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Monastics and Private Ownership

Thursday, July 11, 2024
Chapter 33

Above all, this evil practice (of private ownership) must be uprooted and removed from the monastery. We mean that without an order from the prioress or abbot, no members may presume to give, receive or retain anything as their own, nothing at all--not a book, writing tablets or stylus--in short not a single item, especially since monastics may not have the free disposal even of their own bodies and wills. For their needs, they are to look to the prioress or abbot of the monastery, and are not allowed anything which the prioress or abbot has not given or permitted. "All things should be the common possession of all, as it is written, so that no one presumes ownership of anything (Acts 4:32)."

But if any members are caught indulging in this most evil practice, they should be warned a first and a second time. If they do not amend, let them be subjected to punishment.

There are two concerns at issue in this chapter of the Rule: the development of personal freedom and the preservation of human community. Private ownership touches both of them.

The Hasidim tell the story of the visitor who went to see a very famous rabbi and was shocked at the sparsity, the bareness, the emptiness of his little one-room house. "Why don't you have any furniture," the visitor asked. "Why don't you?" the rabbi said. "Well, because I'm only passing through," the visitor said. "Well, so am I," the rabbi answered.

On the journey to heaven, things tie us to the earth. We can't move to another city because we have a huge mortgage on the house in this one. We can't take care of a sick neighbor because we are too busy taking care of our own hedges. We go poor giving big parties in the hope for big promotions. We get beholden to the people who give big parties back. We take things and hoard things and give things to control our little worlds and the things wind up controlling us. They clutter our space; they crimp our hearts; they sour our souls. Benedict says that the answer is that we not allow ourselves to have anything beyond life's simple staples in the first place and that we not use things--not even the simplest things--to restrict the life of another by giving gifts that tie another person down. Benedictine simplicity, then, is not a deprivation. It frees us for all of life's surprises.

Simplicity is more than the key to personal freedom, however. Simplicity is also the basis of human community. Common ownership and personal dependence are the foundations of mutual respect. If I know that I literally cannot exist without you, without your work, without your support, without your efforts in our behalf, without your help, as is true in any community life, then I can not bury myself away where you and your life are unimportant to me. I cannot fail to meet your needs, as you have met my needs, when the dearth in you appeals for the gifts in me. It is my ability to respond to your needs, in fact, that is my claim, my guarantee, of your presence in my own life. In community life, we genuinely need one another. We rely on one another. Community life is based on mutual giving.

The family, the relationship that attempts to reconcile the independent and the independently wealthy, the perfectly, the totally, the smugly self-sufficient, is no community, no family, no relationship at all. Why stay and work a problem out with people when you can simply leave them? And never notice that they're gone.