Chapter 33: Monks and Private Ownership

1 Above all, this evil practice must be uprooted and removed from the monastery. 2 We mean that without an order from the abbot, no one may presume to give, receive 3 or retain anything as his own, nothing at all–not a book, writing tablets or stylus–in short, not a single item, 4 especially since monks may not have the free disposal even of their own bodies and wills. 5 For their needs, they are to look to the father of the monastery, and are not allowed anything which the abbot has not given or permitted. 6 All things should be the common possession of all, as it is written, so that no one presumes to call anything his own (Acts 4:32). 7 But if anyone is caught indulging in this most evil practice, he should be warned a first and a second time. 8 If he does not amend, let him be subjected to punishment.

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

We have looked at the Cellarer and then at the goods of the monastery. Now Saint Benedict turns to the individual monk, wanting to make it entirely clear that a monk may not own anything at all.

We need to be clear about this in every monastery today: Private ownership is an evil practice and it must be rooted out of the monastery. It is a real mistake to start giving salaries to monks, to give monks spending money for which they do not have to make an accounting, to give monks some kinds of rights when it comes to material possessions. None of us monks has a right to own anything and we should strive to have as little as possible. Saint Benedict is clear in the Rule that monks should have what they really need and that abbot must supply those real needs.

This is such a strong teaching today when every person believes that he or she has a right to have things, to have material possessions, to decorate one’s own room, to purchase things without asking anyone. We monks are supposed to practice the kind of poverty by which we do not have a right to make decisions about our possessions or even our own bodies and souls. The abbot should be able to ask of any monk in the house a complete obedience and trust that the monk would give that obedience to him.

That does not mean that the monk could not speak to the abbot, disagree with the abbot, bring up objections to the abbot. It only means that if the abbot tells the monk that he is asking him to do something in spite of any objections, the monk should do it. The only exception would be if the abbot were to ask something immoral, and one hopes that would not happen!

So this poverty which is described in this Chapter of the Rule is about being completely dispossessed and about not even having right to make one’s own decisions by oneself. This is physically represented in a material poverty by which the monk can own absolutely nothing.

For our spirituality, we need to look at our own cells and see what we have for our use. If we have things that we do not really need or use, then they should be given to the cellarer. The Lord will truly bless a community when the monks are poor!