Forms of economy and work in Polish monasteries

Work-prayer balance in monastic life

From the very beginning of monasticism, work and economy has generated deep tensions within religious life. Early ascetics believed that work was unnecessary: God would provide for them as we see it in some stories from the Apophtegmata Patrum (Anon 2003). But the Desert Fathers soon realised that they could not live as angelic beings and that work was necessity for their material, or biological survival. This acceptance, that work is necessary, corresponds to the first stage of quotidianisation (or ‘everydayness’) of monastic charisma. Each monastic order began to develop a specific spirituality of work. Indeed, to make work an integral part of monastic spirituality is one of the main strategies in the integration of worldly elements in the monastic utopia.

St Benedict (f550) famously embodies the essence of work in his definition of the monk: ‘When they live by the labour of their hands, as our fathers and the apostles did, then they are really monks’ (Rule: Chap. 48). But the institutionalisation of work in monastic rule does not mean that the tension has disappeared, even 1,500 years after the redaction of the rule. The idea that monastic life is simply a life of prayer can still be held by my new candidates to the monastery, as the master of novices in J^drzejow explains. He says that young men come to the monastery to pray and they are surprised when they have to work. According to another monk of the same community, ‘people today are afraid of work and it is easy to look for a place where you think that it will be money. And monastery is not such a place.’ Other monks emphasised in interviews that the monastery is not a place where work is not done. Nevertheless, in monastic life keeping a work-prayer balance is always challenging. A monk of J^drzejow says:

‘Ora et labora' [...] In this principle not ‘ora’ is important, not ‘labora’ is important, but it is ‘et’. Because a monk cannot pray too much, because he will stop working, and he cannot work too much, because he will stop praying. That is why. Saint Benedict in his rule writes that our day is divided into these three stages, eight hours of work, eight hours of prayer, eight hours for rest.

(May 2019).

The difficulty in keeping this balance increases with pastoral activities undertaken outside the monastery. As a monk of J^drzejow told us, only the half of the community is present for prayer or for recreation, because they are involved in activities in the parish.

It is for this reason that the monastery of Biskupow chose not to be confronted with the tension of external pastoral activities but instead emphasised manual work. As noted earlier, this community developed a new interpretation of the Benedictine rule influenced by the Focolari spirituality, this can be found in three elements: in the dormitory, in manual work performed together and service in the kitchen in turn. These three elements reveal a new accent on community life in work but also in the daily life of the community.

The place of work in the spirituality of the female community we studied is quite specific in comparison with Benedictine orders. Nuns must work in separate rooms in order to preserve the necessary silence and solitude favourable to prayer and contemplation. For once, it means that sisters only accept works which can be integrated in this configuration. A nun explains:

We are recluses. We do not accept work that would compromise silence and solitude which is God’s weapon [tool] from the enclosure. In our monastery we are at the early stages of organising some work, mainly what we do is to create devotional items [icons] in the sense of the figure of the Infant Jesus.

Another sister explains:

Yes, it is with us that the specifics are that we work separately. Of course, there are elements of collective work, for example, we make reserves for the winter, it is known that one sister is not able to do everything [...] but basically these works whether manual or not, are chosen so that each one of the sisters could individually perform them.

This condition naturally has consequences about the kind of work or production nuns do. Either, they must find different jobs for each sister, or to find a type of production that can be undertaken in separate rooms, as for example, in the production of hosts in a Carmelite monastery in France (Jonveaux 201 lb).

An economy based on pastoral activities: monastic religious goods

Pastoral work plays an important role in the activities of Polish monasteries we studied, especially in regard to the parishes, the reception of pilgrims in the monastery or among those on spiritual retreats in the guesthouse. The establishment of parishes came as a result of the reforms of Emperor Joseph II, as this part of Poland belonged to Austria at that period in history. Indeed, before these reforms monasteries in Poland did not have responsibilities for many parishes at all. In 1772, only 8.5 per cent of the parishes were in the charge of religious priests (Kloczowski 1983, p. 55). The focus on pastoral work increased between the 1960s and the 1980s with a clear expansion in the number of religious priests: ‘At the turn of the 1960s and 1970s there was a slight dip in the number of religious (there were 7,707 in 1977, including 4,242 religious priests) (Zamiatala 2011, p. 36). In the 1970s and 1980s the rise of the number of religious priests continued, with 9,277 in 1981 and 12,117 in 1988 (Zamiatala 2011, p. 40)’ (Jewdokimow 2020, p. 64).

In these monasteries, pastoral care is not simply a free religious activity of monks for the benefit of the outside world, but it also represents an important part of revenues for the monastic community. In Tyniec for instance, the former abbot maintained that the largest source of revenue was the pastoral sector with mass stipends and pilgrims. In Biskupow, pilgrims and guests on spiritual retreats are also an important source of revenue. The monastery of Jtjdrzejow is an interesting case because the largest source of income is from parishes. According to the bursar, they represent 75 per cent to 80 per cent of the total revenue. Although this monastery corresponds with some aspects of the Austrian model with the centrality of its parish work, the difference is, however, that the revenues for the community also derive from this work, which is not the case in Austria, where the largest part of the revenue comes from forestry products or property assets. According to a monk of J^drzejow, parishes are a good source of revenue from the economic point of view, because it is a stable income. The end of Communism also brought new possibilities for the monks of J^drzejow, as they are now permitted to teach religion at school for which they receive payment from the state. This is, according to the bursar, the second largest source of revenue for the community.

In this sense, these pastoral activities represent real economic goods and services. Continuing the work of Weber, Iannaccone and Stark and Bainbridge, Stolz identifies four categories of religious goods (Stolz 2006). The majority of monastic religious goods sold by monks are ‘religious consumer goods’ (Stolz 2006, p. 22). Spiritual retreat refers, for instance, to a kind of ‘more social’ religious consumer good, ‘but which are still divisible, transferable and exclusive, such as religious courses and therapies (e.g. Alphalive, meditation courses, therapy sessions) where individuals pay for the education or service they demand' (Stolz 2006, p. 23). Sacraments dispensed by monks in the parishes also fall under this category: ‘Even “religious services” such as marriages or funerals may be acquired with money’ (Stolz 2006, p. 23). Stolz highlights that for these services, ‘surely, nobody would want, in these cases, to speak of an “economic metaphor’” (Stolz 2006, p. 23). Even monks acknowledge the dilemma between commitment to pastoral work in the parish and contemplative prayer in the monastery. For example, a monk of Jtjdrzejow - the bursar - maintains: ‘It is bad that pastoral care takes a long time, where a monk should devote this time to God in the monastery, right? As a place of prayer and contemplation’. In this sentence, he considers that pastoral work outside the monastery does not replace the contemplation a monk must practise in the monastery. It refers to what Weber identifies as the first task of the monk: ‘The highest form of monastic productivity lay in the increase of the Thesaurus ecclesiae though prayer and chant’ (Weber 2013, p. 106). Pastoral activities would correspond to a work (labora), whereas only the contemplation and prayer in the community would be the ora of the monks. When the old abbot explains the three aims for work in parishes, the financial goal is one of them. In this sense, the pastoral activity becomes for the monk a real economic work and undergoes a kind of secularisation. Parish pastoral work is clearly for them an economic activity, without which they could not live.

Religious consumer goods of Polish monasteries also refers to religious articles sold in the monastery shop. In the monastery of J^drzejow, we do not find a real shop, but only a small and dark room which a monk opens only for visitors or pilgrims. Products found here are religious items such as icons, medals, statues or religious books, but they are exclusive to that monastery and there are no products from other monasteries. For pilgrims, religious items represent the continuity between the experience gained during pilgrimage and in their daily life; the product therefore reminds them of the religious experience. In this sense, the monastic shop of J?drzejow is a part of an economy of religious goods.

Identifying economic products in Polish monasteries?

Pastoral activities are therefore the first source of revenue in male monasteries in our study. Does this mean that Polish monasteries do not have their own direct or indirect productive economy? First, monks and nuns are also involved in the non-religious tertiary sector, for example, the nuns of the cloistered monastery and monks from the Jerusalem community engage in translating religious books in French and Polish. For the cloistered nuns, the book collection is the primary source of income. If productive work does not represent a very important part of the activities of the community, they nevertheless do some small production activity. For example, some of the cloistered nuns make figures of the infant Jesus, rosaries and liturgical vestments; in Biskupow, monks run a small farm with sheep and five hectares of land; the monks of J^drzejow also have a small farm with 16 hectares of land which they cultivate for their own community needs and they do not sell the products. The bursar explains:

Another problem is that this is better to have like a big farm than a small farm because generally you have bigger donations for the big farms than for a small farm. You can have [?] hectares, the donation is too small. So this is why we have to have parishes, which only give us money for living and for investments.

(March 2019)

The same idea can be seen in Tyniec, but the former abbot asserts that the market in Poland is difficult for small producers which is why they also try to seek markets abroad. In 2007, when I was conducting research for my PhD in the monastery of Camaldoli in Italy, two monks from Poland came to demonstrate their products, with the hope that they could sell them in the monastic shop at Camaldoli.

For the nuns, who live firmly enclosed, the question arises as to how they can sell their products. They already have a cooperative with a selling platform and are now thinking about selling online. The internet can work very well for those in enclosed orders, and it may be a way in which to conduct commercial activities successfully without leaving the enclosure.

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