There have been some recent news stories, feature stories, and websites that have highlighted this interesting phenomenon of people moving toward a lifestyle of living without money. The most recent example is this Englishman, Mark Boyle. Here are two links to stories about him:
Then there is the German woman Heidimarie Schwermer, and here is the link to a story about her:
And then about 2 years ago there was a spate of stories about an even more radical American living in a cave outside of Moab, Utah. He even has his own website which he manages from a public library computer:
Apparently there are a lot more people moving in this direction, although of course they are nothing compared to all those who seek more money, etc. This is actually very interesting for many reasons. Although there are some real differences among these folk, they do share a basic fundamental thrust which separates them from the “way things are”–which many see as natural and as inevitable as the sun rising and setting. In one sense there is nothing “religious” about their way of life or their “philosophy”; but in another sense they have a very deep connection with a fundamentally religious view of life and a very real connection to all those who follow a monastic way. Although there is nothing intrinsically “evil” about money and to be “against money” is not particularly religious in any sense, there is this thing about our relationship to money that is indeed a problem, both socially and spiritually. And these people have a good sense of that–unlike so many of “professional religious.”
Now if one lives or has lived in a monastery or a Catholic religious house, or if one has visited such a place, one inevitably will realize at some point that one is “encased” in an entity that is worth millions in many instances–the Carthusians in Vermont built their place with very expensive granite, and recently I have been reading of these Carmelite monks in Wyoming who are planning this massive gothic monastery in the Rockies that will cost millions and will depend on a lot of donors. These days Catholic religious will tell you they are “cash poor” but maybe land rich. Monasteries/religious institutions that are large landowners are an ambiguous reality at best. Also, you will see very often these religious institutions being very friendly with rich and powerful benefactors who have acquired their money in very ambiguous ways. For example: the Catholic, Peter Grace of the former Grace Corp., who gave lots of money to Catholic religious institutions, also let thousands of people suffer through the notorious pollution the company caused and then refused to take responsibility for it and fought to avoid making it up to the people. Whatever be the case, it is so amazing how many religious people are either naïve, blind or willfully overlooking their very compromised relationship to money and wealth. Our secular moneyless friends are there to remind us there is another way.
The traditional defense of the large, well-endowed monasteries is that the individual monk “owns” nothing–it is only their for his use as needed, and the security it provides enables the monk to devote more of his time and energy to prayer and meditation–the main point of his life. However you deal with that line of thought, it has a long and venerable tradition, and no doubt many good monks and nuns have lived in such a context. Also, this position seems to appear in other religious traditions–like Buddhism, etc. The Dalai Lama himself has pointed out that one of the problems with earlier Tibetan Buddhism was that the monasteries were these huge landowners that dominated the whole society–it seemed that everyone was working to support the monks. He has gone so far as to say that in some ways when the Chinese took over and took everything away from the monks, that at least in this regard they are better now.
Now of course there is a completely different Christian monastic tradition, even older, that takes a completely different approach. It is against monks owning large institutions, and indeed it suspects all kinds of ownership. Seeking the same ultimate goal but interpreting the monastic charism in a very different way, it points to poverty in every sense of that word as very essential to the monastic identity. At the origins of Christian monasticism this is very apparent with our dear friends, the Desert Fathers. Plenty of stories about that! When Christian monasticism becomes very institutionalized and very big, reform movements almost always pushed in two directions: solitude, and poverty. Again, the Desert Heritage. St. Francis is another interesting example–his focus on poverty is so intense that even in his own lifetime his own followers abandon that commitment, and he is deeply saddened by that. In medieval Russia there was this battle of visions of what Russian monasticism should be like. The two conflicting groups were called: the Possessors, and the Nonpossessors. The contrast is self-explanatory. Historically the Possessors won out, and Russian monasticism developed rich, well-endowed monasteries. However, the Nonpossessors did not disappear. On the contrary they continued in their own small way, and this is the primary locus for the development of Russia’s greatest spiritual treasure–Russian Hesychasm. This developed and flourished in the small sketes and hermitages in the forests of Russia. And yes, to be fair, hesychasts were also to be found in the large monasteries.
Now with all that let us return to our secular moneyless friends! Are they a kind of hidden monasticism? Maybe. Probably not, but why bother with labels. When Merton met with some of the student leaders of the uprisings in 1968, they told him in effect, “We are the true monks.” And Merton accepted this challenge and developed it for his very last talk. He appreciated the fact that they understood better than the official monks that being a monk also meant being in a certain critical relationship to the social fabric of money, ownership, possessions, power, etc. Otherwise the monk’s renunciations were a mere fiction, a mind-game. Well, perhaps our moneyless friends and the movement they are part of seems to say something similar. In any case I find them engaging, challenging, and inspiring. Yes, certain criticisms could be leveled at them. For one, they seem inconsistent or worse, “moochers,”–take Suelo in Utah, for example, he hitches rides when he goes somewhere. Well, he can only do that because someone else HAS BOUGHT A CAR WITH MONEY! Or he goes to the library and uses a computer–that’s only there because of someone else’s money. Suelo has an answer for that: he uses the example of a bird in a downtown area of a city–the bird makes a nest on one of the ledges of a skyscraper. So be it. The bird is not “mooching”–just making use of what’s there to live his life. Incidentally, the father of this whole movement, Thoreau, was also accused of being inconsistent, and Emerson wrote in his defense, “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds!”
Now one could easily say that money in itself is not the real problem and that these people may be missing the main point: what’s in the heart. True enough. Suelo comes very close to saying that money in itself is the problem, but the others seem more nuanced. But what they all point to is the enormous corrupting influence of money in all our institutions: religious, political, social. Money and all it represents seems to drive our social order. You know the old saying about the “Golden Rule”: he who has the gold, sets the rules. And our friends do this critique in a very quiet, “monastic” way by simply living very, very differently. Monks could learn a lot from them instead of participating in a social, economic realm that is ordered by and for greed.
A further point: people have this sense that the given social and economic order is “natural,” “inevitable,” can’t be changed, that there are no possible alternatives. Our friends here suggest otherwise. Mark Boyle, the Englishman, does point out that the whole world could not take up his way of life tomorrow–that would be catastrophic, but he does rightly point to the fact that people can do a lot to simplify and reorder their lives around something more than being consumers. That they can slowly deconstruct this enormous edifice of acquisition, consumption, entertainment gluttony, etc. Again, one can see a very monastic dimension to all this.
Now moving to another voice and quite a different piece of writing, let us turn to the social critic Chris Hedges. This man is one of the deepest thinking people writing on our social condition today, and his weekly essay can be found on truthdig.com–usually appearing on Mondays. This particular piece should be read by everyone, and here is the link to it:
Many people find his analysis too much to swallow–it is so uncompromising and so bleak, but I think he hits the bullseye almost every time. (Incidentally, Merton in some of his writings already was hinting at this kind of diagnosis in the 60s). But now come some questions for us on the monastic path. Given Hedges’ analysis and given the humble alternative lifestyles of our moneyless friends, inquiring minds should be asking themselves: What is the role, the place of the monk in the world that Hedges describes? How can one expect any traditional monasticism to be renewed/rekindled in such an age? Are our moneyless friends perhaps harbingers of a radically new universal monasticism that will start to appear–a monasticism that might not even carry that label. The charism does not depend on labels, on institutions, on appearances. Some have pointed toward something like this years ago. Certainly there will be monks and nuns who are strictly ecclesially oriented, and that’s ok–many of them are good people who have something to contribute, but the real answer to the technological barbarism and human desolation that we are entering into will come perhaps from monks who hardly look like monks…. One major proviso: yes our friends seem to have one piece of the puzzle of how to live in this civilizational nightmare, but another piece is badly needed. Those who have gone deep into the human heart, deep into the center of their being, and stand in the Presence from moment to moment–speaking only of my own tradition now, others can be put it in their own terms–hold an absolutely essential other piece of the puzzle of how to live in this kind of age. Only People of the Heart, as I call them, will be able to navigate through this kind of world without getting lost. They will be marked by nonviolence, compassion, freedom, perhaps silence and solitude, but not necessarily–also not necessarily with robes or titles for sure. The “world” as the New Testament would call it, or today we would say, “the System,” is marked by the “sign of the Beast”: greed, consumption, acquisition, war, violence, fear, hatred, porn, exploitation, etc., etc. In a sense the monk’s way has never been clearer! Something to think about…..