Monday, February 16, 2009

Monasteries, Money and the Global Economy

I was driving home from a trip yesterday and I stopped at a store to buy underwear. It was a quick errand because I hate shopping. I have never liked shopping but I think my dislike has increased exponentially since I entered the monastery. When you spend most of your time in a rural monastery more than an hour’s drive from the nearest “big box” store, it is easy to feel overwhelmed when going confronted with thousands of square feet of “stuff,” aisles and aisles of “stuff,” most of which none of us really need. I managed to get my underwear pretty quickly, (OK, and some peanut M&M’s that weren’t on my shopping list.) But as I walked through the huge number of things for sale, and reflected on the stories of our economy crashing because not enough people are buying enough “stuff,” the sheer insanity of our situation struck me very forcefully.

We live in a world, not just a country, but a world, in which our standard of living is dictated by consumption. Apparently the global economic crisis worsens a large part of the problem is that ordinary people aren’t buying and consuming like they used to. Banks aren’t lending money, factories aren’t producing, people aren’t buying and our way of life and livelihoods are in jeopardy. Of course in the monastery this will affect us too. We are dependent of the salaries of our sisters, the revenue from people who attend retreats and contribute with their financial gifts.

As with many people these days money can be a struggle for us. Monasteries are self-supporting. We don’t receive any money from the Church, most of our income is from the salaries of sisters who work. Making sure there is enough money to the pay the bills is a on-going concern as it is for most people. But perhaps the biggest challenge of money in a monastic community is how to integrate it into our value system.

We’ve probably all experienced how easy it is to let money take over our lives. We can become obsessed with worries about whether there will be enough, obsessed with making more or managing what we have or spending it as fast as we can. Money can easily go from simply being a necessary part of life to something that consumes us.

In the monastery, though, money is about “we” and not about “me.” Our ideal, not always our reality, is that we all contribute equally to the common resources whether of time, talent, energy or money and in turn we receive what we need. This means that the members who can’t contribute as much because of age or health aren’t penalized. At the same time the sisters who have been given more energy or talent don’t automatically receive more. We all get what we need. We all work for the good of the whole community, not to accumulate more for ourselves.

We don’t keep the money we earn. It goes to the community, all earnings are shared. In turn we rely on the monastery for all our needs. Each sister gets an allowance each month to pay for basic personal expenses. Clothes, toiletries, entertainment, meals out, books, various incidental expenses, all come out of personal budget money. If a sister has any significant expenses the community will pay for them. Hospital bills, medications, business travel expenses, education, all come from community money.

This way of relating to money is a big shift when a woman enters community. In fact, as part of the ceremony of becoming a novice the woman turns over her car keys and checkbook (or these days ATM and credit cards) as a symbol of giving up her own money. She then has to sell her car and give up use of her personal money and investments as she enters further into the stage of becoming a member of the monastery.

All in all it’s a pretty radical system by the standards of most of the world. Most of us have been thoroughly indoctrinated with the idea that money is the reward of hard work. We work hard to make money, accumulating more and more money is bound up with status, self-worth, our goals in life. But to come to a monastery means entering a world where money has very little personal meaning. Money is not longer personal, it is communal. We worry about money, but we worry about the bills for the elderly or sick sisters who are no longer capable of thinking about money. We worry about contributing to the whole community rather than whether our salary reflects our self worth. In the same way we learn to ask whether any expenditure is a “want” or a “need.” We rely on community for everything we need but we won’t get everything we want.

So I keep coming back to wonder what monastic values mean when our whole economy seems to be based on as many people as possible spending as much money as possible. When we live simply, with very little money are we contributing to the global economic crisis?

The answer to that question is probably best left up to people with a lot more background in economics than I have. But I do wonder whether in some very small way the monastic life is a microcosm of a radically different way to relate to money. Our attitude toward money is about “enough” and “need” rather than accumulating as much as possible. In the monastery this means that most of us don’t have much, but everyone has enough. What would happen if the world economy was like the monastery economy? No one would have big fancy living quarters, no one would have more food than anyone else, there wouldn’t be wild discrepancies in income. But everyone would know that their needs would be met, they would have a place to live, food and health care. Nothing fancy, nothing extra, nothing more than anyone else, but wouldn’t that mean that everyone would have enough? Maybe in our small way we are living out a new model of a more just society.

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