CHAPTER LVII. Of the Artificers of the Monastery
10 Apr. 10 Aug. 10 Dec.
Should there be artificers in the Monastery, let them work at their crafts in all humility, if the Abbot give permission. But if any of them be puffed up by reason of his knowledge of his craft, in that he seemeth to confer some benefit on the Monastery, let such a one be taken from it, and not exercise it again, unless, perchance, when he hath humbled himself, the Abbot bid him work at it anew. And if any of the work of the artificers is to be sold, let those by whom the business is done see that they defraud not the Monastery. Let them ever be mindful of Ananias and Saphira, lest perchance, they, and all who deal fraudulently with the goods of the Monastery, should suffer in their souls the death which these incurred in the body. But with regard to the prices of such things, let not the vice of avarice creep in, but let them always be sold a little cheaper than by men in the world, that God may be glorified in all things.
The artificers or craftsmen of the monastery are those brethren who have special abilities, knowledge, or skills. More often than not, men enter the monastery already having acquired certain skills or qualifications. It may also happen that a brother, with the blessing of obedience, learns a new skill after entering the monastery, or perfects the knowledge he already has. Saint Benedict is thinking here of skills and qualifications that we would call “marketable.” He recognises the danger inherent in a brother having skills that may either generate income for the monastery, or reduce expenditures, or endow the monastery with a certain fame. There are many sad stories of monks become famous for their productions—be they artisanal, musical, technological, or intellectual—who have squandered the grace of the monastic life in the pursuit of worldly success. We must be wary of hyphenated monks: the monk-musician, the monk-scholar, the monk-sculptor, the monk-designer, the monk-author, the monk-scientist, the monk-brewer, the monk-farmer, the monk-chef, the monk-painter, the monk-weaver, the monk-lecturer, and so on. “For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?” (Mark 8:36).
It sometimes happens that a monk becomes so engrossed in his work, or his study, or his particular project that he falls, slowly and almost imperceptibly by degrees, into a state of indifference and lukewarmness with regard to the monastic observance. Such a monk risks hearing Our Lord’s admonition to the Church at Ephesus:
But I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first charity. Be mindful therefore from whence thou art fallen: and do penance, and do the first works. Or else I come to thee, and will move thy candlestick out of its place, except thou do penance. (Apocalypse 2:4-5)
A monk must be dedicated to the work given him by obedience and, at the same time, detached from it; ready to leave it aside and to pick it up again as the abbot decides. One does not come to the monastery to be a scholar, or a designer, or a musician, or a farmer, or a chef, or a cobbler, or a joiner, or anything else. One does not even come to the monastery to be a priest. One comes to the monastery, as Saint Benedict will say in Chapter LVIII, to seek God truly; to spend oneself gladly in the Opus Dei; to embrace obedience; and to walk in the way of humiliations. The counsel concerning monastic vocations that Abbot Ildefons Herwegen gave Dom Damasus Winzen is one that the Father Master and I often repeat: “Accept no man who does not want to be a monk.”
A man may enter the cloister really wanting to be a monk and, after a few years, lose his initial zeal and begin to set his goals on the cultivation of a particular talent, or on some kind of material achievement. Such a monk may attain a certain renown. He may become a financial boon to his monastery. The devil lies in wait to ambush such a monk. “Look at how successful you have become. Your clocks — or your paintings, or your recordings, or your jellies, or your beer, or your pottery, or your candles, or your soaps — are prize-winning. Your name is known up and down the country and beyond. You have increased your monastery’s income tenfold. You ought to have your say in the way things are done here. After all, the others are mere drones. You are the chief provider. The monastery’s success is a tribute to your skills. You ought not be held to the same observance as the others. You are special. You are different. You are unique.” Do you not recognise in this discourse the seductive, lying hiss of the ancient serpent?
After warning of the danger of the vice of avarice creeping into the cloister, Saint Benedict reaffirms the primacy of the glory of God in the monastery: “That God may be glorified in all things.” This is, in effect, another way of saying, “Let nothing, then, be preferred to the Work of God” (Chapter XLIII). We are not far in this chapter from the word that Our Lord addressed to Martha at Bethany:
And the Lord answering, said to her: Martha, Martha, thou art careful, and art troubled about many things: but one thing is necessary. Mary hath chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her. (Luke 10:41-42)