This past Friday, I attended the Sophia Institute annual conference. I am a fellow of Sophia and presented a short paper there on Orthodox Christian monastic enterprise. The theme of the conference this year was “Monasticism, Asceticism and Holiness in the Eastern Orthodox World.” In addition to my paper, the subjects of the keynote addresses may interest readers of the PowerBlog.
The first Keynote address came from Karri Whipple of Drew University. The title was “Ascetical Themes in the New Testament.” In particular, she explored a sociological understanding of asceticism that emphasizes its positive side in creating alternate community culture, transforming social definitions and relationships, and forming identity. Thus Jesus calls his disciples to live differently from both pagans and other Jews and challenges common social assumptions (such as the status of children, like whom he says all must become if they wish to enter the kingdom of heaven). St. Paul, furthermore, characterizes the whole Christian life as being “in Christ” through baptism and stresses the life-transforming effect of this redefinition of personal identity (see, e.g., Romans 6). While Christ does not call everyone to literally leave everything to follow him, he demands the best of his followers, and in the Church they receive new personal and social identities. Grasping this side of asceticism, I would add, helps to demonstrate its importance in economic life. As Tertullian put it in his defense of the faith to the Roman authorities, “We sail with you, and fight with you, and till the ground with you; and in like manner we unite with you in your traffickings — even in the various arts we make public property of our works for your benefit.” That is, Christians do most of the same professions as those outside the Church, but their ascetic orientation makes their activity into conscious and deliberate service (“we make public property of our works for your benefit”).
The second keynote lecture came from Paul Blowers of Emmanuel Christian School, and it was on the influence of the desert fathers on the thought of St. Maximos the Confessor. The lecture was both historical and interpretive, commenting on Maximos’s life as well as exploring his contribution to theological anthropology in his understanding of human passivity. Though the passions often have a bad connotation in patristic thought, Maximos nevertheless stressed that these “Gentiles of the soul” could be and needed to be converted. Thus, while passions such as fear, desire, pleasure, and grief can be harmful to our souls, they can also be transfigured in our spiritual struggle, manifesting as true caution towards evil and reverence toward God, hope for our salvation, joy at the presence of what is good, and restorative contrition for our failings. St. Maximos’s work, Blowers pointed out, offers exceptional insight for better understanding of our emotional states as well as how by God’s grace they can be transfigured. One way in which this relates to what we do at Acton is that it could color our understanding of the psychological motives behind economic action. Why precisely people do what they do can vary widely depending on the state of a person’s heart and, importantly, can be either virtuous or vicious depending on the extent to which a person has converted these “Gentiles of the soul.” Related to this, Fr. Michael Butler and Andrew Morriss draw heavily from the work of St. Maximos in their recent monograph on environmentalism, Creation and the Heart of Man, exploring his understanding of asceticism among other aspects of his thought, as well as the different dispositions that may motivate our service of God in care of his creation.
The third keynote was on Byzantine monasticism and was from James Skedros of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. I found this talk to be especially interesting since my own research for the conference focuses on Eastern monastic market activity. Skedros detailed how many Byzantine monasteries were and sought to be independent from both the Church hierarchy and state control. In many ways, they were (or at least tried to be) purely private enterprises. However, their economic enterprise, among other motivations, attracted the interest of both Church and state. Thus, not only did they seek to be free institutions, but their economic success motivated both the Church and the state to extend their reach to absorb these monasteries. “Power tends to corrupt” in Byzantium as well, and economic freedom is no new aspiration in the Christian tradition, not least in the East.
The final keynote was from Scott Kenworthy of the University of Miami on “Asceticism and Holiness in Pre-Revolutionary Russian Monasticism.” His talk covered some of the same ground as his essay from a few years ago on philanthropy and the Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, which can be downloaded with other essays in the second Sophia Institute volume here. Nevertheless, I found especially helpful his focus on the fact that though the Orthodox tradition highly values the contemplative, hesychastic life, the example of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Russia also shows that “service is asceticism.” That is, while certainly there have been trends of greater or lesser social action throughout the history of the Church, the Orthodox also have a long tradition of honoring the sanctity of service, refusing to view honest work as purely mundane or secular. I find this especially important for all of us who, though we may long for the desert, live our lives in “the world” with only limited opportunity to pray in solitude and attend Church services, unlike monks. The vast work of the Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra is a great example of how both Mary and Martha are valued in the Orthodox tradition. As one monk of the Egyptian desert once said, “I think Mary always needs Martha, and by Martha’s help Mary is praised.”
Which brings me to the subject of my own paper: “Markets and Monasticism: A Brief Survey and Appraisal of Eastern Christian Monastic Enterprise.” I write,
Even monks need to pay the bills, so to speak. While Weber may not be correct about the Eastern monastic attitude toward labor, he is right when he says, “In fact the whole history of monasticism is in a certain sense the history of a continual struggle with the problem of the secularizing influence of wealth.” This history shows that monks still need the world to survive, which historically has led to a tension between the monastic vow of poverty and “the secularizing influence of wealth.” This is the basis of the interaction between markets and monasticism, just as much in the East as in the West.
Not only do the Marys and Marthas of monasticism need one another, but monasticism as a whole needs the Marthas of the world. In the East, this has led to expansive production and trade on the part of monasteries, as well as enabling their vital charitable work. This history has its bright spots and its blemishes, in the end proving to be anything but insignificant.
For those interested in hearing more on this subject, I will be lecturing at Acton University this summer on the subject of “Markets and Monasticism,” both East and West.
All in all, I think this year’s Sophia conference was another success, and I look forward to the future work of the Institute and its fellows.
You can read more about the Sophia Institute at its official website here.