Benoît-Joseph Pons[1]

 

Monasteries as centres
of an alternative and durable economy

 

Principles of monastic economy

How can a group of men or women who live a life based on economic principles opposed to those of the accepted model be inspired by the solutions to problems accepted by today’s world? This is the objective of our quest.

Monastic life is built on four pillars, namely prayer, work, lectio divina, and community living. This lectio is the reading of a spiritual text prolonged by personal reflection, meditation and possibly prayer inspired by the text. Monks and nuns normally consecrate to it one or two hours each day. The monastic economy is shaped around these pillars and rests upon two essential principles, disappropriation and an economy of need.

 

Disappropriation

In the Rule of St Benedict disappropriation is founded on the principle ‘to prefer nothing to the love of Christ’. In practice it is expressed by the two principles which follow:

‘Above all it is necessary to uproot totally the vice of possession’ (RB 31.1) and ‘Everything is shared by all, as it is written, “Let no one call anything belonging to him his own nor have the temerity to appropriate it’” (RB 33.6).

The Rule also says, ‘No one should have the temerity to give or receive anything without the authorization of the abbot, nor possess anything as his own, whatever it may be, since it is not allowed to the monk to have at his own disposal even his own body or his own will’ (RB 33.2-4).

In other words, the monk may not possess anything as his own, neither a material nor an immaterial possession. Not disposing of the body means chastity; not disposing of the will means obedience. In practice not owning goods which are put at his disposition means taking the greatest care of them. The Rule instructs the cellarer to ‘regard all the objects and all the goods of the monastery as the sacred vessels of the altar’ (RB 31.30).

‘If anyone treats the objects of the monastery improperly or negligently he should be corrected’ (RB 32.4).

Monastic disappropriation generates the need for solidarity and absence of professional competition. An office is a service which does not belong to anyone. It is given by the abbot in function of personal aptitudes and the needs of the monastery. It is not for anyone’s personal
advantage.

Many monasteries practice ‘collation of offices’. Every three years or whenever it seems appropriate each monk renders his office to the abbot, who decides whether to reinstate him in the office or to give him a different office. It is not an arbitrary decision, for it is matured with the Council, the monks who help the abbot in his decisions, and with the people concerned. But every monk knows that at a given moment in his life he can hold an important position and then find himself in a much more modest post. In a monastery there is no such thing as a career.

The idea of not putting competition at the centre of interpersonal relationships is fully developed by Pope Francis in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, an idea inspired by St Francis:

‘Francis received true peace of mind, he was free of all desire for supremacy over others; he made himself last of all and sought to live in harmony with the whole world’ (FT 4).

 

Economy of Need

PonsImariAn economy of need is defined in chapter 34 of the Rule, entitled ‘Whether all should receive equally what is needed’. It rests on the idea of a return to the idyllic time of the first Christians described in the Acts of the Apostles, ‘Distribution was made to each as any had need’ (Acts 4.35; RB 34.1). There is no question of considering each person as a mere number and identical. On the contrary, each is different and has particular needs. The Rule says, ‘Someone who needs less should thank God and not be upset. Someone who needs more should be humble and not puffed up because of the kindness shown to him. Then all the members will be at peace’ (RB 34.3-5).

The economy of monastic needs comprises two elements: everyone receives according to his needs and everyone contributes according to his means. So not every member of the community receives the same things. Each member is given what he needs, in function of his particular situation. In the organization of the work of monks someone who is young and gifted gives everything he has; someone who is elderly and less gifted contributes according to his means.

In monastic shops or workshops the work of the monk contributes to the remuneration of the community. But this remuneration is not linked to the work done. It is calculated on the basis of the needs of the person working, whether the work is basic or requires high qualifications.

 

Monastic economy as an alternative and lasting economy

These two functional principles make a monastery a special society. It is not a museum of customs of a previous age, for it is a place where people live in the present. It is not a laboratory, for there is no social experimentation. It is the place of an alternative economy because it puts to the world questions about its practices while trying to inspire new solutions to problems which occur. I limit myself to the examination of the question of work.

 

Work

PonsQuilvoIn the world work serves to produce goods and gain a remuneration which makes it possible to procure other goods. This is the basis of a liberal economy. This exchange of goods is an occasion of interpersonal communication. Work serves to establish a social hierarchy and is an element of recognition on the part of others and oneself.

Karl Marx defines three forms of alienation at work: when the remuneration represents only a small part of the value of the goods produced, when the work serves only to gain a salary, when the worker cannot exercise a free physical and intellectual activity.

In the monastery disappropriation creates a complete disassociation between work and remuneration. In this way of functioning the three forms of alienation in work disappear. Since the monk has no contact with remuneration he does not compare it to the value of the product. The primary aim of the work he does is not a salary. Finally, monastic work is generally of the artisan type, which leaves the worker more liberty of action than a production-line.

Work may be considered to have three possible aims: work to get a salary, work to be acknowledged by others and the worker himself and – for a Christian – work to share in the creative work of God.

 

Work to get a salary

John Galbraith underlines a paradox:

‘The word “work” applies simultaneously to those for whom it is exhausting, boring, disagreeable and to those who take pleasure in it and are not at all constrained. “Work” indicates at the same time an obligation imposed on the first group and the source of prestige and remuneration which the others ardently desire and in which they take pleasure.”[2]

In a liberal economy remunerations are defined by two recognized forces alone, the Market and the Law. Globally it is the Market which determines values; the Law frames them in order to limit abuse of them, remuneration of trainees, limitation of work-hours, prohibition of child-labour, etc. The Law is relatively effective in regulating low salaries; it is totally ineffective in the control of higher salaries.

Monks of today do not wish to live on public charity. They are aware of the need of work to sustain their community. But since the work does not offer any personal advantage, remuneration or consideration, the nature of the work undertaken loses its importance: there is no fundamental difference between running the business or sweeping the cloister. These are merely services corresponding to the capacity of each person and the needs of the community. Therefore there is no competition for the posts.

 

Work to be acknowledged

Apart from the salary, recognition is an important motivation. The amount of the salary is in practice itself an element of this recognition. The quest for recognition often translates itself into a quest for power, or the self-image or for the material advantages which it provides. In the world power is measured by the number of persons under somebody’s command, the spread of business generated, etc. The image given to family and friends is very important and can hugely influence behaviour. Everyone gains personal recognition by being useful to one’s business, family or community.

In contrast to salaried work, for monks work as a means of personal achievement is important. Someone who does work useful to the community appreciates the gratitude of the community, and if this is not given it is a trial.

 

Work to participate in the creative work of God

PonsTogoIn the Christian conception Man was created in the image of God: ‘God said, “Let us make Man in our own image, our own resemblance, and let them master the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven, the cattle, all the wild animals and all the creatures that creep along the earth”’ (Genesis 1.26). The fact that Man was made in the image of God gives a particular dignity. This dignity does not rest on possessions, success or appearance. The authority attributed to a person is to the image which is of God, an authority of love. The theology of continuous creation opposes the idea that creation is no more than a construction of a vast machine which functions on its own. God continues to intervene in the world, and Man, made in the image of God, is called to contribute to this intervention. Man, created in the image of God, participates by his work in the work of the Creator, and continues according to the measure of his capacities to develop and complete it, progressing in the discovery of resources and values included in the whole of the created world.

Thus work, especially in its monastic conception, is not simply individualistic and utilitarian, to earn a salary and gain recognition. It is to realize a work, in the sense given by Hannah Arendt. It is a community vision because what counts is the contribution to the world.

In the nineteenth century an expression developed, ‘the labour of a Benedictine’, which means a long labour, requiring a lot of patience. This care for work well done is linked to the obligation to take care of all the goods of the monastery. The Benedictine conception of work presupposes consecration to what is useful, avoidance of dedication to zeal and piety and trifles, as Dom Bertrand Rolin explains with reference to chapter 48 of the Rule, entitled ‘The daily manual labour’:

What is important in this chapter is that it should be truly ‘work’. The ‘work’ to be done, says the Rule, that is what is useful to the life of the community and to its functioning, whatever its valuation by society may be.[3]

How often do we make things perfectly useless, but which we show around because they demonstrate our skills!

 

Work and remuneration

In the monastic economy there is complete dislocation between work and remuneration – which is far from the case in the world. In the monastery the abbot has to find a person for each task and a task for each person. There is no such thing as a strike. This has two consequences. The first is that the existence of a function does not depend on the balance between what it costs and what it brings in. Even if a vegetable garden costs more than buying the vegetables in a supermarket, the fact that this gives work to someone must be taken into consideration. The second concerns the question of a strike and its compensation. Should priority be given to ending the strike or to compensation? Traditional politics suggest that the strike should be defused by compensation to the workers. Action against the strike seems normally to be guided by the need to control the cost of the compensation. However, as we have seen, work is certainly a source of revenue, but not only that. To indemnify the strikers is necessary, but that is not the whole story: they must be given work. This is a matter of the dignity which Pope Francis stresses in Fratelli Tutti.


Conclusion on Work

The monastic conception of work applies not only to monks. It inspires also oblates, those layfolk who are seeking to live the Rule in the world in partnership with a community. It rests on a teaching issuing from the tradition but also adapted to the world of today. Monks have no hesitation in using ultra-modern machines in their work. It claims to inspire the world with a way of progress, to inspire both Christian and non-Christian by different aspects.

I stress the idea that work need not be merely a source of revenue. Work should be an element of personal development, and this development incidentally does something useful for the community. For a worker on the bottom rung of the ladder it must be possible that it should make him proud of what he is doing. For someone who has hierarchical responsibility it means that he organizes the work of his fellow-workers so that they should be able to expand in what they are doing. For politicians and administrators it is not enough to solve the strike: they must reduce strikes.

From another point of view it is necessary that work should give a livelihood to a person. Any fair commercial movement or the AMAP[4] will advance in this direction.

Work must be a place not of competition but of co-operation.

Finally, to work more in order to earn more and to consume more is irresponsible from the moment that necessities of life have been satisfied. This puts the question of the place of growth in our economic analyses. This opens up also the question of publicity. One modern aspect of monastic life consists in remaining free of the urge to consume more; this is particularly true of limiting access to the internet. Publicity is not bad in itself, but its usage needs to remain under control.

 

The reception of the encyclical Laudato Si’ in monasteries

PonsThienBinhThe publication of the encyclical Laudato Si’ has occasioned a wave of enthusiasm in ecological circles, even non-Christian ones. They consider it a confirmation of their thesis, passing airily over the points which upset them, such as the defence of life. Paradoxically, in monastic milieux it has taken time to sink in, although documents of the magisterium are generally welcomed. To understand this paradox I suggest an hypothesis: while militant ecologists have seen in it a veritable revolution in the social teaching of the Church, monks have initially seen it as no more than a new expression of the truth they have been living since the beginning.

Monastic life is a life of prayer, essentially community prayer, which depends on singing the psalms. The psalter contains 150 psalms, which monks normally sing in their entirety every week. Several authors have worked on the ecology of the psalms, others on the psalms of nature or of creation. 51 psalms fit into at least one of these categories; in other words, an important part of the psalter is ecological. So a monk, unless he is totally unaware of what he is singing, is naturally an ecologist without knowing or recognizing it.

After a certain period of maturation many monasteries have adopted the encyclical when they have realized that it is a brilliant formulation of what they try to live, and this has helped them to make progress.

The main contribution of the monastic economy to the ecological question is ‘happy sobriety’. This is an expression developed by Pierre Rabhi which has been in a way constitutive of monastic spirituality since the beginning. For Pierre Rabhi the resources of the planet are limited, Fossil resources are not renewable and the capacity of the biosphere to absorb pollution is limited.

The notion of limit is constitutive of Christian faith. Already in Genesis (2.17) God says, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil’. This notion of limit is opposed to the idea that techno-science will give Man an unlimited power over his environment. In Laudato Si’ Pope Francis affirms that technological development is good, but only on condition that it is accompanied by human development of responsibility, value and conscience.

Pierre Rabhi claims that economic growth is unrealistic and absurd. It is a prime agent of death. Hence it is necessary to set up a politic of civilization built on sobriety. We must learn to satisfy our vital needs with the simplest and healthiest means. By speaking of the conversion of hearts Laudato Si’ says the same thing. In Christian language Pierre Rabhi’s happy sobriety comes back to respect for creation and care for future generations, for whom it is our duty to leave a habitable environment.

But monastic happy sobriety differs from ecologists’ happy sobriety. While ecologists base it essentially on the protection of natural resources and the environment, monks base it also on a social aspect: superfluous consummation amounts to depriving other people of their necessities. In an ecologist’s vision it is necessary to work less in order to destroy less resources. That is the opposite of growth. In a monastic vision it is a matter less of working to produce more than of producing what is needed for one’s own needs or those of the community, since it is necessary to share with those who lack the means to produce everything they need.

 

Conclusion

By this rapid presentation of monastic economics as an alternative and durable economy we have identified several aspects which can inspire the world. The value of work as a means for personal development, the potential evils of competition in economic relationships, the search for consumption as a source of happiness. This leads on to the value of the idea of a happy sobriety which may be considered not only under the environmental aspect but also under its social aspect. In the prolongation of the proposition it would be necessary to raise the question of social inequality. Monastic life makes it possible to avoid the snare of an unsupportable imbalance. The economy of needs questions radically the principle of equality.

The word ‘pax’ is the Benedictine motto. St Benedict presents it as an advantage which we should seek avidly. It is the word which best sums up the harmony typical of the existence of a monk. In the Prologue to the Rule St Benedict prescribes a search for peace and the ceaseless pursuit of peace. This search for peace is linked to the search for God - two aims which run into each other. Monastic economy, based on disappropriation and the economy of need, to which are added non-competition and a happy sobriety, puts forward means to achieve peace. It is peace that makes the organisation durable.

 

[1] The author is a French agronomic engineer. He began his career in industry as a researcher in the microbiology of food. From there he became the manager of an enterprise in pharmaceutical chemistry. He also has a licence in theology and a doctorate in economics from the Faculty of Social and Economic Science of the Institut Catholique of Paris. At present he is a faculty member of the Chaire Jean Bastaire of the Catholic University of Lyon. He is the author of ‘L’économie monastique, une économie alternative pour notre temps’ (2018).

[2] John Galbraith, Les mensonges de l’économie – Vérité pour notre temps (Bernard Grasset, Paris 2004, p. 34).

[3] Bertrand Rollin, Vivre aujourd’hui la Règle de saint Benoît – Un commentaire de la Règle (Vie monastique no 16, 1983, p. 54).

[4] Associations for the Maintenance of Peasant Agriculture. These are intended to help peasant and biological agriculture, which has difficulty holding its own in competition with the agronomic industry. The principle is to establish a direct link between farmers and consumers, who engage to buy the production at a fair price and to pay in advance [editorial note].