Monday, 14 November 2005

Combating the Passion of Avarice 2

The key points at which the monk is exposed to temptations to avarice from his concrete environment are as follows.

First in selling his products. The practice in Egypt was to have a pious layman take the monk’s mats or ropes to market and to sell them for the monk without haggling for a high price. In the case that the monk engaged in selling his products himself, he absolutely avoided haggling over the price and gave a price that was a little lower than the going one.

We know of a Cistercian monastery that owns a farm. Their practice is to charge a little more than they can for their products, not because they are avaricious but because to do otherwise would be to compete unfairly with the surrounding farmers. If monks are doing the work, a monastery has no labour costs to speak of, so the monastery’s production costs are going to be much lower than those of the surrounding farmers. Charging on the basis of actual production costs would force the surrounding farmers’ prices down. In general, farmers neighbouring communal farms have for this very reason often complained of unfair competition, even when the communal farm was not monastic.

Next in dealing with his employees. The monk is dedicated to living the Gospel, not to exploiting foreign workers. And how scandalous it is for workers and sub-contractors and professionals to leave the monastery grounds because of sharp, dishonest dealings on the part of a senior monk, saying, ‘I will never set foot here again.’!

Next, in viewing visitors and friends as sources of income, not as images of God.

Next, in dealings with the authorities. Let false papers be far from you and you will live in peace until you are resurrected in the resurrection of the just at the right hand of Jesus Christ the Lord.

Next in setting his standard of living. While a monk living in a coenobium might not own anything in his own name, the coenobium might be at a rather high economic level in comparison to the surrounding society. Here there is a problem with the educated Western monk: if the other members of his cohort are prosperous professionals, is he going to rest content living by the light of a kerosene lamp? Might not this be a mere quixotic romanticism? This is not to deny that there are great monastic saints that lived on berries in a lean-to, nor holy men that lived by the light of a kerosene lamp.

Here it is well to remark on the historical Russian dispute between the monasteries which were ‘possessors’ and those which were ‘non-possessors’. That is, between the monasteries which had great possessions and those which had none. As the dispute is usually presented, the bad guys were the ‘possessors’ following in the footsteps of St Joseph of Volokolamsk. But the merest glance at St Joseph’s homilies shows that he was a very spiritual man. The matter is not so simple as such a simple dichotomy would suggest.

However, surely a man becomes a monk today not to improve his lot but to improve himself. Poverty, says Evagrius, leads to humility.

Finally in pursuing wealth for its own sake, so that the monks can live as rentiers. Being a rentier opens a whole new can of worms for the Abbot, who has to send someone to business school to study business and investment and finance and taxation and—, so that that monk can deal with the business advisors of the monastery.

Through donations, St Pachomius’ Fourth-Century group of monasteries quickly became one of the wealthiest landowners of Egypt, to the dismay of the saint’s immediate disciples who watched the decay of the first spiritual ideal. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that the Pachomian monasteries died out so quickly.

However, theoretically, being a rentier entitles the monk to the free time necessary for prayer.

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