Chapter 33: private ownership by monks


The vice of private ownership must be uprooted from the monastery.

What do I do with all my stuff?

If you read this chapter to anyone outside the Christian church (and many within it too) they’d be deeply concerned about the welfare of the monks in a monastery and would think that they were being brainwashed. I’d go so far as to say that if someone lived out this uprooting then people would intervene and think that the institution was some sort of cult. Most people want to take the benefits of monastic spirituality but few want to pay the price. I am guilty of this feeling as much as any.

This week Archbishop Justin Welby publicly invited anyone between the ages of 20-35 to join a monastic community in Lambeth Palace. This is about committing one year of your life to living in prayer and community. I was immediately grabbed by the idea. As you will know if you read my review of Parish Monasticism that my wife and I feel increasingly called to monastic life in some form. As I have prayed about this opportunity for Sarah and I to go to Lambeth for a year I have been struck by concerns that seem to be pushing themselves to the front of my mind; reasons why it might not be the right thing to do.

One of them is,

What would we do with all our stuff?

Despite all my talk about the benefits of monasticism for the promotion of discipleship amongst Christians I have never had to live out that call of poverty. I have always justified my possessions of things as being needing them for God’s glory but I’ve never been tested on that because I live in a culture that don’t expect me to get rid of things I like (in fact it’s a culture that demands that I don’t!) If Sarah and I had to downsize to one room which already had a bed and wardrobe, etc. What would we do with all our furniture that we’ve paid money for? Surely God doesn’t want us to give them away! What would I do with all my kitchen stuff? After our year Sarah and I would need to start all over again, collecting things to cook and eat with. We need them!

What about my books?!!!!!!!!

I know when God is challenging me, I don’t like it but I know when he’s doing it! In my prayer time I feel that if God is calling us to this year in Anselm’s Community then God is wanting me to look at my ‘need’ for my stuff.

My mum has saying,

It’s only stuff!

I really admire how God has worked in her life to get her to a place where that rings true but he hasn’t walked that with me yet. I don’t look forward to the day when he does it but I pray that he will give me no option!

I can hear the voices of friends and some of you, my dear readers, as we try to soften the call to get rid of all I own and give to the poor; I’ve heard it thousands of times and I’ve said it myself to others,

It’s more about your attitude to stuff rather than the stuff itself.

The problem with this statement is not that it’s not true but that it is rarely tested. We hear that get out and we persuade ourselves that we have a healthy attitude towards our stuff and that that means we get to keep them. I can’t seem to shake that Jesus meant what he said.

If someone came and asked me to give them all my books I would probable, if I’m honest, tell them nicely that I couldn’t do it but they’re more than welcome to use them. When I think about living in community I imagine my books becoming common property, available to anyone who lives in the house/monastery but I would still have a share in them. St. Benedict is calling the monks to not even have a share in property.

There is a reason why this is so difficult for our culture; it cuts to the very heart of our sickness. Individual will being exalted above communal need and consumerism being the foundation of our self-identity. We all have our stories we tell ourselves as to how we are not impacted by them but we are sick and we need help. I feel monasticism is part of the cure for our world and it is increasingly urgent to enact before we lose the power of the gospel out of fear of being ‘not relevant’ or ‘cultural acceptable’.


The wisdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I’m not always a fan of just quoting long lengths of internet sites (particularly not Wikipedia) but I’ve been re-reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship which is, like all his writings, hard hitting and deeply encouraging. As I can’t just quote the whole book I do think this summary is excellent. Here it is in its entirety:

One of the most quoted parts of the book deals with the distinction which Bonhoeffer makes between “cheap” and “costly” grace. But what is “cheap” grace? In Bonhoeffer’s words:

“cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”

Or, even more clearly, it is to hear the gospel preached as follows: “Of course you have sinned, but now everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolations of forgiveness.” The main defect of such a proclamation is that it contains no demand for discipleship. In contrast to this is costly grace:

“costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.””

Bonhoeffer argues that as Christianity spread, the Church became more “secularised”, accommodating the demands of obedience to Jesus to the requirements of society. In this way,

“the world was Christianised, and grace became its common property.”

But the hazard of this was that the gospel was cheapened, and obedience to the living Christ was gradually lost beneath formula and ritual, so that in the end, grace could literally be sold for monetary gain.

But all the time, within the church, there had been a living protest against this process: the monastic movement. This served as a “place where the older vision was kept alive.” Unfortunately, “monasticism was represented as an individual achievement which the mass of the laity could not be expected to emulate”; the commandments of Jesus were limited to “a restricted group of specialists” and a double standard arose: “a maximum and a minimum standard of church obedience.” Why was this dangerous? Bonhoeffer points out that whenever the church was accused of being too worldly, it could always point to monasticism as “the opportunity of a higher standard within the fold – and thus justify the other possibility of a lower standard for others.” So the monastic movement, instead of serving as a pointer for all Christians, became a justification for the status quo.

Bonhoeffer remarks how this was rectified by Luther at the Reformation, when he brought Christianity “out of the cloister”. However, he thinks that subsequent generations have again cheapened the preaching of the forgiveness of sins, and this has seriously weakened the church:

“The price we are having to pay today in the shape of the collapse of the organised church is only the inevitable consequence of our policy of making grace available to all at too low a cost. We gave away the word and sacraments wholesale, we baptised, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation without condition. Our humanitarian sentiment made us give that which was holy to the scornful and unbelieving… But the call to follow Jesus in the narrow way was hardly ever heard.”


There’s not much more I can add to that. Re-read those words at the end,

The price we are having to pay today in the shape of the collapse of the organised church is only the inevitable consequence of our policy of making grace available to all at too low a cost. We gave away the word and sacraments wholesale, we baptised, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation without condition. Our humanitarian sentiment made us give that which was holy to the scornful and unbelieving… But the call to follow Jesus in the narrow way was hardly ever heard.

Many will say that he was speaking specifically to Nazi Germany but I say we too quickly soften nd justify that which is painful to hear.

I know what I need to pray through and start working on in my discipleship and it is this challenging call to start giving away my stuff to prove to myself alone that I have the right attitude to stuff… I might have to build up to giving away books!

Lord Jesus Christ, your call on our lives is complete and unwavering. You demand obedience because a softened version of discipleship doesn’t change the world. Grant to us the strength and help you promised in your Holy Spirit and lead us always in your path.

Come, Lord Jesus.

One comment

  1. What joy to read your musings. I have been challenged deeply on this issue of poverty. We live a way of simplicity within the Community of Aidan and Hilda. I believe that is right and good. It speaks of an attitude not of possessing, which then leads us perhaps into a way of gratitude and openness. BUT… I think sometimes this is not enough, it can be all too easy. As I have prayed about this, and I oversee others as they develop and live out their ways of life within our community, I felt a real nudge to look at what poverty means. But I have a family and stuff and books and, and, and, and it is so very hard. What does God call us to? I do think that consumerism/ materialism needs a revolution to highlight its evil, something that is powerful and peaceful and will speak to others of the love of God; something that will bring healing for the so many who are poor and abused (zero hours contracts, famine, war over resources and retaining our wealth and power, and the rest) and healing to the earth

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