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Why Monasteries Succeed But Secular Communes Fail

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In a lecture on markets and monasticism at Acton University, Dylan Pahman gave a fascinating overview and analysis of the interaction between Christian monasticism and markets. He’s written on this before and has a longer paper on the topic as well.

In the talk, he highlighted a range of facts and features, from monastic teachings on wealth and poverty to the historical realities of monastic communities and enterprises. Over the centuries, monasteries have contributed a host of products and services to civilization and culture, often countering the common assumption that all such communities are flatly against trade, production, and wealth creation.

One point that stood out in particular was Pahman’s summary of a recent study by Nathan Smith, in which Smith ponders how these communities have managed to succeed for so long, particularly given their many (internally) socialistic traits. According to one study, the average longevity of monasteries is 463 years(!), which is far longer than the lifespan of most companies and states, never mind your run-of-the-mill secular commune (Portlandia variations included).

There are a variety of forces that may contribute to this, including unique pressures of lifelong commitment, corresponding theological reinforcement, etc. But when it comes to some of the more universal traits that help monastic communities thrive, they may offer some lessons to help orient and affirm our broader thoughts about community in the context of work, trade, enterprise, and worship.

In keeping with that particular focus, consider the following traits they highlight. For the rest, consider the full papers (Pahman and Smith).

1. Worship

As Smith notes, the central presence of worship is one of the key drivers of this success, not only as a unifying force, but a continuous motivation and empowerment that secular communities so often lack.

What makes monasteries different is that when monks and nuns engage in worship…they also build spiritual capital, thus acquiring an increasing “taste for” (or “productivity in”) worship, which makes them unlikely to wish to leave the monastery in future. By this account, worship has properties that resemble “addictive” goods. Marx’s dictum about religion being an “opiate” turns out to be true, except that, unlike narcotics, worship does not degrade human faculties. The “addictive” character of worship solves the turnover problem and enables monasteries to make (voluntary) socialism work.

2. Eremitic Origins

Unlike a secular commune, which likely begins with a group focused on living communely together (or, as the latest phrase goes, “doing life together”), monasteries often began with a single hermit going out into the wilderness or the forest to pray, and others simply followed in turn. Such beginnings are far from the “individualism” that one thinks of in a more typical market context. Nevertheless, it’s noteworthy that so many of these communities begin with individual initiative tied to something truly before and beyond the community. As Pahman explains:

Among those disaffected by any particular society, there will always be some who embrace an eremitic lifestyle. When this is done for spiritual purposes, the individual cultivates spiritual capital (or, we might say, heavenly treasure), which, in turn, attracts others to follow the hermit’s example. After a while, enough monastics group together and form coenobitic communities.

3. Competition

Although many secular communes do, in fact, barter and sell with the “outside world,” much like monastic communities, Smith observes that in the case of monasteries, “a high degree of competition has existed within monasticism among orders and practices,” and that competition for members “may also have given impetus to monastic achievements.” As other monastic communities emerge around different spiritual approaches and practices, the pressures of competition likely give some check, albeit long-term, to the corresponding communities, whether on their approach to prayer, work, community, or otherwise.

4. Cycle of Renewal

In a way, this really just ties all the previous points together, which (I think) serves to affirm them. Smith writes that “there seems to be a monastic reform cycle, with repeated decay and renewal,” in which “monasteries relax until they are seen as too worldly by zealots, who then seek to renew austere devotion by founding new orders or reforming older orders from within.” The parallels here with entrepreneurship, innovation, and value are plain to see, in which competition keeps things in check. When it fails to preserve existing institutions, new enterprises are formed to meet the need.

As for what this all means for application in the present day or in the market economy more generally, it’s a bit unclear. But at the very least, the heightened combination of faith/worship, work, and service to one’s community — a feature Christians ought to strive for, even in less overtly religious vocations — offers a convenient case study to draw out some of these tensions.

If heightened worship helps these communities and institutions survive by empowering “human faculties” toward greater unity and production, how might similar or different forms of worship impact our daily work in other vocations and industries? If up-front individual ownership and initiative provides a stable groundwork in these cases, what might that teach us about the artificial designs and central planning of outsiders that we so often encounter?

If competition and this “cycle of renewal” benefits religious communities with overt ethical and transcendent aims and ends, how much more do we need to preserve its place in the marketplace?

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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