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A School for the Lord’s Service: Benedict on Stewardship

Let the cellarer “regard all the vessels of the monastery as if they were consecrated vessels of the altar; and so with the whole of its property. Let him appraise nothing as negligible, neither have regard to avarice, nor yet be wasteful and a squanderer of the property of the monastery: but let him do everything in moderation and according to his abbot’s orders.”

The Rule of Saint Benedict, Chapter XXXI

Much of the contents of the Rule of Saint Benedict can best be described as mundane or quotidian. He is not writing a Rule for an ivory tower, but for the day-to-day maintenance of a household. Anyone who has ever had to manage a household knows how demanding this can be. Chores must be done dutifully, or the whole structure falls apart. The laundry must be done. The grass must be mowed. The dishes must be done. If these mundane tasks are not accomplished, the household becomes stressful. The same is true in a monastery. An environment of peace and prayer is gained by attention to logistical matters, the division of labor and schedules. Who does the dishes? Everyone, including the abbot. Who works in the garden? Everyone.

At the same time, there are those who bear specific responsibility for the efficient management of the monastery. The cellarer is commanded to regard the vessels of the monastery - dishes, pots, rakes, and shovels, as if they were the Eucharistic vessels. “Let him regard nothing as negligible.” The cellarer is to moderately manage the property of the monastery so that no one becomes embittered.

Poor stewardship leads to bitterness. If a monk is careless with things that belong, not to him, but to the community, there is an opportunity for bitterness to break in. If some seem to have more and others less, the brothers will become quarrelsome. The monk is to understand that he lives in a place that God has given, that everything he touches belongs to the Lord. If he breaks a tool, he has to beg forgiveness of the community. If he is stingy, even in friendship, he is to be corrected by the abbot. Nothing is negligible.

This is a great way to manage our own households. We live in a world of things, and those things can become instruments of our salvation, just as it was a Cross that became the instrument of salvation. I try to think about this when I clean my garage and put away tools. It’s not a task I relish, but keeping things in good order is good for my soul. The same goes for balancing the checkbook and paying bills. These tasks are an opportunity for our sanctification in so far as we handle them with care.

One of the things that monastic life has taught me is that there is a certain delight in changing my relationship with things. When I understand that to be sanctified in a world of things requires that change, I’m able to look to the tools and objects around me as holy. For this reason, several years ago, I began to collect personal effects that would be with me until the day I die. While various technological items will always need to be replaced, there are many things that will be with me for several more decades: a leather bag (which only looks better with age), a ratchet set, various pocketknives, that French cast iron pot that will be passed on to our grandchildren, an ever growing library. Benedictines are not required to take a vow of poverty. They are required merely to hold all things in common and under authority. When a new monk joins the order, it is not uncommon for him to inherit just about everything - his habit, his books, his place in the chapel. This is not only a way of saving money - it is at the heart of stability. Benedictines therefore value quality in the everyday implements of the monastery. Next time you are at Wal-Mart or Target, ask yourself, will I be able to leave this behind when I die? Will it be of use to someone else? Or is it meant to be thrown away?

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