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.

Evagrius, Avarice, and Us

So, although I’ve fallen off the Read the Fathers cart (but hope to hop on again soon!), I’m still very much in the world of the Fathers. And since Thursday, I’ve returned a few times to the Desert Fathers and Mothers, who were my entry point into the patristic landscape of theology and spirituality.

This morning, over tea and toast, I read Evagrius Ponticus’ brief treatise ‘[To Eulogios.] On the Vices Opposed to the Virtues’, in Robert E. Sinkewicz, Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus (a translation of all the extant Greek versions of Evagrius’ ascetic writings). Herein Evagrius has some good things to say about anger, and I’ll probably blog on them soon.

But what caught my eye was ch. 3, ‘Avarice and freedom from possessions’:

Avarice is the parsimony of idols, the prophecy of the crowd, a vote for stinginess, a hoarding mentality, a wealth of captivity, a race of injustice, an abundance of illnesses, a diviner of many years, an enchanter for industriousness, a counsellor of sleeplessness, poverty of the belly, meagreness of foods, insatiable madness, a wickedness of many cares.

Freedom from possessions is the uprooting of avarice and the rooting of freedom from it, a fruit of love and a cross of life, a life free of suffering, a treasure free of envy, a heaven free of care, a sun without distraction, immeasurable matter, incomprehensible wealth, a scythe for cares, the practice of the Gospels, the world readily abandoned, a fast-running contestant. (PG 79.1141D; p. 63 in English)

I think every culture and every age is susceptible to certain of the Eight Thoughts* more than others, although all of us are beset by all of them to a greater or lesser degree. Today, we are hounded and beset on all sides by avarice — greed — in the ‘West’.

Many of us will not think that we are. But just as Cassian has thrown aside the veil covering our gluttony, so Evagrius here removes the mask of generousness that hides our avarice. Do you have ‘a hoarding mentality’? Does your desire for possessions or for money lead to injustice (whether directly by you or indirectly by companies and corporations)? Are you industriousness at work not for a job well done but a pay check well fattened? Do you worry about the fate of your earthly possessions — whether iTunes won’t allow you to pass your music on to your son or whether thieves will break in and steal?

Avarice is an attitude of the heart. When we are not free to give away our things or spend our money generously or give to the poor or loan things; when we feel a need to own that which we could as easily borrow — whether from a library or a friend; when we neglect other duties to make more cash; when we not only have an abundance but do not share that abundance with others; when we are never willing to open our homes up to friends and neighbours — we exhibit symptoms of avarice.

And the cure for avarice? Simplicity. As we shall see later.

*Although in this text, Evagrius gives us nine, adding Jealousy between Vainglory and Pride.