03 January 2009

St Benedict, Stoicism, & Modern Consumerism

Chapter 34 of the Rule of St Benedict concerns the rôle of property in the cœnobium. St Benedict cites Acts 4:35, modeling the monastery on the life of the early Church of Jerusalem, 'Distribution was made to every man according as he had need' (KJV). The idea is that the monks, when they are received into the community, give up their personal claims to property, and humbly receive back only what they need in order to get by (addressed also in RB 58). St Benedict then exhorts the monks not to be adversely affected by what they receive on the basis of this principle:

He that needeth less, let him thank God and not be discontented; he that needeth more, let him be humbled for his infirmity and not made proud by the mercy shown to him: so will all the members be at peace. (The Rule of St Benedict in English and Latin, ed. Abbot Justin McCann [Fort Collins, CO: Roman Catholic, n.d.], p. 87)

Interestingly, while much of St Benedict's Rule is either taken from or based upon the earlier Rule of the Master, this more original chapter is influenced instead by the Rule of St Augustine. Not having read the latter Rule before, I was intrigued to find in Adalbert de Vogüé's commentary on the RB (Reading Saint Benedict: Reflections on the Rule, trans. Colette Friedlander [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1994]) that St Augustine summarises his thoughts on this matter with 'an apt formula, inspired by Seneca, in which the best of pagan wisdom is enlisted in service of christian monasticism: true wealth consists in being content with little, for "it is better to have few needs than many possessions" (Praec. III.3-5)' (Vogüé, p. 188). By looking into the more extensive notes in Vogüé’s similarly brilliant The Rule of St Benedict: A Doctrinal and Spiritual Commentary, trans. John Baptist Hasbrouck (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1983), I discovered that the Senecan passage to which St Augustine refers is Epistolae ad Lucilium II.6 (published in English in Letters from a Stoic, trans. Robin Campbell [London: Penguin, 1969], p. 34). Vogüé concludes that this maxim 'is the exact opposite of the agenda of our consumer society and a true digest of the philosophy of monasticism: happy are they who cut back their needs' (Vogüé, p. 189)!

Of course, I know a lot of people, from Orthodox to atheist, who are more or less rejecting consusmerism and cutting back on needs, particularly in the current economic decline in the US. But lest we get too 'excited' about discovering this principle of monastic spirituality, Michael Casey reminds us:

Monastic poverty is neither glamorous nor romantic. It is a matter of choosing to go without, to make do with less, and to be content with little. In the eyes of most of our contemporaries it is not a goal worth pursuing. It is ugly and contemptible. . . . Real poverty in buildings and their furnishings is not the same as an aesthetic minimalism, which is usually quite expensive. Rather it involves using what is plain and commonplace—sometimes, everything else being equal, deliberately opting for what is cheap. . . . What Benedict says in speaking of monastic clothing [RB 55] can be taken as indicative of a general attitude. Apart from serving its purpose and fitting those who wear it, clothing should be chosen on the basis of what is locally available and what is less expensive—not imported from afar, no status brand names and high price tags: the sort of clothes that no respected denizen of the worldly city would want to be seen wearing. Benedict and the monastic reformers who followed him sought to deprive clothes and everything else that constitutes the monastic lifestyle of secular collateral meanings. (Strangers to the City: Reflections on the Beliefs and Values of the Rule of Saint Benedict [Brewster, MA: Paraclete, 2005], p. 79)

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