Insatiability, Medieval Benedictine Reform, and Freedom from Consumerism

Although I frequently blog about monasticism, I do not frequently blog about consumerism or the unholy economic system most of us help feed every day (I have, but I think that was elsewhere). Nonetheless, I think that strands within Christian asceticism may be part of the cure for consumerism as we find the satisfaction for our insatiability in the Infinite.

Today, my thoughts are inspired by my favourite living theologian, Miroslav Volf. In his essay ‘Hunger for Infinity: Christian Faith and the Dynamics of Economic Progress’ (ch. 6 of Captive to the Word of God), Volf discusses Weber’s discussion of our creation of an iron cage around us out of Baxter’s ‘light cloak’ of work, observing that insatiability has always been with us (Exhibit A: Ecclesiastes), but that modern capitalism has given it new drive and energy, creating false gods who live with us in the cage as we run the hamster wheel of production-oriented work.

As part of the cure, Volf recommends that we go back to a land before Baxter and the Puritans, to a worldview that acknowledges the vanity of vanities this toil can be yet which affirms work through the lens of Genesis and Eden. One of the realities about human nature that Genesis teaches us is that we were made for work. God placed us in the Garden specifically to work in it. Even in paradise, we do not lead idle lives if we are to be happy.

Volf calls us to work for the sake of a product, and to work for the sake of God. We should work because work itself is good, not because it will provide us with a paycheque or a good employee discount or what have you. Working is a property of human nature.

Product-oriented work, rather than production-oriented work, is part of a redemption of work in this vision. We are to work to produce something that is, in itself, a quality piece of human handiness. A well-harvested and well-grown field of wheat, a carefully-constructed PhD dissertation, an exquisite soup, a breath-taking fresco, a satisfied visitor to an historic landmark — these are to be the ends of our work, rather than more money, fulfilled quotas, more money, a new videogame system, more books, more, more, more.

The work should be oriented unto itself.

And if we turn our thoughts to the real God, the Trinity who created us as beings meant to work, we are working for him. We know that he is, to quote the old song, Jehovah Jireh, our provider. He will supply our needs. We work to encounter him and join him in the enterprise of supplying our needs. As we work within the finite realm of human toil, we can find ourselves caught up into the infinite realm of God’s Triunity.


Arbroath Abbey

This relates to monks, I promise. As history marched its way through the Middle Ages, Benedict of Nursia’s Rule became adopted by more and more monasteries, which were larger and larger than he’d intended the Rule to govern (it is meant for about 12 plus an abbot), and soon grew wealthier and wealthier as people left land in wills and made donations during their lives. Medieval monasteries would collect rents from the lands they owned, just like any other medieval lord.

The result was that, rather than leading the quiet, simple life designed by Benedict, one would end up with the paradoxically fat monk, feasting on meat and drinking wine in a richly-adorned monastery. Throughout the Middle Ages, various reform movements arose both amongst the monastic orders as well as the later mendicant orders (Dominicans and Franciscans). The last such reform movement in Scotland, alas, was the Reformation in the 1560s that, rather than making monasteries places of peace, holiness, and prayer once more, made them into piles of rubble. The most famous reform movement was the Cistercian Order, which had its own reform movement started from La Trappe, the Trappists (technically Cistercians of the Strict Observance).

I recently, whilst visiting Arbroah Abbey, one of Scotland’s multitudinous ruined abbeys, learned of the twelfth-century Benedictine reform order called the Tironensians. Founded in Tiron by St. Bernard d’Abbeville, the Tironensians sought to escape the wordliness of the twelfth-century Order of St. Benedict. They maintained the Benedictine order of daily prayer combined with physical labour.

It is that element of physical labour, something Tironensians share with Cistercians and Trappists, that draws the connection in my mind. St. Bernard wanted the monks of Tiron and their daughter abbeys to all learn a trade. Each monk was required to work with his hands as well as to preserve the daily round of prayers. This would keep them from idleness. It would probably also keep them from the temptation to worldliness, for they would be dependent on themselves, not rents and tithes, to keep themselves alive.

Tironensians led lives of prayer and work, praying in the monastery chapel, working in its gardens, tending its beehives, and doing maintenance on the building. Prayer and work. Work and prayer. These are the intertwined realities of the Benedictine life. If a monk is out working in the garden, and the bell rings for prayer, he is to pray on the spot. Nothing is more important than prayer, the Opus Dei. In making his monks all learn a trade, the importance of work was also highlighted by Bernard d’Abbeville.

Liberation Theology for Consumerists?

Perhaps we should follow in the footsteps of the Tironensians, the Cistercians, certain strands of Franciscans. We should work to produce a high quality product, and when it is time to pray, we should drop everything and pray. We would free ourselves from the hamster wheel of consumerism. We would turn ourselves towards the infinite God, finding there the source of contentment in the face of human insatiability.

All we need to do is ask God for this strength, for the divine reality to enter into our reality. Or to move our reality into his. To take our work — be it essay-writing, preaching, serving people at McDonald’s, collecting garbage, gardening, teaching Latin, historical interpreting — and acknowledge it as good in and of itself. And then to take that work and give it to God in faith that he, and not our productivity, will supply all our needs — and not necessarily our wants.

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