Skip to main content

The Artisans of the Monastery

Saturday, August 10, 2024
Chapter 57

If there are artisans in the monastery , they are to practice their craft with all humility, but only with the permission of the prioress or the abbot. If one of them becomes puffed up by skillfulness in the craft, and feels that they are conferring something on the monastery, they are to be removed from practicing the craft and not allowed to resume it unless, after manifesting humility, they are so ordered by the prioress or abbot.

There are three major points made in the chapter on the artists of the monastery: first, that there may be artists in a monastery; second, that they must themselves be humble about it; and third, that an art is not to be practiced for the sake of money. All three points have a great deal to do with the way we look at religious dedication, personal development and contemporary society in the development of spiritual life today.

The points made in the Rule are relatively plain: The development of the spiritual life does not depend on the suppression of beauty or the destruction of the self. The gifts we have been given are for the doing of them, not the denial of them. We do not smother great gifts in the name of great spirituality. The painter, the writer, the musician, the inventor, the scholar, all have to figure out how to put their gifts at the disposal of their spiritual life, not how to build a spiritual life at the expense of the gift.

The unusually gifted person or the person with the unusual gift, however, is also required to see that their giftedness does not get in the way of their striving for sanctity. No gift is given to tyrannize the community. On the contrary, we are expected to learn to take our gifts in stride, to practice them because they deserve to be practiced and because the community can profit from them. Aristotle wrote: "The aim of art is not to represent the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance." Any great gift is a revelation of the more in life, a natural expression of the spiritual, a necessary expression of the sacred. To stamp out the artist in the name of religious rigor is to stamp out the spiritual eye itself and that kind of blindness plunges any group, any family, any person into darkness indeed. Without the artist to show us what we ourselves do not see of the beauty of the world around us, we lose sight of the beauty of God as well. Benedictine spirituality never substitutes conformity in discipline for fullness of expression in life. The function of the artist in the monastery--and in the life of us all--is to make the transcendent visible; to touch the soul in ways that match the soul; to enshrine beauty so that we may learn to see it; and to make where we live places of wonder.

A monastery without an artist could be a poor place spiritually indeed.

Whenever products of these artisans are sold, those responsible for the sale must not dare to practice any fraud. Let them always remember Ananias and Sapphira, who incurred bodily death (Acts 5:1-11), lest they and all who perpetrate fraud in monastery affairs suffer spiritual death.

The evil of avarice must have no part in establishing prices, which should, therefore, always be a little lower than people outside the monastery are able to set, "so that in all things God may be glorified (1 Pt 4:11)."

Of all the paragraphs in the Rule that are contrary to the cultural climate in which we live, this is one of the clearest. "Money often costs too much," Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote and Benedictine spirituality would surely agree. Not just dishonesty but even the standards of the marketplace are un-Benedictine according to this chapter. Benedictine spirituality develops goods so that people can have them, not in order to make them available only to the highest bidder or to make excessive profits. Money gained in that fashion costs us compassion and community and our role as co-creators of the reign of God. It hollows out our souls and leave us impoverished of character and deprived of the bounty of largesse. It is Benedictine to develop our gifts and distribute their fruits as widely and broadly as possible so that justice, but not profit, is the principle that impels us.