Above all, this evil practice [of private ownership] must be uprooted and removed from the monastery. We mean that, without an order from the prioress or abbot, no members may presume to give, receive, or retain anything that is their own, nothing at all – not a book, writing tablets, or stylus – in short not a single item, especially since monastics may not have the free disposal even of their own bodies and wills. For their needs, they are to look to the prioress or abbot of the monastery, and are not allowed anything which the prioress or abbot has not given or permitted. “All things should be the common possession of all, as it is written, so that no one presumes ownership of anything” (Acts 4:32).
But if any members are caught indulging in this most evil practice, they should be warned a first and a second time. If they do not amend, let them be subjected to punishment.
Why would Benedict call private ownership an “evil practice”? What implications might this have on us today who own our own clothes, books, furniture, cars, houses and alike? Are we indulging in an evil that runs contrary to the rule and the divine life?
For Benedict and his communities, nothing is to get in the way of being open and responsive to the drawing of love and the work this involves. How might we know this in our own lives? Vocationally, when we are in the ‘sweet spot’ of how we can love, this call to be free of ownership does not sound so extreme. Parents in love with their children may discover a readiness to sell what they have in order to provide for their ‘treasures from heaven’; in the bond and love of community life we discover a lightness of heart that is not dependent on the ownership of anything.
As the life of love has its way with us, the less possessive we become; the stuff of life recedes from the centre of things. Joy comes from the many practical and ordinary ways we can love each other with the things around us.
Ideally, if there is to be any attachment, any bond, it is to divine love, to God, first. All other loving can then flow from this primary attachment. This primary, first, attachment is by its nature non-possessive, self emptying, and expressive of love (faithful), whatever may be the circumstance or consequence. This is the ideal that we all gently work towards; it was the same for the early communities of Benedict.
Today, we live with private ownership as a principle and a legal right. This is why it is so important to keep this chapter in mind. We need a balance between the stuff of life and seeing this stuff as primarily practical. A car, for example, need not be an extension of the ego; if its presence is practical, then there will be more of a willingness to share it with family and friends and not to possess it.
It is the “evil practice” of consumerism that today must be “uprooted and removed”. Consumerism is central to our abuse of the planet. And at the heart of consumerism is the conflation of ‘to use’ and ‘to own’. To use something, we need not own it – things can be shared. For example, in an apartment block every unit does not need a washing machine; there can be two, three, four machines in one place for all to use. If there is a local laundromat, then all the neighbourhood can share it. Circumstances such as these are consistent with the spirit of the rule.
Consumerism has us identify with stuff. What results is the ownership of things as an extension of who we are. This psychological fusion between ownership and identity encourages a focus on things as ‘mine’. In all this is the tendency to live life more superficially. This fusion has consumerism providing an inner stability that is dependent on personal ownership, on what we possess. What is lost in this is the divine life as primary attachment. What we own become idols; a life of possessing becomes idolatry. We all live this to some extent. This is what Benedict wants gone from the communal life.
A meditation practice breaks down this tendency to idolise because the mantra draws attention consistently down into the heart of consciousness, into God and away from an attachment to stuff. The fusion between ownership and identity starts breaking down. The stuff around us becomes less mine and more simply there for ourselves and others to share. This stability and the loving heart it promotes, become more and more our foundation for living. All this makes for a rich communal life.
As Jesus looked at him, he felt love for him and said, “You lack one thing. Go, sell whatever you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” But at this statement, the man looked sad and went away sorrowful, for he was very rich. (Mark 10:21-22, NRSV)