The monks of the desert lived in near-total poverty. They were reacting both in obedience to their reading of Scripture (particularly the story of the Rich Young Ruler) and to the sudden influx of wealth and prestige the church experienced in the third and fourth centuries. Their choice of lifestyle seems incredibly extreme today.
One story is told of a monk who sold even his Gospel book because it told him to sell all and give to the poor. To me, someone who has several Bibles on his shelf, and many other books besides, that way of life seems quite impossible. It is similarly hard to understand the sayings of the desert fathers which celebrate the sick and elderly who refuse to save, or even to accept, just a few coins for their own well-being.
Except perhaps for the commitment to celibacy, poverty is the part of the monastic way of life that seems most out of touch and indeed inhuman to contemporary sensibilities. And yet it is for that reason the most needed, even if in a less extreme a form, because materialism and consumerism are surely the great idols of our age.
We are addicted to products, and to the status they signify. When catastrophe strikes the nation, our leaders (of both parties) warn us to keep shopping, lest the terrorists win. We are, as a people and as a generation, deeply in debt. The recent economic meltdown has a complex variety of causes, but while fingers point in different directions, one thing is clear: there is no security in wealth.
None of this is a new phenomenon, of course. The monks knew full well, as Jesus taught, the danger of placing one's trust and one's self-worth on material possessions. And modern culture is not blind to it either; the popular movie Fight Club features a protagonist who, unsatisfied by his comfortable material existence, finds solace in a violent and nihilistic but arguably monastic way of life.
But how do we live out this monastic commitment to poverty today? Move to the woods and forage for food? Become homeless and live on the streets? Are those extreme examples our only options, or are there ways to begin incorporating a monastic vision of life into our ordinary lives as workers and consumers?