Rule of St. Benedict: Ownership

Most of my thoughts on the Rule of St. Benedict are inchoate and in flux.  One that I’ve been kicking around for a long while has to do with ownership.  Like my other work on the Rule, this starts out as a school-centered idea but it applies pretty easily.  Let’s call this a pre-draft of a talk I’ll have to give some time in the future.

The Rule does not command a vow of poverty, as the later mendicant movements (that’s Dominicans and Franciscans, for the newly-initiated) would do.  Historically this has led to successful monasteries becoming, at least for a time, centers of vast wealth.  The great reform movements in monastic history–as well as the fore-mentioned mendicant movement –all strove to overturn, reverse, and prevent the spiritual rot in monasteries that this wealth accumulation inevitably caused.

Given my Franciscan education and general attitudes about human nature, the mendicant way seems, in many ways, best to me.  But that makes appreciating the genius of the Rule on this point easier, ironically–I have to study it as something a bit strange.

Here, start with a quotation from RSB 33:

This vice especially
is to be cut out of the monastery by the roots.
Let no one presume to give or receive anything
without the Abbot’s leave,
or to have anything as his own–
anything whatever,
whether book or tablets or pen or whatever it may be–
since they are not permitted to have even their bodies or wills
at their own disposal;
but for all their necessities
let them look to the Father of the monastery.
And let it be unlawful to have anything
which the Abbot has not given or allowed.
Let all things be common to all,
as it is written (Acts 4:32),
and let no one say or assume that anything is his own.

The most important thing to say about this is that it has nothing to do with theories of private ownership.  Sometimes commentators play up the link between the Rule and communism, but that’s misplaced here.  This is all about obedience, which is by far the most important theme in the Rule.  When a man enters the monastery, he willingly hands over his entire life to the Abbot, who stands in the place of Christ.

Why do such a thing?  Training in the spiritual life.  The Abbot (or Abbess) provides a “safe space” for the monk to practice that detachment from the world and holy abandonment to God that is the essence of the spiritual life.  This renunciation of property is of a piece with that larger abandonment.  The monks, like the hermits before them, try to live out as literally as possible the dominical sayings in the Sermon on the Mount.  It is an imitation of Christ as St. John depicts Him in his gospel: the one who came to do the will of the Father, which is his very subsistence.

What is at first baffling, no doubt because of my own attachments, is how these men and women could have built an entire continent.  The very ones who renounced the world so utterly in turn created music, literature, architecture, agriculture, and cities as we know them.

The immortal works for which they labored over multiple lifetimes could only be conceived and completed by people who did not view the thing as their own.  How many tasks do we consider and then abandon because we can never finish them?  How much do our modern marvels rely on the vanity of men and women who found ways to compress their work into a single lifetime?  How often are they done on the backs of slaves, or a paid equivalent?

For the monk it is a matter of simple obedience to work well at a task they will never see completed; the corporate person, the monastery, will live to see its completion (maybe).  Many of my students have parents who run small businesses.  I ask them each year: what could your parents accomplish if they lived 12 lifetimes?  That’s how monasteries became the centers of everything in Europe.

It is precisely by letting go of our attachment to the things of this world that we are liberated to do great things.  Babel was impressive, but it’s nothing compared to what the quiet men of prayer built over their lifetimes.  This is the spirit of St. Paul’s letters: God has chosen the weak.  And of the Baptist: he must increase, I must decrease.

Ok, neat.  But I’m a husband and a father.  I pay taxes.  If I renounce everything in the world, my house will be repossessed and my children will starve.  What am I to do?

The fundamental insight of chapter 33, it seems to me, is that none of this is mine.  By this, I mean everything.  The monk is expected to make regular and productive use of the tools of the monastery, but they are never his.  My monastery is the world: my home, my job, my city and all the rest.  None of it is, on the final analysis, mine.

All of us understand only too well the impulse to preserve what is our own.  The Rule is challenging us to transfer that reverence for what is ours– which is really just an extension of our reverence for ourselves–to things that are not ours.  Self-cupidity is our deepest spiritual malady, and our love of mammon flows directly out of it.  What kind of inner transformation would we effect if we loved what is not ours that way?

I don’t know how to translate this into every work space of the world, but I know what it means for me as a teacher at St. Anselm’s Abbey School.  It’s not my classroom.  It’s not my 40 minute period.  It’s not my room of students.  It’s not my course material.  And while the world may say, “You’re justifying doing nothing, then,” I know the opposite to be true.  I tremble to think of how I should care for these things that are not mine.  Ever borrowed something truly valuable from a friend and dreaded to break or mar it in anyway?  View the entire world that way, and instead of being paralyzed by fear, do excellently.  I believe Christ may have had a parable or two on the subject.

The hard part as a father and a teacher is that I also have to stand in the place of the Abbot.  Gulp.  How do I teach my children to revere the things of others?  And still retain my rightful, necessary authority over them?  And make sure they don’t stab each other with pencils?  Then the things of the monastery are in fact mine, even as I try to live as a simple monk and abandon all things.  What’s a fool like me to do?  I guess, quelle surprise, St. Paul was right when he talked about the burden of marrying and living in the world.  But he also told us to be mutually submissive and obedient to one another, so maybe start there.  I don’t have any better answer than that, and a Psalmist’s cry to God for help as the waters cover over me.

Don’t read a theory of ownership.  Read a deeply unsettling challenge to view the world in a new way, and love it in a new way.


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