Monks Making Money
A tiny band of Teresian Carmelites in Massachusetts made the news recently with an unusual business plan: to sell a high-end wrinkle reducer online. "My first thought was, ?What are people going to think about nuns and monks making cream for your face?'" Sister Nancy Connors told AP reporter Stephanie Reitz. "But it's a good product, I use it every day and I believe it will help people."
Though the before and after photos on the website are impressive, there's nothing particularly miraculous about the cream's origins. Several years ago, scientists at the University of Massachusetts Medical School stumbled across a substance in human hearts that happens to revitalize the skin. A friendship between one scientist's wife and the monk on the other end of the monastery's prayer line led, eventually, to the business partnership. The cream is exclusively promoted on the monastery's website, alongside offers for Spiritual Enrollments and Adopt-A-Carmelite.
Contemplation and commerce have existed side-by-side since the beginnings of monasticism.
The sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict, considered the founding document of Western monasticism, states, "Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore the brothers must be busy with manual labor at specified times, and also with divine reading at specified hours ? for they are really monks when they live by the labor of their hands, as our fathers and the Apostles did." Women began to live in communities under Benedict's order by the seventh century, so "real nuns" work with their hands as well.
The first beneficiaries of this labor were monks and nuns themselves, for once monasticism shifted from being a largely solitary affair to a largely communal one there were many more crops to tend, meals to prepare, dishes to wash, and so on. The next beneficiaries were monastery guests - Benedictines are renowned for their hospitality - and recipients of monastic charity. (In addition to paying their own bills, the Teresian Carmelites will use proceeds from the face cream sales for their "work serving the needs of the poor and marginalized.") Beyond meeting such immediate needs, many monasteries over the years became economic powerhouses, controlling fertile lands and vineyards, amassing precious goods, and influencing local politics. Periodically internal or external critics suggested that fantastic wealth wasn't quite what Benedict had in mind, which is how we got reformed orders and, a bit less directly, Protestantism.
Early monastic products included food, beverages, and household products like baskets. Some were consumed on-site, some shared, some sold, and a legendary few destroyed - Abba Paul, a figure in John Cassian's fourth-century Institutes, lived too far out in the desert to attract customers for his baskets, but he believed in the value of manual labor, so every year he would weave a cave-full of baskets, burn them, and start over again.
Common monastic wares today include beer and wine, cheese, baked goods, preserves, CDs, candles, bath products, cards, and books. But wait - there's more. The Monks of New Skete make dog biscuits complete with peppermint for fresh breath. St. Gregory's Friary bottles garlic hot sauces in three levels of spiciness. (Maybe it ought to partner with the Monks of New Skete to create bad breath-fighting products for humans.) The Trappists of Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina sell "tea bags" of organic plant food. And the LaserMonks of Wisconsin offer deep discounts on ink and toner.
Lest Protestants chuckle, when was the last time your church held a bake sale, raffle, pancake breakfast, or car wash? Besides, in these tough economic times, congregations of all sorts might need to get more financially creative. I once attended a church that involved members in farming church land, selling strawberries in summer, and chopping wood for winter heat. At the church I attend now, a narthex table regularly features extra produce from members' gardens, offered free but placed next to a donation cup for a relief organization, and a farm couple sells fresh organic eggs after the service. I couldn't begin to recall all the Christmas gifts I've purchased at Ten Thousand Villages and similar shops. Opportunities abound for those so inspired.
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Public domain image, head of St. Benedict, detail from painting by Fra Angelico, Crucifixion with Weeping Mary and Saints at the Foot of the Cross, from the Cloister of San Marco, Florence, via Wikimedia Commons. Image reversed.