Monastic Poverty and Common Ownership
Abbot Cuthbert Madden OSB comments upon chapter 54 and chapter 55 of the Rule of St Benedict. Abbot Cuthbert joined the community at Ampleforth in 1984. Since then, he has served the community in a wide variety of roles, including Sacristan and Master of Ceremonies, teacher of theology, biology and health education and later housemaster of St John's House in the College. In 2005, he was elected Abbot of Ampleforth.
There is, as we all know, a common misconception abroad that monks are called to live a life of poverty in much the same way as the Franciscans of an earlier age. Even the boys and girls in our schools – despite their living closely with us and the teaching they receive on monasticism, do not always fully understand the way we live and there are even those who cling to the idea that we have taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. This presents us with something of a challenge. The truth is that from the very earliest times it has been extremely difficult for monks to live in poverty. Even in the so-called “Golden Age” when monasticism flourished and the desert became a city, becoming a monk meant that one joined a stable way of life and immediately became the beneficiary of that way of serving God. From the earliest times men and women from “the world” showered gifts upon monks and to some extent this continues to the present day. Thus we need to ask ourselves what St Benedict is trying to create in the chapters we are considering.
I hope that you will agree with me that in the first place Benedict is attempting to create a society modelled upon the ecclesia of the Acts of the Apostles where the goods of the community are shared between the members of that community so that the human needs of all are met. We can see from these chapters, and from the chapters on food and drink, that Benedict expects his monks to be appropriately clothed, to be warm in winter, and to have enough to eat and drink. As we reflect on these chapters a little more deeply we see that Benedict's notion of the necessities of life is rather wider than one might at first expect: two habits, not one; pen, needle, writing tablets. These are items which go beyond the need to keep body and soul together. They presuppose a certain respect and care for what we have, and provide also the things necessary for the study which underpins our life’s work of prayer and lectio divina. Thus today we can take it that Benedict would expect the Abbot to provide the more modern, equivalent needs for his Brethren
.We also see in these chapters that Benedict underlines the need for equal treatment, particularly in his chapter on letters and gifts. These can only be accepted with the permission of the Abbot; and that may be given not to their recipient but to a monk with greater need. If the pause for a moment, we can understand this very well: the monk who has no family will not receive the gifts which a monk with a loving family may well receive. A monk possessed of a certain charm whose work brings him into contact with men and women outside the Community may well find himself the recipients of gifts which it is difficult or impossible to refuse but for which he has no real need. Even if he has the need, it might sometimes be more appropriate to give these gifts to others who have no one to give them things. Quite clearly the vice St Benedict wants us to avoid is the all too human trait of acquisitiveness: how easy it is to ensure that our cell is fitted out with all available creature comforts and in so doing create a situation in which covetousness among the monks who possess little flourishes. There is a real need for each of us to watch carefully over what we have in our cell: to ask whether we are really need this or that item, whether we really need this or that gift. It is so easy to be distracted from our real needs, from our real purpose, which is a living and loving relationship with the Lord.
At the same time as encouraging his monks to embrace a life in which they all have the same expectations for the same quality of clothing, footwear and so on, St Benedict also tells the Abbot that he must take into account the human frailty of his monks. As far as I understand this, it is a question of meeting the individual monk where he is. Sometimes his needs are different to those of his brethren: if he is a scholar he will need books, if he is an artist or artisan he will need the tools of his craft or trade. Generally speaking this does not cause upset. What is more difficult is the monk who is in some sense weaker than his peers, who has to be met halfway to the ideal and then drawn by stages to that ideal. There is a saying in the collection in dealing with Abba Arsenius who had been a senator in Rome where he is criticised for having sandals, a blanket and a bed. The questioner, a rough Copt, is upbraided for not remembering that Arsenius had come from a gentle background and had given up a lot to become a monk whereas he, the Copt, had actually gained a better standard of living by becoming a monk, despite the obvious austerity of his life.
In short, the ideal is that we truly live a common life but that we recognise with the charity of Christ the differences between us and try always to believe that the Abbot is doing his best to bring everyone, little by little, to that perfect love of Christ which casts out all murmuring within the Community and brings us all to everlasting life.