Stuff, stuff, and more stuff: Desert Fathers and Consumerism

Reflecting on broad lessons we can take away from late antique and early medieval ascetic texts such as the Rule of St Benedict, I think three of the biggest are: community, prayer, and property. More and better of the first two, less and better of the third. This is something that emerges time and again in these sorts of texts, my post yesterday being but one of many (links at bottom).

Here are some Sayings of the Desert Fathers, from Sister Benedicta Ward’s translation of the same name, to ponder:

Abba Andrew said, ‘These three things are appropriate for a monk: exile, poverty, and endurance in silence.’ (p. 37)

Epiphanius of Salamis also said, ‘God sells righteousness at a very low price to those who wish to buy it: a little piece of bread, a cloak of no value, a cup of cold water, a mite.’ (p. 59)

Abba Euprepius helped some thieves when they were stealing. When they had taken away what was inside his cell, Abba Euprepius saw that they had left his stick and he was sorry. So he ran after them to give it to them. But the thieves did not want to take it, fearing that something would happen to them if they did. So he asked someone he met who was going the same way to give the stick to them. (p. 62)

A brother questioned Abba Euprepius about his life And the old man said, ‘Eat straw, wear straw, sleep on straw: that is to say, despise everything and acquire for yourself a heart of iron.’ (p. 62)

Abba Theodore of Pherme had acquired three good books. He came to Abba Macarius and said to him, ‘I have three excellent books from which I derive profit; the brethren also make use them and derive profit from them. Tell me what I ought to do: keep them for my use and that of the brethren, or sell them and give the money to the poor?’ The old man answered him in this way, ‘Your actions are good; but it is best of all to possess nothing.’ Hearing that, he went and sold his books and gave the money for them to the poor. (p. 73)

It was said of Abba Theodore of Pherme that the three things he held to be fundamental were: poverty, asceticism, flight from men. (p. 74)


I find meditating on these words and turning them over to find what they really mean and what they might mean for my life very useful.

Other posts on the topic:

A Saying of the Desert Fathers and the Drive to Consume

Insatiability, Medieval Benedictine Reform, and Freedom from Consumerism

Simplicity: Freedom from avarice and anxiety

Asceticism Is Good for the Environment

Blogging Benedict: Property

Quark from Star Trek: Deep Space 9, a Ferengi for those who don’t know what a Ferengi is

When one enters a monastery, there is an expectation to give everything up — family, career, bank account, life insurance, land, houses, cars, boats, combs, clothes, shoes. Everything. In some of the extreme forms of religious life, such as early Franciscans and related enterprises, there was even an attempt for the community as a whole to own nothing — not even the land where there housing was located.

The biblical inspiration for this is found in several places. Here are two:

If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me. (Mt 19:21 ESV)

So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. (Lk 14:33 ESV)

The first of these inspired St Antony to abandon everything and take up the ascetic life.

Yet humans, like Ferengi, have a tendency to be greedy. You would think from some of the stories of monastic life that one of the rules of the cloister was Rule of Acquisition 21: Never place friendship above profit. John Cassian tells of monks who had abandoned everything to dwell in the desert, only to come to grief and anger over a comb.

A comb.

Greed, as Rule of Acquisition 10 says, is eternal.

Benedict is aware of the Ferengi side of humanity. Thus, the cellarer (chapter 31) is to be a man of good character who does not treat the monastery’s resources as his own. There is to be no private ownership in the monastery (chapter 33), inspired by Acts 4:32:

Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. (ESV)

In such a situation, you must trust God more than your material goods. What about the future? Isn’t it prudent to set a little aside? We all say, ‘Yes.’ The monks of old say, ‘No.’ I honestly don’t know.

What is certain is that Benedict is certainly correct to have grumbling over material goods a grave offense that leads to ‘strict discipline’ (chapter 34).

Somehow we need to discover in our own consumeristic world where we accumulate all manner of stuff how to hold these things lightly and break free from the acquisitive nature of society around us. We need to be Benedictine, not Ferengi, in our out look on material goods.

St Nicholas vs Santa Claus

I am not, by and large, anti-Santa. But this morning, I’ve been re-thinking him a bit (and not my thesis that Santa Claus is Jesus) and have decided to now pit him against St Nicholas of Myra (saint of the week here), whose feast day was a week ago.

My inspiration for this comes from a few things in my Facebook feed this morning. First, a great piece called ‘Why My Family Says “No” to the Santa Claus Myth‘ over at Sojourners, which gives spiritual and economic reasons to reject raising your children with a belief in Santa Claus. In the article, Tara C. Samples explains that, while the myth of a jolly elf bringing children presents may have served a purpose in Christianity’s past (although I doubt it, and get the sense she does too), today it only serves to reinforce economic disparity, consumerism, and commercialism.

In fact, Santa Claus has so become the focus of this, the most popular (though not the chief) feast of the Christian year, that two, admittedly awesome, brothers who have had their photo taken with Santa every Christmas for 34 years are Viral Nova’s Christmas heroes. I mean, it’s a cool tradition, and I like the idea of doing geeky, ‘kid’ stuff well beyond the acceptable age limit. But, really — Christmas heroes?

So then I watched an allegedly ‘heart-warming’ video of Westjet employees staging a Santa to buy gifts for people flying from Toronto to Hamilton.* [CORRECTION: They were flying from Toronto & Hamilton to Calgary.] It probably would have been have somewhat heartwarming if Sojourners hadn’t already warmed my heart in a different way. Instead, all I saw was consumerism being celebrated in the modern-day feast of stuff. People were crying over cameras. A kid who looked around 10-12 got an Android tablet (which strikes me as irresponsible on Westjet’s part; the parents may have already got him one OR have had a good, non-economic reason not to). One family got a ginormous TV and were weeping. Lots of people who have watched this video seem to have cried over it.

The only gift I thought was really great was the gift of plane tickets home for one lady. That’s better than just more crap to fill your house with.

And I get it. A fairly sizeable corporation spent its advertising money on making people happy instead of yet another billboard. People got what they wanted. Mind you, these are all people who seem to fly between Toronto and Hamilton,* [CORRECTION: They were flying from Toronto & Hamilton to Calgary.] so — unless family sprang for their tickets (as lovely, generous families do) — they are unlikely to be especially destitute.

So, 400 words in, here we go. Santa Claus has taken over Christmas.

And, with him, the cult of buying, of shopping, of consuming, of stuff, stuff, stuff. I want a choo-choo train. I want socks and underwear. I want a big screen TV. I want a new camera. I want, want, want. Me, me, me.

I still believe in gift-giving. I think it a lovely, happy tradition when friends, family, and loved ones choose to bless one another in the form of thoughtful gifts that reflect on that relationship. You know, wives who buy their husbands underwear the Lenten shade of purple. Or parents who pay for tickets for their children to go to live musicals which otherwise they would miss. Or friends who buy you that book you were dying to have  but couldn’t justify purchasing. Or you find that oddity that perfect for that one friend.

Gift-giving is an expression of love and caring.

But the cult of consumerism has gone too far when people in atheist countries go Christmas shopping and commit suicide over it all. And this is where Santa Claus drives us, because when he becomes the focus of Christmas, the gifts become the focus of Christmas, and thus the shopping and the conspicuous consumption, and the reinforcement of the unjust economic systems that we are all part of and none of us does anything about.

St Nicholas is far better.

St Nicholas of Myra is a bit of a tough character to untangle historically. As John Anthony McGuckin explains in his fantastic lecture on the saint (which I can no longer find), at some point all the Nicholases were put on the same date in the Byzantine calendar. As a result, their stories sort of blended into one another and he became a legendary figure of superholy proportions.

Here’s what we can say about St Nicholas the Wonderworker as an example for us, whether legend or fact:

  • He was on the Nicene side of the Arian-Nicene debate. St Nicholas upholds orthodoxy.
  • He was born wealthy but gave it all up (like so many Byzantine saints) to become a monk. He gave his wealth to the poor.
  • He was called out of monasticism to become Bishop of Myra (southern Turkey today). He was selfless and served his community as his spiritual discipline, not retreating from the world.
  • He gave dowries to young women to save them from being sold into sex-slavery, thus combatting an unjust socio-economic system (even if he could not change it at large, he changed it for them).
  • He saved young people from drowning — once again, selfless sacrifice serving others.

Whom would you rather take as your inspiration this holiday season? An elf who reinforces our greed, instilling it in our children when very young, or a saintly bishop who gave up his wealth to dedicate his life to God and the service of the poor?

And then, let us ask ourselves: Are we seeking to live in the example of Christ, our king and leader, and his saints through the ages?

*Who flies from Toronto to Hamilton? Maybe Toronto was their layover. I hope so. Seriously, people. Take the GO Train. [CORRECTION: They were flying from Toronto & Hamilton to Calgary.]

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.