Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
April 27, 2009
Religious orders give the gift of true communism
There is little talk about communism anymore. Maybe that's good. Maybe not.
Communism as a 20th century political system was a foul, violent form of repression in the name of a high ideal. But communism as an ideal for society – the belief that each should give according to his ability and each receive according to his needs – is a Christian notion, rooted in the Acts of the Apostles and enfleshed in the 1,500-year history of religious orders.
It is perhaps no accident that as religious orders have declined in the Western world, the communist ideal is also fading from view.
A religious order is about the only place true communism can thrive. People who enter the order voluntarily make vows of not only poverty, but also obedience. This solemn commitment is important in nurturing the communal spirit, but even more so is the life of prayer.
A community without the daily rhythm of shared prayer – a group conversation with the Eternal Love who is beyond all grasping and possessing – would easily lose track of its commitment to poverty and its members would descend into the scramble to get what is "rightfully mine."
But with that life of prayer, it becomes possible for community members to "set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth" (Colossians 3.2).
The capitalist system is not oriented in such a direction. Economists would argue that the commitment to poverty hinders technological innovation. Perhaps. But monasteries have been great sources of innovation and they nurtured sustainable economies in surrounding regions.
It would be simplistic to argue that an economic and social utopia could be created if there were a thriving monastery in every town of say, 10,000 people. But it is not too far-fetched to say that the decline of religious orders is both a cause and a consequence of dog-eat-dog capitalism.
St. Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism and a sixth-century Christian communist, had harsh words for monks who wanted private possessions. "This vice especially is to be cut out of the monastery by the roots," he wrote. Benedict knew that monastic communism required monks of strong character. The slothful and the proud would take, but would not give.
Society, of course, is not inspired by communism and efforts to make it so would be repressive and violent. Imposed equality is likely to be driven as much by resentment of the rich as by a desire to lift up the lowly.
But a monastery – or any religious order – is bound to have an educative effect on those who come near its glow. When fewer and fewer people opt for vowed poverty, that glow grows dimmer. The example of those who renounce worldly enticements in favour of the love of God and service to those in need quietly fades. Because of that, all are diminished.
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