Money and the monastic life

Like the many who have so little of it, I’ve often wondered what rich people do with the material wealth they accumulate.  Bill Gates, for example,  or the Sultan of Brunei, or our very own Tan Yu, Henry Sy, and George Ty – all recently listed as among the world’s billionaires. What do they do with their money?

The answer, we are told, is that they have to invest it to accumulate more wealth, or at least to prevent it from losing its value through depreciation or devaluation.  To people like them, I suppose, enough is never enough.  They are condemned to accumulate.  The word “condemned” is appropriate.  For, if material wealth is not useful in itself but only as a means to a further end, then the accumulation of more wealth can never be an end.  Thus, the ultimate end of utility, as the French writer Georges Bataille suggests, can only be uselessness.

Production and accumulation have always seemed so natural and so inevitable in life that hardly anyone would ask, why produce more? Instead, it is the non-productive expenditure of wealth or energy that bothers most of us who are hopelessly gripped by the norm of utility, or “the consciousness of necessity”.

Yet Bataille argues, in his highly original “The Accursed Share”, if we saw the world as one, if we stopped thinking of human beings as isolated creatures, and of nations as isolated systems, then we would begin to see  that “on the surface of the globe, for living matter in general, energy is always in excess….The choice is limited to how the wealth is to be squandered.”

What he calls the “accursed share” is precisely the surplus wealth that is produced, whose consumption or expenditure is what finally differentiates human societies from one another.  Some of it is funneled back into further growth, but a large part of it tends to be dissipated in destructive and catastrophic ways, such as war.  The greater the excess energy, the more intense the wars.

To avert war, Bataille admonishes, “we must divert the surplus production, either into the rational extension of a difficult industrial growth, or into unproductive works that will dissipate an energy that cannot be accumulated in any case.”  This would require not only a rethinking of economic principles, but more importantly, “the overturning of the ethics that grounds them.”

Bataille shows the immense possibilities of a non-aggressive expenditure of surplus wealth.  “If a part of wealth is doomed to destruction or at least to unproductive use without any possible profit, it is logical, even inescapable, to surrender commodities without return.  Henceforth, leaving aside pure and simple dissipation, analogous to the construction of the Pyramids, the possibility of pursuing growth is itself subordinated to giving.  The industrial development of the entire world demands of Americans that they lucidly grasp the necessity, for an economy such as theirs, of having a margin of profitless operations.”

Bataille’s work came to mind as I pondered the value of the monastic life.  With a TV crew, I went up to Baguio last week to do a feature on the cloistered Pink Sisters.  Theirs, as I found out, is a life fully lived in prayer, silence, and contemplation.  As a monastic order, the Pink Sisters do not engage in apostolic work among communities.  On the contrary, they deliberately distance themselves from any contact with the human community outside their convent, in order to focus their energies exclusively on the pursuit of their devotion to God.

What value can such a life possibly have for humankind?  This was the question that many of my viewers phoned-in the evening the episode on the Pink Sisters was shown.  I myself was groping for answers.  At first blush, despite their austere way of life, it seemed such a paradoxical luxury for any community of ascetics to devote their entire existence to “profitless operations”.   It was far easier to appreciate the apostolate of social justice and evangelization of the Tuding Sisters, the other group of nuns that I featured in the same program.   They were “active” nuns (in contrast to the “contemplative” Pink Sisters) in the sense that their work was unimaginable without total immersion in the local communities they served.

One of my guests in the studio that evening, my brother Ambo, who is a priest and a theologian, said something about the monastic life that completed my education.  “The value of the contemplative life,” he said, “lies in its witness value, in the way it challenges the world to consider the possibility and desirability of a way of life vastly different from the one we know, a way of life devoted to the silent quest for perfection.”

Bataille provides a parallel formulation that is clearly addressed to people living in high-growth societies, who cannot ask for more in terms of material necessities.   His is a complex ironic view that seems to devalue even the type of gentle living that has come in these service-oriented, less harassed, and more reflective societies.

“The serious humanity of growth becomes  civilized, more gentle, but it tends to confuse gentleness with the value of life, and life’s tranquil duration with its poetic dynamism.  Under these conditions,  the clear knowledge it generally has of things cannot become a full selfknowledge.  It is misled by what it takes for full humanity, that is, humanity at work, living in order to work without ever fully enjoying the fruits of its labor.  Of course, the man who is relatively idle or at least unconcerned about his achievements… is not a consummate man either.  But he helps us to gauge that which we lack.”


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