Thursday, October 2, 2014

CHAPTER 57: Monks with Skills

If there are skilled craftsmen in the monastery, let them work humbly at their art, provided that the abbot has given permission. But if the artist should grow proud because he is so good at what he does (as though he were doing the monastery a favor) he should be removed from that work and not return to it until he has humbled himself. If any of his work is to be sold, let a third party negotiate the sale, provided that they do not try to take advantage of the monastery. On the other hand, when it comes to setting a price for these items, they should be careful not to be greedy, but should set the prices a little cheaper than the competition, so that God may be glorified in all things.

Here in Chapter 57, Saint Benedict puts his money where his mouth is.  Every man comes to the monastery with a set of skills[1] and sometimes these skills can be very lucrative.  At my monastery, we’ve got monks from all kinds of backgrounds: professors, artists, musicians, soldiers, programmers, economists, physicists, mathematicians, writers…we even have a monk who worked in the movies!  And any one of these guys could be making a load of money at what they do.  But they gave it up to be contemplatives, so no matter how much wealth they might generate for the community, the abbot cannot allow their talent to get in the way of their holiness.  In the words of Saint Therese of Liseux, “without love, even the most brilliant deeds count as nothing” (The Story of a Soul).
Monks with skills!
But, the monastery isn’t a hangout for freeloaders either.  If the community can’t support itself, it has to shut down, so every abbey takes on a “work” of some sort.  Some monasteries brew beer, some bake cakes, some run farms, others run schools.  The work varies, but the purpose remains the same: to support and nourish the community’s prayer.  Thus, everything the monks do—working, sleeping, praying, playing—is done with that one goal in mind, which is why Benedict ends this chapter with a quote from Saint Peter’s second letter: “that in all things, God may be glorified”—ut in omnia glorificatur Dei. 
I have a friend who works in international business, and he made a resolution to put this philosophy into practice.  After a near-fatal car accident, he swore he would never close a deal that he wouldn’t take if he were on the other side of the negotiations.  At first, his partners were skeptical.  Was it a scam?  Was he nuts?  But then word started to get around the business community that if you wanted a fair deal, you could go to Jim, and pretty soon he was getting paid tons of money just to sit in on other peoples’ transactions and tell them whether or not they were fair.  As a business stratagem, honesty, simplicity and integrity are sound principles, which is why Saint Benedict’s monks could often afford to sell their goods for slightly less than market value.
But beware.  Holiness isn’t always profitable.  In fact, it could cost you everything.

[1] You know, like nunchuk skills, bow hunting skills, computer hacking skills...