Leaving Salem

A few years ago I made a visit to a monastery. Not that I’m thinking of taking monastic vows, mind you; no, no, no. Jesus told his disciples that not everyone can live the ascetic life. I’m sure he was thinking of me.

But I really looked forward to this visit. My friends and I toured the grounds and for a short time peered into the lives of these men most dedicated to contemplation, hard work, and spiritual discipline.

The hillside surrounding the monastery’s abbey was dotted with black cows, hay bails, and fruit trees. Consistent with their particular order, these monks were as good with their agriculture as they were with their theology.

Inside, we discovered a further treat: Handmade artwork of all kinds. Beads, bracelets, paintings, stained glass; all of these came from the skilled hands of this community. And the greatest pleasure of all, these monks cultivated beautiful little bonsai trees – hundreds of them.

For decades, this order had been refining their proficiency with these potted plants. Their hard work showed. While I expected the times of prayer, the lit candles, the simple but hardy meals, the ringing of bells, and the burning of incense; I did not expect Angus cows and bonsai trees. It was a surprise.

Something else surprised me: A gift shop. That’s right. This monastery, this symbol of the casting off of worldly pleasures, had a mini-variety store right there on campus. It ran with an entrepreneurial spirit that would have awed even Sam Walton.

Need some books? They got ‘em. Want a new rosary? They will set you up. Got the hankering for some fresh preserves or coffee? Step up to the cash register.

Fruitcake, fudge, icons, note cards, souvenirs, and of course, all the bonsai supplies one needed to start their own nursery at home, could be purchased at the “Abbey Store.” These supplies included the “Monastery Master Mix,” a complex potting soil designed to grow the best bonsai trees under God’s heaven.

Did I mention that the chapel was closed on the day of my visit? See, you couldn’t pray at the monastery on this day, but you could visit the gift shop. In fact, every single one of the half-dozen monks I met enthusiastically invited me to do so.

There I could pick up a bit of the monastic life and take it back home with me for $19.99 plus applicable local sales tax. And don’t worry if you left your wallet at home. The Abbey Store offers an extensive virtual shopping experience for those who cannot visit the monastery personally.

Online the monks manage an e-commerce catalog and a bells-and-whistles website complete with the little digital shopping cart and everything. They take all major credit cards and even Pay Pal. How edifying. I left the monastery feeling less spiritual than I had hoped.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not so high and mighty that I would deprive these good men of making a living with their hands. I’m all for that. Nor do I think Christian people shouldn’t sell things. I’m a good capitalist. Please, visit my own website and buy my book.

But something about these good brothers was out of joint. On one hand they were deeply, deeply traditional; long robes, honest labor, living lives dictated by discipline and ritual. Then on the other hand they were so, dare I say, opportunistic.

One moment I seemed to be conversing with Thomas Merton himself, with talks of prayer, fasting, and readings of the Church Fathers, and the next moment this same man would morph into Elmer Gantry trying to sell me glorified potting soil. It was wacky.

Is there no sacred space left in Creation? Have even monasteries been run-over by the E-bay Express? Does every one offer 90-days-same-as-cash now, even those who follow the order of Saint Benedict?

If someone feels led by God to join a monastery and forsake so much that is wrong with life as we live it, then more power to them. If someone wants to operate a thriving internet business, selling everything from coffee mugs to bailing wire, then by all means do it in style.

But maybe – just maybe – a little distance between the two would help. Don’t invite me into a spiritual retreat and seem more concerned with swiping my Visa card than assisting my soul.

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