I returned today from South Carolina following a week of visiting family. I drove car #5, one of our monastery cars. It is a gray sedan that drives well and is perfectly functional, safe, and well-maintained, but is not quite the car I would buy were I buying a car for myself. But then, as a monastic, I wouldn’t be buying a car for myself.
In a monastic community, we don’t have personal possessions per se. A hallmark of monastic life is that the “goods of the monastery,” as St. Benedict calls them, are held in common. This common ownership is perhaps the principal way in which monastics express poverty, along with holding our needs in balance with those of our Sisters. We defer to and rely upon resources which are held in common.
Our practices are not about efficiency or economy of scale or any such practical considerations. Rather, they are about relating rightly to one another and to created things. Dependence upon the common resources of the community rather than the strivings of our personal will and effort is an act of humility in our independent, self-sufficient culture. It expresses in a very tangible way the spiritual reality that everything we have is gift.
When I get into car #5, adjust the seat and rear view mirror from the settings of the previous Sister, and take off down the road carrying gas cards that are not my own, any prideful illusion of self-sufficiency falls away. Even in the days before I entered the monastery and I owned my own “stuff,” I was not truly independent. I was part of a web of family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, storekeepers, bankers, bakers, and so on. This interdependence gets masked, though, with an illusory veneer of self-reliant autonomy. In the monastery, however, the reality of our interdependence is both clearly articulated in the Rule and readily experienced in daily life.
This interdependence is not a passive stance of dependent helplessness. It is a powerful spiritual stance of tangibly and humbly expressing our basic human situation of being in need – of God, of one another, of our daily bread. It also powerfully provides for the mutual expression of love, of caring, of meeting one another’s needs in the name of Christ, of taking responsibility and doing our part to provide for the needs of the community.
The manner in which we handle the goods of the monastery also expresses a spiritual stance of reverence for one another and for the gifts we have been given. We all work hard to make sure that car #5, and all the goods of the monastery, are in good shape and ready for the next Sister. St. Benedict exhorts us to keep the goods of the monastery “clean” and to not treat them “carelessly.” Indeed, he tells us to “regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, aware that nothing is to be neglected.” (see Rule of St. Benedict chapters 31-34).
You could say that car #5 got me to Carolina and back, but that is a narrow way of looking at it. It was really the entire community that got me to Carolina and back. Even as I drove down roads far from Cullman, it was the community that had cared for car #5 and prepared it for my use, and it was for the community that I cared for it well while it was in my charge.
Within an hour of pulling into the monastery parking lot late this afternoon I was already participating in the life of the community. I greeted a familiar guest, assisted an unexpected guest, lent a brief hand with a need in the infirmary, admired the newly-blossomed day lilies, and answered a sacristy question. In other words, I was back. But then, I had never really left. Car #5 – and the community behind it – was with me all the way.
Postscript: The sharing of our common resources helps us learn to distinguish our wants from our needs. For instance, if I need to run an errand, but another Sister needs the car for a medical appointment, I defer to her greater need. We also learn to moderate our personal preferences, etc. for the good of all, and to recognize the wisdom that comes from others. Perhaps if I were living by myself, I might have purchased a different car based upon my own preferences, but our administrators choose cars based upon what is best for the Community as a whole. I am grateful to drive one that is comfortable not only for myself, but for many.