Thursday, November 11, 2010
It is probably just as well that Benedict doesn’t live in our time or that nobody other than a few monastics and fellow travelers read his Rule today. Benedict has some pretty subversive stuff in there. Today the reading from the Rule was a little short chapter entitled “Distribution of Goods According to Need.” Now that right there is should send tremors down the spine of anyone well acquainted with our culture. The old Tina Turner song was “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” The theme song of our culture should be “What’s Need Got To Do With It?”
Our culture is based on desire and consumption. When was the last time you bought something that you really, truly needed? OK, maybe that loaf of bread, but probably not necessarily the extra fancy, 7 grain artisanal bread that you like so much. Perhaps your last pair of jeans, but did they have to be that one particular brand that frankly makes your butt look less big? Yeah, probably not. We are trained from our earliest days to want more, to desire just the right thing and think that it is our God-given right to have that one particular thing, or masses of things, that we have been conditioned to want.
This in turn is what drives our economy. When we do not consume enough stuff, stuff that most of us don’t need, stuff that we have been conditioned to think we can’t live without, then our economy suffers, and some of us may begin to experience the strange phenomenon of actual need.
Benedict would have no clue what to make of this strange, dysfunctional culture we live in. His community was based on a very simple, very radical premise. First, everyone knew (or should know) the difference between what they wanted and what they needed. And second, they would then be able to get what they needed. Then in turn each person was supposed to be satisfied with what they received.
How can we even begin to unpack what that might look like in our lives? Most of us, even those of us who struggle to live simply, are bombarded with so many choices, so many enticing, intriguing, beguiling forms of “stuff” that we probably can’t really distinguish wants from needs. Just as the abundance of food makes it hard to know when we are really hungry, the easy availability of everything our hearts may desire makes it hard to know how little we really need.
Would you like an easy, quick lesson in humility? Simply look around your house and see how few things you really need to live. It shouldn’t be a lesson in guilt, we did not create this culture and we may be doing our best to change it. The point is what do we do with the reality of all that we have? Benedict says that those who have been given more should feel humbled on account of their weakness, a weakness that has lead to their greater need. Perhaps in our culture of tremendous abundance this is where we should begin, with overwhelming humility and perhaps compunction that our needs, whether real or perceived, are so great.
Perhaps out of that deep realization of having too much at the expense of those who are truly in need, something new can be born in our society. Benedict imagined a society that would imitate the early Church community of Acts: Distribution was made to each one as he had need (Acts 4:35). In a society that has drifted so far from this early ideal maybe the ever ancient, always new ideal of monasticism can bring us back to the society we were meant to be.