Earning our Living

In dealing with the question of how we earn our living in our monastic communities, we very quickly experience concrete and real anxieties which directly concern us and which constitute our priorities in daily life. Through our work we reveal a fundamental spiritual orientation, almost unconsciously, and we clarify major prospects for our community.

In this Bulletin, we are opening a survey on this very important topic for each one of us, both for our personal equilibrium and for the life of our communities. Straight away we are faced with questions on the nature of work, its relation with money (for work does not necessarily bring remuneration), on the overall activities of a community. The monastery is a body, as St Basil says so well in his Longer Rule (ch.7): "We are one body, with Christ as the head, and members of one another, each in his proper place". Inasmuch as our way of earning our living is a service to the community, so it embraces the local and universal Church, our neighbours, our region, our country and the whole of humanity.

Questions are often asked of us both from within and outside: What do you do? How do you ensure you have something to live on? Do your activities vary during the year? How do they contribute to a greater human and spiritual maturity of the brothers and sisters, to the human and spiritual progress of your guests, your neighbours, your country? Some monasteries have taken up these questions in order to examine their work.

Two basic reflections open this survey. They were given at the Council of AIM at Ealing Abbey in London in June 2000. The first, by Sister Josephine Mary Miller puts the emphasis on personal and community responsibility; the second by Abbot Thierry Portevin osb deals with education for responsibility in the tasks of common life. Work engages the whole person and is an expression of spiritual life and human maturity. It is an on-going concern in our communities. It is also valuable to keep a record of concrete experience, describing how a few communities earn their living.

For example, for Asia we give a detailed account of the activities of the Abbey of Shanti Nilayam, interesting in their diversity and their adaptation to the varied capacities of the sisters; then a photographic record from the Abbeys of Phuoc Son and Thien An. From Africa we have a synthesis of the reflections of the community of Koutaba in Cameroun, then an interview with four brothers from Madagascar describing their understanding of traditional wisdom; in Latin America we find newly devised or classical interpretations in Brazil. We can all benefit from these different approaches and shared experience as it is adapted to the local context.

Two points call for our attention: the importance of creativity and solidarity.

God has made us creative beings to whom he entrusted the earth (Gn.1:28) and in the parable of the talents Jesus lays stress on the way we use the talents entrusted to us (Mt. 25:14-30). In these accounts, we see how the sisters of Babete in Cameroun make soap and this soap is resold by a group of women who also earn their living in this way. At Mambré, Kinshasa, the monks make bread which is resold by fifty women in the markets and near the monastery. This kind of work demonstrates attention to the daily realities of the surrounding peoples. But snags can still arise; the basic ingredients may be lacking or of poor quality, electricity is regularly cut off; if a generator is used, the price of fuel triples the cost in a few days and, again, the project does not pay. That is the situation at present in the Congo. We discovered some very economic wood ovens in Italy; a brother suggested planting Leucena. These trees grow in three or four years and supply an excellent wood for joinery or burning. So, one things brings another and at the end of the chain we find God caring for his people, for the "human factor" in our monasteries and their surroundings if we press forward with our efforts to the end, without laziness or discouragement.

What about the future? The concrete situation of the communities in Africa, for example, continually produces new challenges which call for creativity and imagination. We need to find new sources, new means of earning and of supporting those living round about. Through AIM we can help you to utilize these new resources, and put you in touch with competent people who can encourage us. In these Bulletins, formation occupies an important place. We want also to share the way in which we earn our living and form our monks and nuns in this aspect. There is much to learn about the way we use our possessions, make them bear fruit, share our wealth with the very poor, develop our respect for human beings and develop our talents. Above all, the experience itself forms us. But the economic constraints are difficult to master and very often, in spite of our desire to integrate fully work and spiritual conversion, we risk becoming submerged by the necessity of earning money to the detriment of the in-depth study necessary for the life of faith. So it is good that we can present in the same number an Institute of Theology, ITIM, which enables monks and nuns to study in their own monastery and to work towards the integration of manual and intellectual activity, each nourishing the other.

In our monastic communities we have to think about a better circulation of money and greater mutual help. Money, like blood, is made to be circulated and used. It is not given for itself. The important thing is the encouragement of new initiatives and the creation of jobs in our communities. We have to learn to borrow to set up a project and to give the money back again to help other communities to do the same. Examples given by the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh have shown how common interests, however small, bring about unsuspected possibilities and open paths of humanity and hope for everyone. Could monastic communities take up of these challenges even in Europe, the USA and other continents?

We repeat: monastic life is a whole. Each occupies a unique place in the Body of Christ. A reflection on the way we earn our living is an invitation to a two-fold evangelical demand. The first is a call to carry forward creation by our work. The modern world has need of creative nuns and monks to help our contemporaries to live in a more human and responsible way. The road will be arduous and difficult. One obstacle overcome perhaps reveals another. Let us not be discouraged for all that. We are offered a demanding grace to venture further and find new resources for the good of all. The second task is to circulate the good things we have available, to give mutual help, to put our talents and our resources at the service of all and gradually to transform the life of our communities and those who visit us.

These beginnings will enrich the reading of the psalms and prayer of the heart, the centre of our life, considerations also offered in this number.

Martin Neyt osb

President of AIM