amusement parks, chain motels), the art of monks and poets is useless, if not irresponsible, remaining out of reach of commercial manipulation and ideological justification.”

Or, more to the point, she notes: “Those who know the exact price of things, as Judas did, often don’t know the true cost of anything.”

Have you ever visited a monastery, convent, or other religious retreat? Have you visited a historical site, such as a preserved Shaker village or Ephrata (in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania). Have you spent an extended period, such as a vacation, in one? What were your impressions? What were the individuals you met like? Could you see yourself living in that manner?

Did you or anyone you know join a commune in the late 1960s or the ’70s? What about a cooperative enterprise? Where there ways that participants failed to be aware of the dark side of money issues? Did these factors lead to the breakup of the venture?


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