We Are All In This World Together

We Are All In This World Together December 19, 2023

Ludek: Monk Out And About In The World/ Wikimedia Commons

While asceticism is meant to help spiritual seekers transcend normal, day to day, “worldly” experiences, it was and remains impossible for anyone, including the greatest ascetics, to live their lives completely independent from the world. Everyone will be affected by what happens in it.

Everyone has basic needs which must be met, needs which include (but are not limited to): food, shelter, and clothing. No one can satisfy all their needs by themselves. We need each other, not only to supply our material needs, but also to make sure our spiritual needs are met. Love is a primary need; not only do we need to experience the love others can give to us, we must also know what it is to love and both require us to associate with other people.

When we love someone else, we understand ourselves better. We learn that we cannot become so attached to ourselves, thinking we can and should make any good which we obtain a private good for ourselves alone. We learn that what is good is meant to be shared with others, for then it can and will grow, and in doing so, we not only will find the lives of others are improved, but ours are made better as well.

This is why it should not be surprising the ascetics of all kinds, from hermits, to those living in a monastic community, could not completely cut themselves off from the world. They continued to have all kinds of connections to the world, even to secular society. They had to earn their keep. They had to make sure they paid their duties to society, which is why they could be and often were taxed, both by secular authorities, but also religious ones. They knew that if Jesus paid his taxes, they should pay theirs, within whatever means they had to do so. To do this, monks and nuns had to find ways to make money, not for the sake of some private gain, but for the sake of the community.

This meant monks (and nuns), however much they would have liked to distance themselves from the world at large, they could not entirely do so. This, however, was a good thing, as it made sure they did not end up embracing some sort of gnostic rejection of material being. It helps remind them that, however corrupted things were in the world, the world was good and loved by God.  They had to remain in contact with the people of the world, and in doing so, learn what was going on, and even engage and help the people they met, making sure their own spiritual development did not lose sight of the charity and justice expected of all Christians. Nonetheless, even though they knew this, it still meant that when they had to engage the world, monks and nuns would find such situations trying, as they would have to deal with temptations they did not often address when they were in their monastic retreat.

Money, despite how much those who wanted to become a monk or nun might have wanted to avoid it, could not be completely rejected. But they knew it should be used merely as a tool both to sustain their way of life, but also as a means by which they can help others. They knew that they must not be interested in making excessive amounts of money; they were told, when they made any, it should be only what was necessary for their upkeep.  This led to all kinds of advice being given as to how money could be made and used by monks and nuns without having their vocation violated.

A popular way for monks and nuns to make money was to produce goods which would be sold at a local marketplace; the proceeds were to be used for the good of the monastic (if the person lived in a monastery), or for to meet their most rudimentary needs (if they were hermits). They were told that they must be extremely careful, making sure they were honest in the way they dealt with others:

A certain brother went to market and asked Abbot Poemen: “How should I sell my handiwork?” The old man said to him: “Do not desire to sell anything for more than it is worth: but rather, if you are mistreated, be a friend to him who bargains to obtain more than he should, and sell in peace. Although I have often gone to the market, I never wanted to make profit on my work or to be unfair to my brother, for I am confident that what is my brother’s gain will bear fruit for me.”[1]

As charity should be central to a monk’s way of life, anything which got in its way should be cast aside, even if it meant taking a loss:

Abbot Sisoius said: “Once, when I went to market with a brother to sell baskets, I saw that anger was coming upon me; so I dropped my wares and ran away.”[2]

In a way, going to the market was a monastic exercise, a time of trial and temptation. The monk or nun would be tested, and they would learn how much they have truly embraced the kind of detachment asceticism was meant to produce. They would be tempted to sell their wares for great profit, using proceeds to either help themselves or their community to various luxuries, luxuries which were not in themselves even bad or to be despised, such as books, but nonetheless luxuries which they should not obtain in such a manner. Similarly, when they were out in the world, they would find how much their discipline had transformed them; were they becoming more charitable? If not, they had much yet to learn.

We could and should learn from the wisdom of the desert fathers and mothers, and how they engaged the world. Obviously, as our needs will differ from a monk or nun, we must adapt the wisdom to suit our needs. We must embrace the spirit of their words, not the letter. That is, though it might seem obvious, we should learn from them that it is wrong to defraud others, even as we should not seek to make such great wealth we begin to circumvent the universal destination of goods and cause undue burdens on others. We should look to the common good, trying to figure out how we can and should help our community with the gifts and skills we have been given or developed. We should learn, we will find ourselves gaining with everyone else if we stop interacting in the world with a selfish spirit, as the more we share the good we have, the more the good will be spread about, and the more we will find it will be taken in and developed by others who will then share the fruit of their labor with us. Thus, the more we help others, the more we will find we will be helped as well.

 


[1] Martin of Braga, “Sayings of the Egyptian Fathers” in Iberian Fathers: Volume I. Martin of Braga; Paschasius of Dumium; Leander of Seville. Trans. Claude W. Barlow (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1969), 18.

[2] Martin of Braga, “Sayings of the Egyptian Fathers” 20.

 

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