No one shall treat monastic property carelessly or in a slipshod manner.
How do we care for creation?
In the previous chapter the cellarer is instructed to
…think of all the monastery’s property as if they were sacred chalices.
It is with this still ringing in our ear that we turn to consider all the monastery’s care for the material objects of life. Esther de Waal also comments,
At the end of chapter 4, which looked at the tools of good works, we were told that when we have used them without ceasing, day and night, and handled them faithfully, we hand them over and we receive our reward. Now we see how the ordinary tools of daily life are to be handled in the same way. (Esther de Waal, A Life Giving Way: a commentary on the rule of St Benedict (London: Continuum, 1995) p. 108)
What does a vow of poverty truly look like in a wealthy nation? Is our understanding of poverty relative to neighbours? I would want to suggest that a vow of poverty is to be understood as a vow of simplicity (this idea will be developed next week as we look at personal property amongst the monks.) For now it is worth reflecting on our attitude to property, to the material things of our own lives.
It has been said that we live in a ‘throw away society’; if something isn’t ‘perfect’ or working to our standards we discard it (usually to landfill!) We extend this mentality to our relationships as we increasingly see one another as purely material beings more and more akin to the objects we own and possess. This is, for me, another symptom of the sickness of where we find ourselves at this time. This is why, I suggest, we are happy with the rise of divorce and separation, the increased need for adoption and fostering, the continual need of prostitution, the medias use of the human form to sell products and the discussions over Assisted Dying Bill. As we live out the philosophy of individualism and relativism we see this objectifying of humanity; others are possessions to be treated in the same way as we treat a family heirloom or an electronic device.
The solution to this problem is not to just try and categorise what to objectify and what not to, for there is a chance we begin to divide up who should be treated as holy and who shouldn’t be but to sanctify all of creation. All things are to be treated with respect and care.
Before we run off in a certain direction and begin to fall into the error of pantheism, let me put up some guidance as to the practicalities. I am not suggesting that we worship other human beings or the material things of this world; we worship only the creator and not the creation. To name something as ‘holy’ is to draw it out from the rest of the world. When you handle something that is holy you understand that God cares for this and was part of its creation and it is a gift for you to enjoy. Like all of God’s gifts they are not to be possessed by you but by God who shares with you (again, more of this next week!)
It is the basic understanding that all creation, whether re-formed by humanity or organically grown in nature, is a gift from God to be used by us that leads us to treat all things as someone else’s property: God’s. If you go to someone’s house and you are a guest and you happen to break a mug there should be a pang of guilt or sadness for what you have broken is a possession of someone else. It is the concern of breaking something that is not yours that helps us to care for those objects. The same should be true in creation. The fear should not cripple us to not touch anything out of concern that we may break it but is there purely to guard us against the ‘slipshod’ manner of thinking everything is replaceable; this starts with objects and should extend to relationships… no relationship is replaceable!
I am aware that this chapter and the next one may have a lot of overlap in terms of reflection but I want to add to this reflection on why we should handle objects with care something about ‘possession’.
To have possession of something is to be master of it; this is the same of objects and people. This is where the topic of spiritual possession enters our life. Few of us would think of ourselves as slaves and most of us would resist being told that we submit to another out of fear of losing our freedom. Slavery is, despite the Abolition Bill being past centuries ago, alive and kicking and we’re made aware of this in situations of prostitution, immigration violations, underpaid workforce, etc. There is another slavery that we’d rather not talk about because most of us are victims of it: the slavery to an ideology/philosophy. Commercialisation has made us slaves to the market and to materialism which erodes our relationships and hinders us from flourishing. I have, in the past, referred to this as an addiction and that is the power of our slave drivers.
In the Christian tradition there is a paradox which leads us to true freedom; in order to be free we must become slaves of Christ (1 Corinthians 7:22). We are to be possessed by Christ; he is the one who directs us and holds us. This should be a spiritual possession of his character like we think of a demon possessing a human being.
I was asked this week about demon possession, whether I believed it was a real and distinct thing from mental health issues. My answer is a clear, ‘yes’. I do not agree that all demon possessions in the gospel account are to be thought of as ‘mental health issues’. Jesus clearly talks of demons and personifies them. Jesus commands us to go and ‘cast out demons’ (e.g. Mark 16:17) and that is separate from healing. With that in mind I understand the complications of discerning which is which. Maybe we could begin talking about possession in a broader sense to help us connect with these passages in the gospels. What might it look like to stand and fight against the possession of person who has an addiction which controls them (and that includes addiction to buying certain products or of living a certain lifestyle)? It might mean that we bring Ephesians 6:10-12 to mind,
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
What I’m suggesting is that St. Benedict is able to see sacred and mundane as synonymous due to his acceptance that there is a spiritual aspect to our reality and that the way to flourish in one realm is to flourish in the other. We’d do well to begin to encourage our communities to understand this and to pray for our true freedom by obeying the call of Christ to make us slaves of Him who cares and heals us.
As a parish minister I am increasingly aware of the people of the congregation to whom I am called to serve. I am aware that they are not ‘mine’ but God’s and he has entrusted me (along with my bishop and fellow ministers) to care for them and that ‘when we have… handled them faithfully, we hand them over and we receive our reward.’ This sense is increasingly true of all people I meet and come in contact with; the members of the community in which I work, the people I interact with online. This is also true of the objects that I use; the keyboard sat in front of me, the pencil currently sat in a book I’m reading, that book, all of it to be handled as if I were to hand it back to someone who’s possession it is.
Our task, as Christians, is surely to also ensure that God takes rightful possession of all creation. That our battle to ‘gain ground’ is to claim things and people back for God and doing so is, in part about making them slaves but to know that if they were not his they’d be someone else’s and the slavery of God is true freedom.
Heavenly Father, come and set us free in the safety of your embrace. We submit to you and accept your guidance to lead us to life of eternity
Come, Lord Jesus