Orthodox Social Thought and Monastic Enterprise

Monastery of Saint Anthony, Egypt, daily life of monks – Abu Melek weaving baskets at monastery – MSBZ004 A81a – Dumbarton Oaks

Inasmuch as the present rests on the shoulders of the past, we can generally claim that our contemporary economic life is built upon the foundations set by the ascetic monastic labor of medieval Europe. ~ Fr. Sergei Bulgakov

In the early twentieth-century, Adolf von Harnack observed in his historical study that “in Western monasticism we have to recognise a factor of the first importance in Church and civilisation.” The sociologist Max Weber, Harnack’s contemporary, also acknowledged this, for the West, in his major work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. By contrast, both figures dismissed the Christian East. According to Weber, “Labour is … an approved ascetic technique, as it always has been in the Western Church, in sharp contrast … to the Orient.” Harnack claimed, “The Greek monks … to-day as a thousand years ago, live ‘in silent contemplation and blissful ignorance.’ To work they give only just as much attention as is necessary for a livelihood….”

Unfortunately, in English few scholars have investigated the economic significance of Orthodox monasticism as a whole. Thankfully, some scholars have examined specific periods and locales, and together their accounts paint a brighter picture.

But what are monasticism and asceticism? Why might one expect them to have economic significance?

The answer comes in the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ … But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:31, 33).

Asceticism derives from askesis, Greek for “exercise.” Ascetic practices are to virtue what physical exercise is to bodily fitness. In Orthodox Tradition, asceticism isn’t a Gnostic ethical dualism where the spirit is good and matter evil. Rather, it means daily living the reality of Christ’s resurrection, dying and rising with him, growing in virtue, and “seek[ing] first the kingdom of God.” Thus, we fast, for example, in order to acquire the spirit of the desert, where Moses reminded Israel that the Lord “allowed you to hunger … that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but … by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3).

Communion cannot exist apart from ascetic self-denial. If we never say, “No,” to ourselves, we will never make room for our neighbor, not to mention for God. In this way, according to S. L. Frank, “Every Christian must in a certain sense be a ‘monk’ in the eternally pagan world.” Thus, Christos Yannaras even emphasizes asceticism’s ontological significance: “Relation is … a constant ascetic effort to let go of the resistance of self-sufficiency…. It is the dynamic mode by which existence is realised as loving communion.”

Furthermore, society cannot exist without an economy—the production, exchange, distribution, and consumption of the goods necessary for life and flourishing. One key factor of production is labor, an ascetic discipline especially effective at fighting akedia or listlessness. St. John Cassian tells us, “By persevering in work the monks dispel listlessness.” Monasticism grew as a movement of men and women dedicating their lives to Jesus Christ through the essential “ascetic effort” necessary for “loving communion,” including, among other disciplines, one of the essential factors of any productive economy: labor. We should be surprised if it didn’t have significant civilizational impact.

After the conversion of St. Constantine, many who had been too timid or who simply imitated the emperor now readily joined the Church. In response, many others, worrying over worldly influence, imitated ascetics like St. Paul of Thebes and St. Anthony the Great. As Fr. Georges Florovsky noted, “it was precisely from the Christened Empire that the flight commences, the flight into the desert.” One might assume monastics also left “worldly” commerce behind, but history tells a much different tale. Not only through donations but through enterprise were “all these things … added to” the first Christian monks.

St. Athanasius tells us that even in St. Antony’s time “the desert was made a city by monks.” According to James E. Goehring, the first Egyptian monks practiced sharecropping, rope and basket weaving, and farming. They sold goods at market. They owned boats and shipped products up and down the Nile. Contrary to common assumptions, “Ownership and transfer of property was relatively common.” Historian Helen Rhee has noted, “monastic poverty in reality was more patterned after economic self-sufficiency than destitution.” This, however, was not egocentric but rather a fulfillment of St. Paul’s instruction that “by laboring … you must support the weak” (Acts 20:25).

We see in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers a monk who worries, “The trader is soon coming, and I have no handles to put on my baskets.” Another monk overhears this, removes the handles from his own baskets, and claiming he made extra, gives them to the worrying monk, enabling him to sell his baskets to provide for his needs. In another story, Abba Pistamon reassures a monk uncomfortable with making a profit, “Abba Sisois and others used to sell what they made. There is no harm in this.” He then exhorts him, “However much you have, do not stop making things, do as much as you can provided that the soul is undisturbed.”

In a time of rare upward mobility, with only a small “middle class” of merchants, tax collectors, and tradesmen, a new social space appeared that wasn’t desperately poor, though monks were considered “holy poor”—worthy recipients of alms. Nevertheless, monks also produced and profited, reinvesting in their monasteries, operating ministries, and distributing alms to the needy. While the Greek word for monk, monachos, originally meant “solitary,” St. Pachomius’s coenobitic (communal) model has historically been the Eastern norm, and many monasteries even followed the teaching of St. Basil, bringing the spirit of the desert both to rural towns and urban metropolises, where there are many more neighbors to love.

Monasticism especially benefited women, who apart from marriage, as the story of St. Nicholas and the gold coins illustrates, formerly might have faced the grim possibilities of slavery or prostitution if their father couldn’t support them. Not only did monasticism offer a better alternative, but the greatest preachers of the Church commended celibacy to both men and women as the highest path of perfection.

Moreover, monasteries marked a significant expansion of what we call the “private sector” today. Though monasteries typically include chapels and the monastics who inhabit them dedicate their lives to prayer, in Byzantium private ownership was initially common. Just as the Church did not view itself as free apart from property rights, so also some monasteries insisted on freedom from state and ecclesiastical control, as one Byzantine monastery’s founder warned, “it is my desire that this … monastery remain independent until the end of the world, and free and unenslaved by emperors and patriarchs and monasteries and metropolitans and archbishops and bishops, by archimandrites and superiors, in short, by all men.” To give a sense of scale, Fr. Alexander Schmemann records, “at the outset of the struggle with iconoclasm the number of monks in Byzantium had reached a hundred thousand—an almost incredible percentage of the population.” Monastic independence, though tolerated, did not avoid conflict—iconoclasm being a prime example.

Later, in the fourteenth century, some called on the state to confiscate monastic property, arguing monks owed the empire for military protection and that they didn’t know how best to use their resources. In response, St. Nicholas Cabasilas wrote a defense, claiming that “rulers have a right to manage subjects’ property, but this does not extend to private, only to common [i.e., public] property…. Neither rulers of communities nor judges, nor even emperors with universal rule, may demand an account of what the proprietor does with it, even should he waste it….” Confiscation of monastic property would violate not only inheritance law, by which monasteries acquired much of their land, but the basic human dignity of monks. After all, says Cabasilas, “the privilege of speech and the freedom of decision … are what make man what he is.” He later muses, “How could there ever be a stable form of government which made it impossible to live in freedom?”

But why would the state (or Church) want to take monastic property? Monasteries enjoyed exemption from taxes, generous donations, and in some cases abundant production. Despite prosperity’s potential good, however, Orthodox monastic history demonstrates the common teaching of the Fathers that though wealth isn’t inherently evil, we must vigilantly guard against the temptation it brings. As Weber put it, “the whole history of monasticism is in a certain sense the history of a continual struggle with the problem of the secularizing influence of wealth.”

Kykkos Monastery

First, consider the positive example of the Kykkos monastery on Cyprus. According to Victor Roudometof and Michalis N. Michael, in 1554 “there were 30 monks and a few employees—a shepherd, two vineyard guards and six other employees.” Over time, Kykkos acquired land through purchases, rent-to-own arrangements, donations, bequests, and inheritance. The monastery also “bought houses with yards, shops, building plots in the cities, vineyards and gardens.” After 1850, “the monastery was one of the most important producers on the island.” At the end of the Ottoman era, Kykkos owned seventy-two shops, thirteen annexes, ten churches, 15,148 acres of land, 429 vineyards, eleven water mills, eleven olive mills, and part of a ship. Kykkos employed goldsmiths and commissioners for exportation. It also acted as Cyprus’s only bank, borrowing and lending money at interest. In the twentieth century, it resisted British colonialism. From 1983 to 2003, annual income increased tenfold, approximately from €770,000 to €7.7 million, which Kykkos used to fund charity work, renovations, and other cultural ventures, demonstrating, in my assessment, their success against “the secularizing influence of wealth.” In 2010, the monastery continued to own extensive land holdings, several factories, and was “one of the main stakeholders in the Hellenic Bank of Cyprus.”

By contrast, consider the example of the monastery on Solovetskii in Russia during the Time of Troubles (1599-1615). Met. St. Philip II of Moscow originally founded their saltworks, among other enterprises, during his time as abbot there. Alas, the monastery did not continue in his saintly spirit. Historian Isaiah Gruber refers to salt as “white gold,” the oil of its day. Solovetskii had the largest market share in Russia, among the “mega-corporations” of the time. Over the sixteen years, the monks recorded “purchases totaling 116,517.095 rubles” (approximately $250 million in 2010), while their yearly almsgiving in 1605, for example, amounted to only “0.16 rubles.”

How might we explain this? The economist Nathan Smith offers an insightful model of monastic decay and renewal. Schmemann points to this phenomenon in Byzantium “from the beginning of the seventh century.” In his response to Weber, Fr. Sergei Bulgakov observed a similar cycle in Russia. Zealous for the perfection of the Gospel, hermits flee to the wilderness. Like St. Antony, their reputations spread and others follow, planting the seeds of civilization in formerly uncultivated “deserts.” But as monasteries grow in material prosperity, opportunistic people join, watering down their piety, pushing the zealous either to spiritual reform or flight to the wilderness again. Solovetskii’s economic success would have made the monastery attractive to anyone simply desiring to survive the Time of Troubles, rather than zealots for the Gospel. Thus, its conduct, though inexcusable, was sadly understandable.

In the next essay, we’ll see some better examples from Russia, as well as the Church’s early confrontation there with the modern “social question.” Despite Solovetskii, considering the broader survey of monastic enterprise herein, I believe we need more Orthodox monasteries in the hearts of our cities, especially in the West, to model the ascetic self-denial essential to society; demonstrate the value of virtuous enterprise; and bear witness that if we “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” the common good might just “be added to” us as well.


  1. Thank you for the insightful essay. I am intrigued to know how you think leaning money at interest (as you say Kykkos Monastery did) fits within a Christian social ethic? Usury seems to be forbidden in Scripture although widely practised today. I would be interested to know your thoughts.

    1. That’s a good question, but a topic for its own essay, unfortunately. I do plan to write it eventually, though, so stay tuned!

      That said, no, I don’t think Kykkos’s lending at interest is the same as the sin of usury. Usury certainly is condemned in Scripture, but the question turns on whether all lending at interest qualifies or whether usury is a matter of lending at interest under one or more specific conditions. Aristotle taught the former, and his view had a strong influence on the medieval West, but there is at least one passage in Scripture in which lending at interest is permitted (Deuteronomy 23:20), so contra Aristotle that seems to suggest the latter: that usury is a specific kind of lending at interest and not all lending at interest (otherwise the Lord would be permitting Israel to sin in that passage).

      However, like I said, getting into the details really requires its own essay, so I’ll leave it there for now. I need to keep working my way through Church history first!

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