As I try, without sounding like an idiot, to define the kind of economy best suited for sustainable farming, I think of the old monastic farm and then I do sound like an idiot. But hear me out. I lived and worked on a farm attached to a monastic-like seminary for several years in my student days. We were fortunate to have leadership that supported the idea of raising our own food and we did— most of our meat, milk, eggs, fruit and vegetables. Living and studying there, I learned something. The ancient monastery and its farm, still surviving in some places today, was partly an attempt to resolve the conflict between natural growth of plants and animals and the unnatural growth of money. Monks understood that true independence means separating the practices of the moneychangers from the production of food, clothing and shelter even though that is difficult to accomplish completely. Monks took vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and stability as a way to separate themselves from the instability that uncontrolled money growth as well as uncontrolled population growth can sometimes (always?) cause. They call it “living in but not of the world.” A quotation from the ancient Pali Canon, written around 500 BCE, makes the point well: “It would be absurd to say the enlightened monk with his heart set free, believes the perfected being survives after death, or indeed that he does not survive, or that he does and yet does not, or that he either does or does not. Because the monk is free, his state transcends all expression, predication, communication and knowledge.”
Granted that this kind of “in the world but not of the world” existence can become a copout. Monks can’t really separate themselves completely from the world of money and so they make a profession out of begging for the stuff. But let’s loosen up the definition of the word “completely” and see what happens. There have been times and places when monastery farms really did (and do) interrelate beneficially with the human community around them in an almost non-moneychanger economy. One of my favorite books is Rural Rides by William Cobbett written two centuries ago. Cobbett was a wrathful scourge of the wealthy and powerful in England including the Catholic Church hierarchy at that time. Contemplating a medieval monastery crumbling into ruins on one of his rural rides, and with great apologies for having to say something nice about Catholicism, he ruminates: “Here were a set of monks… they could not marry, could not have wives and families. They could possess no private property; they could bequeath nothing; they could own nothing but that which they owned in common…. They could hoard no money; they could save nothing. Whatever they received as rent for their lands they must necessarily spend upon the spot, for they never could quit that spot. They did spend it all upon the spot; they kept all the poor; their surrounding community saw no misery, and had never heard the damned name of pauper pronounced as long as these monks continued….” Monasteries in those days provided food for the poor around them but sold it to travelers at their “hospices” to make a little money.
Do you see what I’m groping at here? Cobbett, like other writers of his time (Oliver Goldsmith, especially in his poem, “The Deserted Village”) was bemoaning the plight of the poorer and middle class citizens after England enacted the Enclosure Acts that forced the peasants off what had been free soil and made land a commodity to be exploited by the rich. Rural Rides on many pages sounds eerily like Cobbett was traveling deep in the rural areas of the United States today, in an economy where a very small percentage of the people own most of the wealth and factory-minded moneychangers pretend that economy is about encouraging expensive and careless consumption rather than low cost and careful production. Many of his observations could have been written if he had paused in his rural rides at the site of a big old deserted barn in Iowa with an abandoned township school and empty rural church not far away, all crumbling into a landscape of endless corn and soybeans.
Could we have modern monastery farms that practice sustainable agriculture successfully without retreating into vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and stability and without relying on donations from the rich? I wonder. In the seminary, I used to draw laughs by saying that I really liked monastic life if we could just get rid of those vows and all that chapel praying. I wasn’t exactly joking. I knew that a monastery wouldn’t last long if the monks could get married, own personal property or tell the abbot to go fly a kite, but in many ways monastic life suited me. I hate travel. I hate worrying about money. I doubly hate spending the stuff. Glitter and trinkets bore me. I love what does not cost money, like the camaraderie that we “monks” enjoyed. We had a terrific baseball team. I love singing in harmony and we had a terrific choir too. I love working at farming. I love exploring deeply a world that is only a few hundred acres in size. There is more mystery and beauty in a farm, or even a garden, than I can ever discover in a lifetime. I love good fresh homegrown food. In bad weather, I love spending time reading and writing.
Why can’t a family farm come close to a sort of monastery that could protect itself from the world of paper money? Such family farmers would practice a little poverty, chastity, obedience and stability but not too much. We might need a little subsidy help, but not too much. There’s enough of us who love that kind of laidback life, surely, to feed the world without destroying it.