The title of this essay may seem strange, almost an oxymoron. Monks are supposed
to steer clear of money, aren’t they? Saint Benedict begins his thirty-third chapter,
entitled “Should monks consider anything their own?” with a resounding condemnation
of private property for cenobitic monks: “This vice in particular must be torn up
by the roots, that anyone should presume to give or receive anything without the
abbot’s permission, or consider anything personal property, absolutely anything;
no book, no writing tablets, no stylus—nothing whatsoever.”
Someone who is not a monk, but knows monks well, might wonder about this statement.
Don’t monks have and use the same kinds of things that other people have and use?
Certainly the monk has the clothes on his back, and he has a room with furniture
in it, and he eats ordinary food. And then there is that watch on his wrist, and
the car he sometimes drives, and the computer on his table and on and on. How can
such a person claim to be following the Rule of Saint Benedict? If we examine the
quotation given above, as well as the rest of Chapter 33 of the Rule of Benedict,
we will notice that what is condemned is not use of goods as such, but rather the
attitude that says: “This is mine and I will do with it what I please.” The monk
must not say that.
Still, we might wonder what the monk’s vow of poverty is all about. Strictly speaking,
the Benedictine monk does not pronounce a vow of poverty at his profession. But in
fact such a vow is implicit in the promises he does make. Anyone who makes religious
vows in the Catholic Church has taken a vow of poverty. Indeed, such a vow is simply
included in the concept of Catholic “religious life.” Well, then, what is it? What
does it entail? Is it the same for every Catholic religious?
If we have some acquaintance with the life of St. Francis of Assisi, we might wonder
about this. Clearly, one of his basic convictions was the need to live a life of
complete dispossession. He set out to follow the poor Christ by depending on the
generosity of others for his daily sustenance. As far as we know, he and his earliest
disciples did manage to live pretty much by this standard. Nevertheless, the official
Church was never easy with Francis’ approach to religious poverty. And soon enough
the Franciscans became embroiled in a long internal conflict between those who thought
they must live without any possessions, and those who thought the community itself
needed to have a stable patrimony. Very few religious Orders since that time have
cared to repeat this interpretation of holy poverty.
Yet it cannot be denied that there is something very admirable about Franciscan poverty.
The spectacle of a group of people choosing to “live from God’s hand” by depending
entirely on the kindness of strangers, no one can deny that this is a demanding life!
But we should notice also that there is nothing intrinsically Christian about it.
For thousands of years the Theravada Buddhist monks of Southeast Asia have done exactly
the same thing. Every morning they line the roads of Thailand and Cambodia and Vietnam
with their begging bowls, and the Buddhist faithful respond with enough to keep the
monks alive for another day. They see it as a way of joining in the spiritual journey
of the monks without actually taking up their whole lifestyle.
Compared to this, the poverty of the Western Catholic monk or nun might seem pretty
pallid. Does it even merit the title “poverty”? That is a very good question, because
we should not throw words like this around loosely. What does it mean to be truly
poor? No doubt there can be a broad range of definitions, but all of them come down
to this: the poor do not know where their next meal is coming from, and they may
not know whether they will have shelter for the coming night. From that point of
view, we can probably even say that most Buddhist monks are really not poor. And
there is another suggested definition that ought to be considered: the poor lack
the education to improve their economic status. On this score, most western monks
do not qualify. It is a rare monk who does not have a decent education.
Getting back to Benedict’s approach to poverty in RB 33, it is obvious that his emphasis
is on dependency. The monk must not depend on himself for what he needs. It is hard
to imagine anything more at odds with the capitalist system in which we live. In
our society, people pride themselves on owning everything they need and depending
on no one else. It is a point of honor with them, and they tend to disdain people
that live otherwise. Isn’t this what we despise in Communism, that it teaches people
to depend on the state for everything?
The flip side of the Benedictine monk’s dependency is the responsibility of the abbot
and the community to provide everything that the individual members need for their
daily living. Benedict devotes a whole chapter (55) to just this matter, and in it
he repeats his curious little list of what the monks should be given: “cowl, tunic,
sandals, shoes, belt, knife, stylus, needle, handkerchief, writing tablets.” Nowadays,
we would substitute a rather different list, and surely we could argue about what
is really needed and not just wanted. But the point is the same: for this system
to work, people must get what they need. If they do not, we can expect that they
will begin to “take care of themselves,” and that is the beginning of the end for
At this point, the reader will perhaps be muttering to herself about infantilism.
Doesn’t this kind of system run a considerable risk of promoting unhealthy dependency
in its adherents? It certainly can. Many Benedictine monasteries (mostly of women)
have experimented with an “allowance” system in which the members must budget their
personal expenditures. No doubt this is done to make sure that the members “know
what a dollar is worth” and also know how other people need to worry about daily
life. Is it not an important part of adult responsibility to have to worry about
money? If a monk is spared that worry, does he or she not risk missing out on a crucial
part of “growing up”?
Actually, most of the people who join monasteries today have plenty of experience
of making a living. They have held responsible jobs and have lived by their own resources.
We do not need to teach them about that. But those of us who joined monasteries right
out of school are a different story. We have never really been “on our own.” We may
well need lessons from time to time on harsh economic reality and about how the “real
world” lives. But it is still true that our monastic poverty is essentially not a
matter of deprivation but of living from the common goods of the monastery. And there
is no doubt that this has its advantages. In a sense, it is a “life free from care.”
As John Cassian, the great fifth century monastic theologian put it:
In this way of life, then, there is no providing for daily work, no distractions
concerning buying or selling, no inescapable worries about the year’s supply of food,
no concern about the bodily matters that are involved in attending to the needs not
only of ourselves but also of our many visitors, and finally none of the arrogance
that comes from human praise, which is more unclean than anything else in the sight
of God, and which sometimes brings to naught even the great labors of the desert
The background for this remark of Cassian is the difference between the eremitical
(hermit) life and the cenobitical (communal) life. He points out that the hermit,
who is also a monk, does have to worry about his own livelihood. He does not have
a vow of poverty and he must take care of himself. The cenobite, however, possesses
nothing; but on the other hand he does not have to worry about such mundane matters
such as food and clothing. Now, many people in our society would certainly like such
a “life free from care”! They might not like having to ask for what they need, but
when it comes time to pay the monthly bills, they would not mind being free from
But isn’t it really too good to be true? Doesn’t somebody have to worry about such
things as food and shelter and heating? Of course, and we will talk about that matter
in the third part of this paper. But in reality the individual monk also must make
economic decisions. In most of our communities, the monk must buy his own clothes
and other personal items. Obviously, there is a wide range of quality in these items.
A pair of Florsheim shoes costs a lot more than those you get at Pay-Less. The abbot
or the procurator may balk at shelling out for Florsheims, but they cannot deny that
those shoes will last a lot longer than the Pay-Less variety. It is a matter of prudential
judgment, which some monks exercise better than others.
Quite a bit depends on what you are used to. If you come from a background in which
people wear Florsheims and are wont to repeat the mantra “You get what you pay for,”
then you will probably be unhappy with Pay-Less. If you come from a background where
they go barefoot all summer, then you are more comfortable at Pay-Less. Can both
kinds of people claim they are observing the vow of poverty? Probably. In RB 34,
Benedict says that the person who thinks he needs Florsheims should acknowledge that
he is weaker than one who does not. But Benedict does not deny that some people do
need Florsheims. And he insists that the only way to keep the whole group happy and
at peace is to give each one what he truly needs.
What is crucial is that the monk have a clear idea of his vow of poverty. To illustrate
this, take the following scenario, which almost every monk has experienced. At some
point in his life, usually a home visit, some well-meaning soul gives him a gift
of money (let’s say a twenty) with the remark: “Now this is for you! Don’t give it
to the monastery, spend it on yourself!” Of course, such people mean well. They sense
that the monk lives under a strict financial regime which they respect, but they
want to cut him a little slack. “You owe it to yourself!”
Well, alright, but the monk who has fully internalized the spirit of cenobitic poverty
will cringe. How would this friend or cousin feel if someone were to give him a twenty
and say: “Now this is for you! Don’t give it to your wife or kids!” Because the case
is the same. The married man has no slush fund of his own, and the monk doesn’t either.
Both of them are part of a body, and whatever they receive is for the body.
II: CORPORATE POVERTY
To begin this part, let me pronounce an axiom that I cannot exactly prove, but which
has become more and more apparent to me as I read the history of Western Monasticism:
“Monks are not Good at Supporting Themselves.” Now this may seem like a dubious dictum,
since many monasteries throughout history have been financially well off. They have
lived in beautiful buildings, dressed in elaborate and expensive habits, possessed
rich libraries and artworks, and so forth. How can I then claim that such folk are
not good at making a living? I would counter that these appearances can be deceptive.
Sometimes they are not at all a sign of a healthy monastic lifestyle, and they may
mask a positively dysfunctional economic system.
Take for example the situation of the monasteries in Feudal Europe. Most of the famous
abbeys of both men and women were built by the crown or the nobility. This is plain
to anyone who looks into the economics of building such huge, ornate structures.
For example, the roofspan of the vast abbey churches demanded the largest timbers
available; but since these timbers were almost always owned by the king for military
purposes, that meant that the king had to grant them to the monks. And so the monks
were immediately beholden to the crown. Likewise, many noble families built monasteries
on their property. It should not be thought that those monks and nuns were entirely
free from the control of their donors.
Even today the consequences of these beginnings perdure. In many European countries
the government owns the monastic buildings as national monuments. This is hard for
American monks and nuns to imagine, but it is taken for granted across the Atlantic.
Now of course this means that the government has to worry about maintaining those
structures, which is very nice for the monks. But with such “freedom from care” comes
the inevitable corollary that “there ain’t no free lunch.” The government then decides
what can be done with those buildings in terms of renovations, alterations and so
This kind of dependency is not intrinsically harmful to monks, but there are other
kinds that are definitely injurious. Thus most medieval monasteries were supported
by the “dowries” of the members. That meant that no one could become a monk or nun
who could not afford to bring along a considerable amount of money for personal upkeep.
Usually that meant that only the rich could become monks, and it is not surprising
that they often lived in high style. Worse still, many, perhaps most, of these people
really did not want to be monks at all. They were the younger children of the rich
nobility for whom there was no place in the feudal scheme of inheritance except in
a church career. And so economic considerations filled the monasteries with persons
who felt no vocation to the life. Is it any surprise that monastic morale often fell
to low levels?
Sometimes people set out to overturn this decadent system by revolutionizing monastic
finances. The Cistercians of the twelfth century are a prime case in point. They
deliberately refused to accept the dowries and lands of rich benefactors because
they did not wish to be corrupted by the consequences of the feudal system. They
wished to return to St. Benedict’s principle that “then they are monks when they
live by the labor of their hands” (RB 48.8). In order to do that, however, they had
to shorten the time spent in church at the liturgy. Presumably they tried to hew
closer to the time-table laid out by Benedict in RB 48. This horarium allows for
about four hours in church and six hours for work (plus three hours for lectio divina
and so forth).
Now it would be good to report that this return to the spirit and practice of Benedict
was a success. But in fact it was not. Soon enough the primitive Cistercians found
that they simply could not find enough time for work so as to make a living. What
to do? They instituted a second class of monks called “lay brothers,” who would be
able to work full days but who would not then be able to spend seven hours at the
Divine Office and in lectio divina. As a matter of fact, this two-level system persisted
in both Cistercian and Benedictine monasticism until the Second Vatican Council.
By and large, it worked pretty well, but it has been judged that the two-class system
is no longer a good solution for monasteries.
The system of lay brothers was a big improvement on the feudal system of endowed
monks. But it also had its downside. In order to support their usually large communities,
the Cistercians had to farm large tracts of land. And they had to farm it intensively.
When you read the history of the medieval Cistercians, you learn that this called
for a good deal of hardfisted management. Thus in England, a typical Cistercian abbot
spent much of his time in court fighting with the local land-owners in various disputes
over property rights. Worse still, the monks sometimes bought up property in such
a way that whole villages were driven off the land. None of this makes for edifying
One of the questions that might be asked about the case of the Cistercians is simply
this: Is St. Benedict’s timetable and economic system actually workable? After all,
they came as close as is normally possible to living according to the letter of the
Rule, but they could not make a living. Their solution, namely, lay brothers, is
not something envisaged by Benedict, and I am not so sure he would have approved
of it. Notice, please, that this is not meant to criticize the lay brothers! In my
estimation, they usually lived a monastic lifestyle closer to the ideal than did
the ordained monks. But they did not live according to RB 48.
Since the Rule of Benedict is usually thought of as a Rule based on lived experience
and not just theory, it is quite possible that Benedict and his monks actually did
manage to get along economically with the horarium he presents. But this horarium
begs a lot of questions that one needs to answer in order to create a coherent monastic
economy. For example, even Benedict’s seemingly admirable principle that monks should
live by the work of their hands is not as rock solid as it may appear. In the same
breath he tells the monks they should not be sad if they are so poor they have to
do the field work themselves. This implies that normally they would be able to hire
other people to work for them. Not exactly a symptom of what we usually think of
The next question that leads from the first is this: Where did they get the means
to be able to hire those field workers? Perhaps, if they were extraordinarily clever,
they figured out a way to raise cash crops that brought in enough income to support
both the choir monks and the hired field workers (peasants). But that is not very
likely. There were and there are a few monastic industries that are reasonably lucrative,
but they are the exception, not the norm. Very likely, Benedict’s monks were somewhat
dependent on the donations of people in the region. What did he think of that?
By and large, we get the impression that Benedict wants his abbot and his monastery
to be free from dependency on outside forces. But occasionally he says things that
make us wonder. For example, in RB 64.1-6, in speaking about the election of an abbot,
he takes up the possibility that the monks might elect an unworthy candidate. Then
what to do? “If these goings-on somehow come to the notice of the local diocesan
bishop, or to the abbots or Christians of the district, they must block the evildoers
from succeeding in their scheme.” But surely the “Christians of the district” would
include the benefactors of the monastery. Benedict seems to think they have a stake
in all this.
Rather than continue to discuss the theory and history of both individual and corporate
monastic poverty, let us descend from the general to the particular question of the
economy of Assumption Abbey. That is where this essay has been heading all along,
so it is time we get to the point.