Monks making money

This is from the Cistercians – the ‘real’ Benedictines – in Conyers, Georgia. Some time ago, we monks at Saint John’s made much of our money from missalettes. An abbot was heard to say that we’ll all pay for it on judgment day. Our financial situation has changed greatly – and so has our old misalette.



  1. Rodney Stark, cited in this article, is a leading theorist in sociology, and a leading scholar of the sociology of religion. His cited book “The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success” is about Christianity as a rational religion. Monasticism is just one concrete example. Stark argues that Christianity unlike Islam or Judaism values reason, i.e. theology, as a way to God. Therefore it got us beyond traditional thinking and practices and made possible the modern industrial world.

    His book begins with magnificent praise for theology as a true science. It was published in the NYTimes.

    Stark is an agnostic sociologist. Why does he have such high praise for religion, for Christianity, and for theology? It is because he is one of the foremost proponents of the rational choice view of human existence. All these are the more rational choices.

    His book Discovering God covers history and comparative religion. Stark argues they can be interpreted as either we are slowly inventing a better God, or that God is slowly revealing himself to us as we develop as a species. He argues that Islam was not progress. In his final chapter he says that it is more likely that God is revealing himself than that we are inventing a better God.

    I recommend both books to anyone interested in apologetics. Since many sociologists use the rational choice approach to religion it will help you understand them better.

    1. You just have to be careful reading Stark as with anyone. His method is not quite as dispassionately objective as it appears in casual reading.

      1. Sociology like other academic disciplines is a creature of the industrial world with its bureaucracies, credentialing and regulating processes. Stark has paid his dues as an industrial scholar meeting all those requirements in a lot of this theoretical and empirical work.

        But Stark has also been what I would call a postindustrial scholar, crossing disciplinary boundaries. He tried studying the history of Christianity with modern sociological methods. Stark realized he would be an amateur, limited by lack of experience in language and historical methods. His ten years of amateur articles culminated in The Rise of Christianity. More recently he has returned to an even more quantitative approach in Cities of God.

        Rahner argued in an essay about his work as a amateur philosopher that we have to be amateurs if we are ever to get beyond the “knowing more and more about less and less” of the academic world, and produce something of value for people beyond our discipline.

        I came to recognize this when I moved from the disciplinary world of academia to the applied multidisciplinary world of public mental health. There was some narrow focused academic research; there was a lot of messy real world data and clinical experience in the public mental health system. Integrating them was more like indictment (probable cause) than a criminal trail (beyond a reasonable doubt).

        Yes, Stark’s works cited are postindustrial scholarship not industrial scholarship. Thankfully they may be more useful.

      2. And probable cause is more like a 50% threshold, which for historical hypotheses is fairly low.

        The best recent exemplar of the historical method in action in English is Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome. A wonderful illustration of making clear the difference between empiricism and speculation, and revealing great epistemic humility. Something that is very lacking in popularizing (and even a lot of scholarly) works in religion.

      3. In the varied, complex postindustrial world of the public mental health system, I was always looking for a theory (vision, idea) and some data (academic and/or local) that would point the way forward, and a 50% chance that it would was a very good beginning.

        However the implementation of that idea had to be postindustrial not industrial. Liking ideas but being bored by practical details, I quickly discovered that most everyone else did the practical stuff much better than I could, or indeed imagined. People will run with ideas particularly when they can take complete credit for their accomplishments. But as one of my clinical manager friends once said “we just don’t have any time to think about what we are doing. Any time you give my staff an idea that they think might work, we have a chance to move forward.” Most people in the postindustrial world just need a little help in figuring it out.

        I agree on the value of humility. Greenleaf in Servant Leadership says point and then put your hand over your mouth. Ignatius tells the giver of the retreat to be brief with the points and let the person alone with God. We have to have a lot more faith in God and in people than in ideas.

        I am pretty tolerant about the hubris of scholars unless they the professor in class; one said “You like to challenge me.”

  2. Back to the main point of the article, though, it seems that there’s a fundamental point being missed [especially in the comments to the article at the link]: The monks have to eat. And be clothed, shod, and otherwise provided with the material goods needed to sustain life. Why should this surprise or dismay anyone?

    I was especially amused by the commenter who wrote that “the Church is loaded, they should take care of them”, and the other person who stated that the monastery properties were hidden assets of ‘the Church’. It does make me wonder what ever happened to fact-checking.

  3. For Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action, contemplation is a central reality of life, once taken for granted, still present outside monasteries and in other religious traditions.

    The book focuses upon monastic renewal. Merton describes the vocational crisis eloquently, yet struggles to solve it. He needed the World Values Study.

    About 2000 postulants came to Gethsemani in the 40’s & 50’s; but most departed, usually during novitiate.

    Merton says they had genuine vocations: they wanted monastic life. I would say they wanted monasticism as lived in an agrarian society.

    Merton says they discovered that monasticism was now built in such a way that it could not fulfill what they wanted, e.g. the whole question of the highly mechanized monastic plant. Modern monasticism is an industrial institution with some agrarian values and traditions.

    Industrial monasticism, “a liturgical showplace with a school or brewery attached” as Merton sarcastically says of the Benedictines, succeeded well until the postindustrial 60’s.

    A letter (3/30/48) clearly states Merton’s postindustrial values. Those who followed him in the 40’s and 50’were likely nascent postindustrial, eager to the leave the industrial world. Agrarian monasticism attracted; industrial monasticism repelled them. Merton wanted a postindustrial monastery.

    Is the postindustrial “tourism” monastery emerging? If its “tourists” are the many contemplatives outside of monasteries it may well succeed.

  4. Jack,

    If your analysis of Merton’s writing is correct, I have to wonder if those young men would have stayed in the monastery if they actually found that agrarian monasticism. Perhaps; most men of that time were born [~1910 to about 1940?] into an agrarian world and many probably had skills and the mental outlook to do well in it. Today’s more urban society produces relatively few with that background, but even those who grew up on farms generally don’t categorically object to labor-saving ideas. I recall that the monk’s work is secondary to his prayer, but the fact remains that the community’s material needs must be met. An interesting question.

  5. Lynn,

    Yes, many understood agrarian life to a degree. My father was a steelworker, but my grandparents were farmers. I loved the farm, staying there when my parents went on vacation.

    Farming is hard work and a risky business with weather and crop prices. Many monasteries in this country started with farms, diversified and ultimately got out of the business. Today many family farms survive by having other jobs. For a while my grandfather worked in the mines. My father left school at eighth grade to work in the mines to support the family. All the children (and grandchildren) helped at harvest.

    Partha Dasgupta, Economics: A Very Short Introduction illustrates the vast difference in economic and social structure between agrarian and postindustrial societies by focusing on two children, Becky and Desta and their very different circumstances. It becomes technical (economic terms) but not mathematical. Desta’s village is probably very much like the villages that the community form of monasticism developed in Egypt. By the time of Benedict the Roman country estate became the model and was likey becoming more sophisticated economically.

    The economic success of monasticism was a problem. It developed a class structure of choir monks, lay brothers, serfs and lay employees. Monasteries did become richer than other estates. So the value of poverty can become a fiction, with the choir monks having a high standard of living

  6. “The economic success of monasticism was a problem. It developed a class structure of choir monks, lay brothers, serfs and lay employees. Monasteries did become richer than other estates. So the value of poverty can become a fiction, with the choir monks having a high standard of living”

    Yes, I can see that, though many probably were individually poor in the sense of not actually owning things; the community as a whole was wealthy. It does get complex, doesn’t it? From what I’ve read, most monasteries interacted to some extent with the local communities, which suggests [but does not prove] that they weren’t totally self-sufficient.

    Perhaps more on point to this discussion, though, is that it would be difficult to impossible for most monasteries today to actually produce all that they needed to live, and still be able to devote their time primarily to prayer. As you say, farming is hard, risky work, and the communities these days are generally small. The ‘hard’ part probably wouldn’t be too much of a problem, but the ‘risky’ element could threaten the survival of the community. And, even assuming that they don’t mind the ‘hard’ part, there is only so much that a given size group can do. The sheer volume of work can make farming prohibitive.

    It only seems practical for the monks to find work they can do to earn the money they need while still keeping the primary focus on prayer. And many seem to be making food products, which is at least sort of…

  7. The idea behind monasticism was withdrawal from the demands of family life and work to have more holy leisure.

    Leisure (we get the word scholar from the Greek schole) included philosophy, literature, and the arts as well as public life. Monasticism was influenced by this in terms of contemplation, study of scripture, even the holy monk or abbot as an arbiter in local disputes.

    Today we have more leisure time. How can it be made creative and holy. And how can monasticism help?

    The tourism idea is a good one, a very popular use of leisure time. Pilgrimages were also like tourism. Think of Canterbury Tales. There is a series of guide books on religious houses, retreat centers etc. as a kind of “holy” travel option.

    The big leisure opportunity is “retirement.” Like monasticism it is withdrawal from the demands of family life (raising children) and work (a career).

    Monasteries and religious houses could create retirement communities. Provide people with the opportunities for daily Mass, the Divine Office, bible study, courses, arts and music and all sorts of projects of service for others.

    The elderly is one of the ten megatrends in John Allen’s Future Church He argues it is positive. A preview of his chapter called “More Catholics on the way They’re likely to be gray-haired, healthy and rich” is here

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