Monday, 14 November 2005

Combating the Passion of Avarice 1

We discussed the nature of the passion of avarice in this post.

Avarice starts from the obvious: the need for food and shelter. The monk has to do something to provide for himself, unless he plans to live until winter on berries in a lean-to in the forest. However, there is a tension between the structure of advanced industrial society and the structure of Orthodox monasticism, which is more suited to simpler occupations than either modern industrial society or the education of the modern monk would have us envisage.

In the Syrian tradition, the monk did not work, and depended on God to feed him. This appears also to have been the practice in Sinai.

In Egypt, the monks insisted on work. There is a story in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers about the young monk who insisted on spending his time in prayer and not working. The Elder sent him to pray outside the cell and when the time came to eat, and the young monk knocked on the door to come in and eat, saying ‘I’m so-and-so,’ the Elder refused to open, saying that so-and-so was with the angels, praying. The Egyptian practice has become the norm on Mount Athos. It is expected there that the monk will work to keep himself.

The final alternative is to belong to a monastery which has wealth and to live as a rentier.

In Egypt, the monks practised very simple occupations which left their mind or nous free for contemplation. But this was integrated into their social context. They plaited mats or made ropes from the local raw materials. This was appropriate to the cultural and economic conditions in which they lived. There was a ready market for mats and ropes in the district.

In the Middle Ages, monasteries farmed land. In the Roman Catholic Church, in a reflection of the social structure of contemporary medieval society, in the Cistercian and Carthusian orders there were two classes of monks: the choir monks, from the higher class, who occupied themselves with higher theological studies, prayer and the priesthood; and the lay brothers, from the peasant class, who occupied themselves with a regime of simple prayers and manual labour on the monastery farm. This two-tier system was formally abolished after Vatican II. The Cistercians were noted for founding their monasteries in otherwise uninhabited marshlands and reclaiming those marshlands. Neither of the two orders could be considered parasitical.

Monasticism necessarily follows the social and economic conditions in which it finds itself.

In the United States of America, with its advanced industrial and technological culture, it would be absurd and laughable to find an Orthodox monk plaiting ropes for a living. It would also be absurd to expect to find in the United States an Orthodox two-tier monastic brotherhood farming in a feudal arrangement.

Moreover, monastic poverty has one meaning in the United States and another in Ethiopia, just as poverty itself is a relative concept. How realistic would it be from a psychological point of view and from a sociological point of view to expect an educated monk in the United States to live at a Third-World level of poverty?

This interrelation with the surrounding culture and economy creates a serious problem for monastic self-support in countries of the First World.

Nowadays, small First-World monasteries support themselves by manufacturing or merchandising luxury items, or by doing the same with simple tourist trinkets, or by doing the same with religious items such as icons or books, or by some combination of these things. Monastic brotherhoods today are too small to have the capital and other presuppositions of entry into the advanced technological economy to which they belong. For example, it would be ridiculous to expect a monastery to aspire to manufacture carpets on a industrial scale. Moreover, practice of an advanced profession—say, computing—is mentally demanding and inconsistent with the practice of continual prayer. However, computing and the Internet have introduced the possibility that some industries, such as publishing, can be pursued on a much less capital-intensive basis. The final alternative again is to wait until the monastery becomes wealthy, if ever, and to live as a rentier.

In the First World today, Orthodox monks are not peasants. While it is by no means universally true, they tend to be well-educated persons who were dissatisfied with the opportunities available to them in the broader society for personal psychological or religious development. They are ordinarily persons who by virtue of education and social position could very easily pursue an advanced profession such a medicine, engineering or law but instead choose to become monks. Orthodox monasticism in the First World has this character: it tends to be a choice of members of the intelligentsia. (Of course, there is also an ethnic element.) But this means that some of the more agrarian pursuits traditionally associated with monasticism are not easily undertaken by these monks. For example, it might be thought that an Orthodox monastery could own a vineyard and sell wine, or similarly for beer. But unless the monks have someone among them who by training is a biologist or agriculturalist, how are they going to know anything about vines or hops or wine-making or beer-brewing? Or are they going to hire a professional to do it for them? But then they just as well might discard the habit and go into business.

In the Byzantine period, in an epoch when slavery was legally permitted, St Theodore Studite forbade his monks to hold slaves, remarking that that was permitted only to lay people. He considered the holding of slaves inconsistent with the monastic profession. Nowadays monasteries have employees, not slaves. But is it not just as scandalous to see a monk mercilessly exploiting a foreign worker to save his monastery a dollar?

Of course, the notion of the monk as rentier has entered into the mythology of the Enlightenment and Reformation: the monk as fat exploiter of the poor, as a precursor of the cigar-smoking capitalist. But there is genuinely a danger of avarice on this road.

These matters form the presupposition of the battle against avarice.

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