On Avarice (St. John Cassian, ca. 420 AD)

NOTE: The following article is taken from On the Eight Vices, which can be found in the Philokalia: https://archive.org/details/Philokalia-TheCompleteText

Also see the Saint’s book: The Institutes of the Coenobia: http://www.osb.org/lectio/cassian/inst/

 

Our third struggle is against the demon of avarice, a demon clearly foreign to our nature, who only gains entry into a monk because he is lacking in faith. The other passions, such as anger and desire, seem to be occasioned by the body and in some sense implanted in us at birth. Hence they are conquered only after a long time. The sickness of avarice, on the contrary, can with diligence and attention be cut off more readily, because ft enters from outside. If neglected, however, it becomes even harder to get rid of and more destructive than the other passions, for according to the Apostle it is ‘the root of all evil’ (1 Tim. 6:10).

kolasi-edited

Let us look at it in this fashion. Movement occurs in the sexual organs not only of young children who cannot yet distinguish between good and evil, but also of the smallest infants still at their mother’s breast. The latter, although quite ignorant of sensual pleasure, nevertheless manifest such natural movements in the flesh. Similarly, the incensive power exists in infants, as we can see when they are roused against anyone hurting them. I say this not to accuse nature of being the cause of sin – heaven forbid! – but to show that the incensive power and desire, even if implanted in man by the Creator for a good purpose, appear to change through neglect from being natural in the body into something that is unnatural. Movement in the sexual organs was given to us by the Creator for procreation and the continuation of the species, not for unchastity; while incensive power was planted in us for our salvation, so that we could manifest it against wickedness, but not so that we could act like wild beasts towards our fellow men. Even if we make bad use of these passions, nature itself is not therefore sinful, nor should we blame the Creator. A man who gives someone a knife for some necessary and useful purpose is not to blame if that person uses it to commit murder.

This has been said to make it clear that avarice is a passion deriving, not from our nature, but solely from an evil and perverted use of our free will. When this sickness finds the soul lukewarm and lacking in faith at the start of the ascetic path, it suggests to us various apparently justifiable and sensible reasons for keeping back something of what we possess. It conjures up in a monk’s mind a picture of a lengthy old age and bodily illness; and it persuades him that the necessities of life provided by the monastery are insufficient to sustain a healthy man, much less an ill one; that in the monastery the sick, instead of receiving proper attention, are hardly cared for at all; and that unless he has some money tucked away, he will die a miserable death. Finally, it convinces him that he will not be able to remain long in the monastery because of the load of his work and the strictness of the abbot. When with thoughts like these it has seduced his mind with the idea of concealing any sum, however trifling, it persuades him to learn, unknown to the abbot, some handicraft through which he can increase his cherished hoardings. Then it deceives the wretched monk with secret expectations, making him imagine what he will earn from his handicraft, and the comfort and security which will result from it. Now completely given over to the thought of gain, he notices none of the evil passions which attack him: his raging fury when he happens to sustain a loss, his gloom and dejection when he falls short of the gain he hoped for. Just as for other people the belly is a god, so for him is money. That is why the Apostle, knowing this, calls avarice not only ‘the root of all evil’ but ‘idolatry’ as well (Col. 3:5).

How is it that this sickness can so pervert a man that he ends up as an idolater? It is because he now fixes his intellect on the love, not of God, but of the images of men stamped on gold. A monk darkened by such thoughts and launched on the downward path can no longer be obedient. He is irritable and resentful, and grumbles about every task. He answers back and, having lost his sense of respect, behaves like a stubborn, uncontrollable horse. He is not satisfied with the day’s ration of food and complains that he cannot put up with such conditions for ever. Neither God’s presence, he says, nor the possibility of his own salvation is confined to the monastery; and, he concludes, he will perish if he does not leave it. He is so excited and encouraged in these perverse thoughts by his secret hoardings that he even plans to quit the monastery. Then he replies proudly and harshly no matter what he is told to do, and pays no heed if he sees something in the monastery that needs to be set right, considering himself a stranger and outsider and finding fault with all that takes place. Then he seeks excuses for being angry or injured, so that he will not appear to be leaving the monastery frivolously and without cause. He does not even shrink from trying through gossip and idle talk to seduce someone else into leaving with him, wishing to have an accomplice in his sinful action.

late-c15th-averice-pope-bisop-cardinal-monks-prince
Late 15th Century depiction of Avarice, with the Pope, a Bishop, a Cardinal, monks and a prince/king all receiving just punishment after death.

Because the avaricious monk is so fired with desire for private wealth he will never be able to live at peace in a monastery or under a rule. When like a wolf the demon has snatched him from the fold and separated him from the Hock, he makes ready to devour him; he sets-him to work day and night in his cell on the very tasks which he complained of doing at fixed times in the monastery. But the demon does not allow him to keep the regular prayers or norms of fasting or orders of vigil. Having bound him fast in the madness of avarice, he persuades him to devote all his effort to his handicraft.

There are three forms of this sickness, all of which are equally condemned by the Holy Scriptures and the teaching of the Fathers. The first induces those who were poor to acquire and save the goods they lacked in the world. The second compels those who have renounced worldly goods by offering them to God, to have regrets and to seek after them again. A third infects a monk from the start with lack of faith and ardor, so preventing his complete detachment from worldly things, producing in him a fear of poverty and distrust in God’s providence and leading him to break the promises he made when he renounced the world.

Examples of these three forms of avarice are, as I have said, condemned in Holy Scripture. Gehazi wanted to acquire property which he did not previously possess, and therefore never received the prophetic grace which his teacher had wished to leave him in the place of an inheritance. Because of the prophet’s curse he inherited incurable leprosy instead of a blessing (cf. 2 Kgs. 5:27). And Judas, who wished to acquire money which he had previously abandoned on following Christ, not only lapsed so far as to betray the Master and lose his place in the circle of the apostles; he also put an end to his life in the flesh through a violent death (cf. Matt. 27:5). Thirdly, Ananias and Sapphira were condemned to death by the Apostle’s word when they kept back something of what they had acquired (cf. Acts 5:1-10). Again, in Deuteronomy Moses is indirectly exhorting those who promise to renounce the world, and who then retain their earthly possessions because of the fear that comes from lack of faith, when he says: ‘What man is there that is fearful and faint-hearted? He shall not go out to do battle; let him return to his house, lest his brethren’s heart faint as well as his heart’ (cf. Deut. 20:8). Could anything be clearer or more certain than this testimony? Should not we who have left the world learn from these examples to renounce it completely and in this state go forth to do battle? We should not turn others from the perfection taught in the Gospels and make them cowardly because of our own hesitant and feeble start.

30 pieces of silver.Shekels on 350 year old Hebrew Manuscript.Judas Iscariot betrayal
30 pieces of silver.Shekels on 350 year old Hebrew Manuscript.Judas Iscariot betrayal

Some, impelled by their own deceit and avarice, distort the meaning of the scriptural statement, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’ (Acts 20:35). They do the same with the Lord’s words when He says, ‘If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come and follow Me’ (Matt. 19:21). They judge that it is more blessed to have control over one’s personal wealth, and to give from this to those in need, than to possess nothing at all. They should know, however, that they have not yet renounced the world or achieved monastic perfection so long as they are ashamed to accept for Christ’s sake the poverty of the Apostle and to provide for themselves and the needy through the labor of their hands (cf. Acts 20:34); for only in this way will they fulfill the .monastic profession and be glorified with the Apostle. Having distributed their former wealth, let them fight the good fight with Paul ‘in hunger and thirst . . . in cold and nakedness’ (2 Cor. 11:27). Had the Apostle thought that the possession of one’s former wealth was more necessary for perfection, he would not have despised his official status as a Roman citizen (cf. Acts 22:25). Nor would those in Jerusalem have sold their houses and fields and given the money they got from them to the apostles (cf. Acts 4: 34-35), had they felt that the apostles considered it more blessed to live off one’s own possessions than from one’s labor and the offerings of the Gentiles.

The Apostle gives us a clear lesson in this matter when he writes to the Romans in the passage beginning, ‘But now I go to Jerusalem to minister to the saints’, and ending: ‘They were pleased to do it, and indeed they are in debt to them’ (Rom. 15:25-27). He himself was often in chains, in prison or on fatiguing travel, and so was usually prevented from providing for himself with his own hands. He tells us that he accepted the necessities of life from the brethren who came to him from Macedonia (cf. 2 Cor. 11:9); and writing to the Philippians he says: ‘Now you Philippians know also that . . . when I departed from Macedonia no church except you helped me with gifts of money. For even in Thessalonica you sent me help, not once but twice’ (Phil. 4:15-16). Are, then, the avaricious right and are these men more blessed than the Apostle himself, because they satisfied his wants from their own resources? Surely no one would be so foolish as to say this.

Ananias and Sapphira (4th c. tomb)
Ananias and Sapphira (4th c. tomb)

If we want to follow the gospel commandment and the practice of the whole Church as it was founded initially upon the apostles, we should not follow our own notions or give wrong meanings to things rightly said. We must discard faint-hearted, faithless opinion and recover the strictness of the Gospel; In this way we shall be able to follow also in the footsteps of the Fathers, adhering to the discipline of the cenobitic life and truly renouncing this world.

It is good here to recall the words of St Basil, Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia. He is reported once to have said to a senator, who had renounced the world in a half-hearted manner and was keeping back some of his personal fortune: ‘You have lost the senator and failed to make a monk.’ We should therefore make every effort to cut out from our souls this root of all evils, avarice, in the certain knowledge that if the root remains the branches will sprout freely.

This uprooting is difficult to achieve unless we are living in a monastery, for in a monastery we cease to worry about even our most basic needs. With the fate of Ananias and Sapphira in mind, we should shudder at the thought of keeping to ourselves anything of our former possessions. Similarly, frightened by the example of Gehazi who was afflicted with incurable leprosy because of his avarice, let us guard against piling up money which we did not have while in the world. Finally, recalling Judas’ death by hanging, let us beware of acquiring again any of the things which we have already renounced. In all this we should remember how uncertain is the hour of our death, so that our Lord does not come unexpectedly and, finding our conscience soiled with avarice, say to us what God says to the rich man in the Gospel: ‘You fool, this night your soul will be required of you: who then will be the owner of what you have stored up?’ (Luke 12: 20).

Demon

 

Tales of Monks Who Fell (Abba John of Lycus)

NOTE: The following tales are from The Lausiac History of Palladius, chapters 44-45:

Lausaic History of Palladius

Chapter XLIV
A TALE OF ABBA JOHN ABOUT SOMEONE WHO FELL

There was a certain monk,” he said, “who lived in the nearer desert, keeping every proper discipline and working for his daily bread. After he had persevered for a long time in prayer and grown in virtue he began to trust in himself alone and in the beauty of his own settled life. The tempter then began to try him as he tried Job, and one evening showed him the image of a beautiful woman wandering in the wilderness. Finding the door open she came right in to his cell, knelt at his feet and begged to be allowed to stay, overtaken as she was by the night. He took pity on her and let her in, which he ought not to have done.

“A further mistake was to question her closely. She told him a long story, sprinkled with all sorts of flattery and falsehood, and spun out the conversation at great length. Little by little, she somehow enticed him on to thoughts of love. They chattered together, laughing and giggling. The way she talked fascinated him; she began to hold his hand, his beard, his neck, and finally captivated this athlete completely. His mind was in a turmoil, a safe opportunity of pleasure was presenting itself, the deed was as good as done, and he gave consent in his mind to all these thoughts. He tried to have intercourse with her like a foolish horse breaking out wildly in search of a mare. She suddenly cried out with a loud voice and vanished out of his hands, as nothing but a sort of shadow. The crowd of demons who had deceived him could now be heard in the air mocking him and laughing, and crying with a loud voice, ‘”He who exalts himself will be humiliated” (Luke 14.11). You were once lifted up into heavenly things, so now will you be cast down into the lowest depths.’

“He spent the night weeping, got up in the morning and continued to lament the whole day through. Despairing of his own salvation (which he ought not to have done) he went back to the world. This is what the devil wants. As soon as he makes a mock of anyone he reduces him to a foolishness from which it is not possible to escape. Wherefore, my sons, it is not good for us to live near the towns, nor to converse with women, lest images of them stay in your mind which you cannot get rid of, images which have been put there by what you have seen and heard. But neither should we let our minds be weighed down, driving us into despair, for those who do not lose hope will not be deprived of the mercy of the merciful God.”

Barren tree

Chapter XLV
A TALE OF THE SAME ABBA JOHN ABOUT SOMEONE WHO WAS LED TO REPENT

There was a certain young man in the city who had done many evil things and sinned gravely. He began to be sorry for his sins, inspired by God, and went into a graveyard where he fell on his face, weeping for his past life, speechless, not daring so much as to call upon God to ask pardon, so little did he estimate his life to be worth. So having shut himself up in a tomb and faced up to the sort of life he had been leading, he groaned from the depths of his being. At the end of a week the demons who had been leading his former life into damnation came shouting at him by night.

“Where is this profane wretch, sated with lust and pleasure-seeking, who now suddenly pretends to be honest and moderate in this untimely manner? Has he got beyond it? Does he now want to be a Christian, with upright and clean habits? As if you could expect anything good to become of you in future, stuffed full as you are with the wickedness we have given you. You are going to get out of here quickly, aren’t you, and return to what we are accustomed to give you. There are lots of brothels and taverns left for you yet. Will you not come and indulge your desires, since there is no other hope left for you? Doubtless judgment will come swiftly, but you are destroying yourself. Why rush madly towards your own punishment? Why are you so intent on being punished before the due time?”

They said much more. “You belong to us. You are enrolled in our company. You are familiar with every kind of wickedness. We all find you disgusting, but will you dare to flee? Aren’t you going to listen to us? Won’t you answer? And come away with us as well?”
He just kept weeping, shutting his ears, replying never a word, however much the demons kept on at him. When they saw that all their continued urgings were having no effect these wicked and disgusting demons took him and laid about him heavily with whips, beating every inch of his body. When they had finished their torment they went away leaving him half dead. He lay where they had left him, unable to move more than anything else. He came to his senses and began groaning again.

When his family came to look for him and learned the reason for what had happened to his body they begged him to return home, but he refused, even when they tried to force him. The next night the demons tormented him again worse than before. To prevent his relations persuading him to go back home they kept telling him that it would be better to die than return to his former sinful ways. On the third night they invaded him with such cruel torments that they pushed him to the limits of endurance and nearly made him give up the ghost. But they saw that he would not give in and they departed leaving him lifeless. As they went they cried, “You have won, you have won, you have won.”

No further harm came to him. For the rest of his life he dwelt simply in that tomb, cleansed of all evil, displaying nothing but pure virtue. He was very precious in the sight of God for his virtues and for the miracles that he did, for he led many to admire him and awakened their zeal to emulate the integrity of his way of life. Thus it came about that many of those who had given up hope for themselves were led into doing good things, and conducted their lives properly. In them the Scripture was fulfilled, ‘He who humbles himself will be exalted.’ (Luke 24.11).

So let us practise humility, my sons, the foundation of all virtues. A long spell of solitude at a distance also brings many benefits.

Desert-Father-small

Numerous other cautionary tales about monks and nuns who fell into delusion or fornication are found in The Lausiac History:

Cave

The Monk as Merchant: Economic Wisdom from a Desert Hermit (Dylan Pahman, 2015)

NOTE: The following article is taken from Ethika Politika, January 12, 2015:

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Before Max Weber ever conducted his study of the “Protestant ethic” of hard work and commerce as a matter of one’s election before God, there was the ascetic ethic of the ancient Church. A story from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers illustrates this ascetic business ethic well:

A brother said to Abba Pistamon: “What am I to do? I find it painful to sell what I make.” Abba Pistamon replied: “Abba Sisois and others used to sell what they made. There is no harm in this. When you sell anything, say straight out the price of the goods. If you want to lower the price a little, you may and so you will find rest.” The brother said: “I have enough for my needs from other sources, do you think I need worry about making things to sell?” The old man answered: “However much you have, do not stop making things, do as much as you can provided that the soul is undisturbed.”

 

Gift Shop at St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery, Inc. (AZ)
Gift Shop at St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery, Inc. (AZ)

Weber knew about the monastic ideal, and there are some important differences between the desert ethic and what he called Protestant “worldly ascetisicm.” There is nothing here about “mak[ing] [one’s] call and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10) through material success in one’s work, but there is a lot about economics. Let’s examine this saying piece by piece to see how it can teach us about the good of production, exchange, subjective pricing, labor, and profit.

St. Kosmas 2
Gift shop at St. Kosmas Greek Orthodox Monastery, Inc., (Canada)

The unnamed brother begins with what has been a common dilemma for some, even today: profiting from providing for the needs and uses of others. “I find it painful to sell what I make,” he says. He seems to find any participation in commerce at least a violation of his monastic discipline, if not in some way sinful. Abba Pistamon provides a different perspective: “There is no harm in this.”

Fundraising Event held on January 13, 2013 by Friends of the Monastery from St-Mary's Antiochian Orthodox church in Montreal.
Fundraising event for Panagia Parigoritissa Greek Orthodox Monastery, Inc., (Canada)

Far from a gnostic allergy to any involvement with the material world, Abba Pistamon acknowledges the good of production and exchange, appealing to past precedent of other revered monks before him (“Abba Sisois and others”). Commerce, he says, was common. In fact, according to the size and expansive enterprise of ancient monastic communities, we can say that his assessment is more than anecdotal. In ancient Christian sources, contempt for the merchant and trader is common, but the reality is more complicated. Sometimes traders and merchants went by a more respectable name: monks. We should not be surprised, then, that Abba Pistamon displays a certain natural business sense. But he does not stop at the merely economic aspects of production and exchange.

WI GIFT SHOP
Gift shop at St. John Chrysostom Greek Orthodox Monastery, Inc., (WI)

First of all, he’s against excessive haggling: “When you sell anything, say straight out the price of the goods.” He doesn’t want the brother starting high with the hope of reeling an unsuspecting patron into a price that he himself would not pay. However, Abba Pistamon seems to understand the subjective aspect of prices as well: “If you want to lower the price a little, you may.” This may be an accommodation for the brother who would rather give away his wares for free, but it may also be an acknowledgement that the price that the monk initially sets may not actually meet consumer demand. So while the starting price should be honest, there is room for a little haggling after all.

Holy Protection Bookstore
Gift shop at Holy Protection Greek Orthodox Monastery, Inc., (PA)

Second, the brother is not completely satisfied with this answer and pushes the old man one step further: “I have enough for my needs from other sources, do you think I need worry about making things to sell?” This is an interesting oddity: The brother has left everything to live in poverty in the desert, but he somehow thinks he can get by without working—anything to avoid participating in commerce, apparently. Though dressed in rags, he has the luxury of leisure. Abba Pistamon, however, denies that leisure is enough: “However much you have, do not stop making things.”

WA GiftShop 2
Gift shop at St. John the Forerunner Greek Orthodox Monastery, Inc., (WA)

In her study of wealth and poverty in the early Church, Helen Rhee notes, “The monastic poverty in reality was more patterned after economic self-sufficiency than destitution.” It is not enough for Abba Pistamon that the brother live in comfortable poverty; he has a responsibility to provide for himself. As St. Paul wrote, “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat” (2 Thess 3:10). Ancient Christians were known for their almsgiving and care for the disabled, so it would be a mistake to read Paul’s conviction in too absolute of terms. By Abba Pistamon’s response, however, we may safely surmise that the brother was an able-bodied man of relatively sound mind. As such, he needed to work to provide for himself and for others through exchange.

TX Monk bookstore
Gift Shop at Holy Archangels Greek Orthodox Monastery, Inc. (TX)

The brother also needed to work for his soul. We may recall the common Benedictine adage, ora et labora: “pray and work.” Work—especially physical labor—wards off the passion of acedia, a sort of spiritual listlessness that causes laziness, boredom, and discontent. Even if the brother has all the material things that he needs, he still needs to work for his own spiritual good.

Florida Monastery
Gift shop at Panagia Vlahernon Greek Orthodox Monastery, Inc., (FL)

Last of all, Abba Pistamon cautions against pursuing profit to an excessive degree, compromising one’s conscience: “do as much as you can provided that the soul is undisturbed.” Yet he does not say, “Do as much as you can until all your needs have been met” or even “only to meet your own needs.” Rather, he acknowledges that not all profit is necessarily bad. Assuming it is made licitly, profit is only good or bad depending on its use for good or evil, respectively. As St. John Chrysostom put it, “neither is wealth an evil, but the having made a bad use of wealth; nor is poverty a virtue, but the having made a virtuous use of poverty.” So too with profit.

MI Giftshop
Gift shop at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Monastery, Inc., (MI)

Chrysostom’s comment acknowledges something of a common and timeless prejudice with which many still struggle today. It is the same problem that prompted the brother in this story to ask his first question: the presumption that the profit-motive is a species of greed, and therefore, by extension, that anyone who has profited greatly must have succeeded through selfishness. This is a common error from Ayn Rand (who thought selfishness was therefore good) to the Occupy crowd (which assumes that great wealth is therefore always bad).

NY Bookstore
Gift shop at St. Nektarios Greek Orthodox Monastery, Inc., (NY)

Reality, on the other hand, favors Abba Pistamon, St. John Chrysostom, and others like them. While one may profit unjustly or prove an unfit steward of the wealth one acquires, profit serves an extremely vital economic (and charitable) function: investment—in greater production, more workers, better employee benefits, new products, or even shares in other companies. Without gains beyond one’s expenses and without going beyond meeting one’s needs, one has nothing left over to use for the greater good of others. As Pope John Paul II put it, justly ordered profit is “an indication that a business is functioning well” and “that productive factors have been properly employed and corresponding human needs have been duly satisfied.”

TX Nuns' Gift Shop
Gift shop at St. Paraskevi Greek Orthodox Monastery, Inc., (TX)

Paradoxically, denial of the potential good of profit may turn out to be the more selfish economic practice: to make enough only to provide for oneself can leave the unemployed without jobs, the entrepreneurial dreamer without investors, and the needy without benefactors. This is an error that Abba Pistamon, at least, bids us to avoid. Rather, with the important caution that we firstly tend to the peace of our souls, we ought to do as much good as we can through our labor, production, profit, and exchange. This economic wisdom from the ancient Egyptian desert proves timelessly prudent, still relevant for our own context today.

 

Le Troupeau Bénit

http://ethikapolitika.org/2015/01/12/monk-merchant-economic-wisdom-desert-hermit/