I have said it often enough over the past forty-seven years as a monk to have gotten tired of hearing myself say it, but here I am actually writing it: monks (and nuns) don’t receive a monthly pay check from the Vatican for being good monks and nuns. Therefore, in order to survive, every monastery of monks and nuns must “do” something in order to earn an income and keep their monastery solvent. The reality of religious life includes the fact that there is no way around some amount of commerce, the buying and selling of goods, that is necessary in order to survive in the world today. In a word, prayer is important, but not enough. Or expressed another way: in addition to the crucial work of prayer, monks and nuns must also do more. As the American Shakers expressed it: “Hands to work and hearts to God.” That is a good motto for monks and nuns today as well, in Italy as anywhere.
In the case of Benedictines, what the monks and nuns “do” can vary greatly from monastery to monastery, and even among the various persons within the same community. The common thread is that every community must find a way to make ends meet, and often that way is through a product or a number of products or a service or services performed.
Many moons ago, when television was only “black and white,” before the Advent of color TV, there was a show called, “What’s My Line?” The format of the show was this: four “distinguished panelists,” usually well-known personalities in the entertainment industry, had to try to determine, and ultimately guess correctly, what a particular person did, by asking a round of questions that would reveal the usually “surprising” occupation of the one being interrogated. Sometimes the panelist were “stumped,” without correctly guessing the profession of the guest, who would receive a larger amount of money (although paltry compared to modern standards) than if the panelists quickly determined the guest’s occupation.
During one of the episodes of “What’s My Line?” in the late 1950s, a “real live nun,” in a habit, was the guest, whose “profession within her profession” was unknown to the panelists, other than that she was a nun. When the panelists were nearly stumped with the line of work of the nun guest, one of the panelists (Random House book publisher Benet Serf, who was Jewish) finally asked, “are you a dentist?” and the answer was, “yes.” Dentistry was how this particular Marist Sister helped earn some of the daily bread for her community many decades ago.
I use this example to emphasize the variety of works in which monks and nuns and other men and women religious are employed, with the range presumably much wider now than fifty or sixty years ago. Nonetheless, the reality remains the same: how best to undertake work that is compatible with religious life and also produce an income.
Recently, a Benedictine monk in Italy, Dom Roberto Ferrari, wrote a book entitled: “Economia della Salvezza or la Salvezza dell’Economia?,” translated as, “Salvation Economy or Saving the Economy?” In his book, Dom Ferrari considers the various and sundry ways that monastic communities today balance, or try to balance, their budgets, in order to maintain the material fabric of their life. This normally implies giving an important place to work, “labora,” in Latin, which Saint Benedict considers an essential part of the monastic structure.
In his “Rule for Monks,” written about 500 AD, Saint Benedict says in chapter forty-eight, “On the Daily Manual Labor,” that, “for then are they truly monks when they live by the labor of their hands, like our fathers and the apostles.” Here Saint Benedict is no doubt calling to mind the fact that many of the twelve Apostles were fishermen, that Saint Paul was a tentmaker, and the desert fathers and mothers wove baskets and ropes and other products to sell. These works were done in order to “glorify God in all things” (another important Benedictine theme), and to earn one’s daily bread.
Dom Roberto Ferrari’s recent book takes a look at monastic economy around the world, but especially Italy, and this essay will concentrate on Italian monastic economy, since I am currently living here and readers might be interested in knowing how Italian monastic life is faring in our globally challenging economic times.
In ages past, Italian monasteries of both men and women were often dependent on farm work, either in order to produce the food they ate and drank (from vegetables and grains to wine and beer production). Today it is difficult, as it is almost everywhere, to make one’s living by farming alone. Some monasteries still have some agricultural endeavors, but others have given them up. For example, the Trappist monks just outside of Rome at Frattocchie, the Abbey of Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament, still have many acres of land on which they grow grapes for making wine. Some of the wine produced is for their own consumption and some of it is sold in their shop at the entrance to the monastery.
Here is how the Trappists of Frattocchie describe their manual labor: “Being faithful to humble toil, the monks participate in the work of divine creation and redemption and gain their livelihood and assist others, especially the poor.” In addition to the upkeep of their house, these monks, like many others in Italy as well, engage in a variety of “works”: in the vineyards, the vegetable garden, the giftshop, the kitchen, the sacristy, the library, as well as the reception of guests and the care of their own elderly or infirm monks.
I use this one example of what is true in most of Italy’s monasteries: that the manual or intellectual work of the monastery helps in the promotion of the autonomy of the house, without endorsing opulence, but achieving a certain level of living simply in order to “simply live.” Monks and nuns are not in the business of “amassing fortunes,” but certainly of making ends meet, and if they are unable to do so, and others do not come to their aid, they will ultimately have to close their monastery.
From what has just been said, it should be stated that nearly all of the monasteries in Italy have guest or retreat houses, where individuals, couples or groups can enjoy sharing for some days or weeks in the life of the monastery. Donations that are left for stays in the monastery are usually a source of a modest or sometimes larger means of income for the community.
Saint Benedict devotes an entire and lengthy chapter (53) of his Rule to “The Reception of Guests,” whom he says are to be “received as Christ,” and are “never lacking in a monastery.” This fact is as true today as it was in sixth century Italy when Saint Benedict wrote his Rule. All the monasteries I have visited in Italy over the past two years seem to have no trouble attracting guests, who in some cases come by the bus loads, as to such places as Montecassino and Subiaco. This presents its own set of challenges and communities have to find creative ways in order to preserve the rhythm of their life as well as adequately receiving those who come to them.
In addition, many of the monasteries have gift or book shops, where products either made at the monastery or purchased from other sources, can be sold.
Some of the “monastic products,” made by monks and nuns, I have seen over the past two years in Italy include the following: soaps (of many shapes, sizes and scents), lotions, shampoo, perfume, chocolate, liquor, beer, wine, cookies, biscotti, preserves and jellies, honey, rosaries, prayer ropes, vestments, altar breads (hosts), altar linens, carvings, leather book covers, (especially for Bibles and Liturgy of the Hours books), photo greeting cards, ceramic bowls, plates and cups, sculptures, wooden crosses (to wear or carry in one’s pocket), handwritten icons, as well as reproductions of icons that are mounted on wooden boards. I am sure I am forgetting or unaware of other products made by monks and nuns, but the above are some that I readily recall in visits to monasteries over the past many months of my working in Rome.
Today, of course, many of the monastic products are available on monastery webpages, as well as at the monastery itself. Just as we should never “live to shop,” but shop in order to live, so also, monks ideally never “live to work,” but work in order to live!