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.
The final alternative is to belong to a monastery which has wealth and to live as a rentier.
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.
Moreover, monastic poverty has one meaning in the
This interrelation with the surrounding culture and economy creates a serious problem for monastic self-support in countries of the
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 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.