A Megastore for Monks
You’re forgiven if you missed the page-one headline in The Wall Street Journal on July 23rd. “Megastore for Thai Monks Brings One-Stop Retail to Buddhism.” That’s not the sort of thing that rivets the attention of your average K-Mart shopper, nor your Bloomingdale’s aficionado, for that matter. In fact, most people couldn’t care less. But for monks it was big news.
I was more than a little amazed by the description of this thing. Sitting on a plot of nearly a quarter million square feet, you can find in this emporium any and everything you could possibly need to be a Buddhist monk. From candles to begging bowls to statues of the Buddha (sitting or standing) to a huge assortment of saffron robes, it’s all there. Not only can you be assured of one-stop shopping, but you can do it in air-conditioned comfort as well. I’ve never been to Thailand, but I gather that air-conditioning draws shoppers by the trainload.
The scale of this store is breathtaking, and I can assert without fear of contradiction that there’s nothing like it for American monks. I’m not even going to waste my time by rushing to Walmart to ask about their monk department. The knowledgeable clerks will apologize that they don’t have one. Those less attuned will answer simply: “I’m sorry sir, but we don’t carry monks during the summer months.” But if Walmart and the other big-box stores don’t carry monk stuff, then who does? Well, I can tell you who does: no one does.
I’m not going to fault American retailers for missing out on a lucrative market, because it’s important to understand one thing about Buddhist monasticism in Thailand. It’s big. Really big. There are some 300,000 monks in Thailand, and last year there were 60,000 novice monks. That dwarfs any membership figures we’ve seen in the Catholic Church since the middle ages. But the key difference is the commitment that novices make in Thailand. Most stay only a short time, and then it’s back to jeans and t-shirts. But they return home spiritually refreshed.
Those newcomers arrive at the gates en masse. The guy who opened the megastore did so after going out to buy robes for the ninety-nine poor novices he was sponsoring. He discovered that the neighborhood monk stores were not at all prepared to deal with such volume. And so he adapted the concept of mass-merchandising to create a store that catered to the needs of the mobs of people who need monk stuff, and need it in a hurry. Thailand clearly is one of the few places on the planet where this business plan was ripe for success.
None of this would work in America, simply because there is no market. It’s not that there are no monks. It’s just that we don’t get 60,000 novices a year. And it’s not that God doesn’t call people to the monastic life in the United States. It’s just that God doesn’t seem to call them in herds. We get called by name, one at a time. And we enter in the hope that this will lead to a lifetime commitment. No wonder people are a little shy about coming in droves. But translated into economic terms, this is a market for a handful of mom-and-pop shops around the country, but certainly not for Macy’s.
That said, there likely are many values that Buddhist and Christian monks share, despite the obvious differences. As The Wall Street Journal noted about Thai monks, “all of them need stuff.” The same is true for American monks. And it was true as well for sixth-century monks, as Saint Benedict was careful to point out. In fact, compared to some of his more abstemious contemporaries, Benedict was pretty open-minded. Monks need a habit and footwear, and in winter they need warmer clothes, at least in places like Minnesota. Monks need slightly better clothing when they go out on a journey, wrote Benedict. Apparently he too worried about what the neighbors might say if monks went out poorly clad. And monks need pens and parchment and books and all the other stuff that people need to get by on.
Interestingly, Benedict allows more to those who need more, but he doesn’t scold them for it. Conversely, if a monk can get by on less, great. But don’t for a minute think you’re a better monk because you can make do with less than what your brother needs.
Therein lurks one of the many challenges in monastic life. I’ve seen monks’ rooms where the spare interior left me wondering if anyone lived there. I’ve also passed rooms where stuff was starting to block the door. All I can say for myself is that these are the extremes that I try to avoid. Saint Benedict advises that monks should do all things in moderation; and “too much” and “too little” strike me as wildly immoderate. I prefer to stick to living in a rigidly flexible moderation.
All of this brings us around to the importance of good judgment when it comes to the monastic life. It would be so convenient if the abbot told us exactly how much was too much or too little; but every monk I know would rebel the minute the abbot tried to do so. Aware of that tendency, Saint Benedict places the burden of good judgment squarely on the shoulders of the individual monk. He cannot cede to someone else the responsibility for his own life, because it was God who called him in the first place. And the monk must make his own response.
I would submit that lifestyle is one area in which monks, whether Buddhist or Christian, have the chance to live a prophetic life in the 21st century. In Benedict’s day, monks may have had one habit, or two at most. But most other people also had one or at most two sets of clothes. Today, when freighters can’t deliver clothes and consumer goods fast enough, monks have a chance to stand back and say to themselves: “Enough already.” Besides, the abbot’s not going to give us a second room to hold it all anyway.
But the issue of “too much stuff” is one that confronts us all, whatever our state in life. I’ll admit to the value of the big-box stores, not only for good prices but for their infinite variety. But as symbols of the ultimate value of material goods, such stores can easily morph into temples to a false god.
You and I are far more important than any of the stuff we own. And if that stuff has begun to take over our lives, then it may be time to reconsider Saint Benedict’s teaching on moderation. As for our Thai monk-brethren, I’m happy they have a megastore to suit their needs. Good for them. As for us American monks, we’ll get over it.
+On August 23rd I preached at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s. The first reading came from the Book of Ruth, and in The Story of Ruth I offer a few comments on this exceptional person.
+On Sunday, August 25th, I again presided at the Abbey Mass. Our returning students augmented our late summer numbers, and it was nice to hear many more voices join in the singing. The text of the sermon, Are We Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God?, can be found in Presentations.
+On August 22nd 515 freshmen began their college experience at Saint John’s University, and on the 23rd they joined the monastic community at evening prayer. Abbot John spoke to the students and welcomed them on behalf of the monks, and following vespers the students joined individual monks in small-group sessions. There they “met a monk” and learned a bit about the monastery and the Benedictine tradition at Saint John’s.
+On Sunday August 11th, I and a group of fellow travelers visited the abbey of Weingarten, in southern Germany. I was privileged to concelebrate at the Mass, and afterwards the pastor gave us a tour of the church, as well as a visit to the organ loft.
Weingarten was founded as a Benedictine abbey in the 11th century, and in 1802, during the Napoleonic wars, it was closed and the buildings left to decay. In 1922 a small community of monks refounded it, but their efforts came to naught and three years ago it closed once again.
Weingarten is an extraordinary place, with wonderful frescoes and a feeling of ample space. But from my point of view the star of this rococo bonanza is the organ, built by Joseph Gabler in the years 1737-1750. His challenge was to build an instrument that did not block the light streaming in from the windows behind the pipes. He succeeded magnificently, and his design included the novel placement of the console. From the bench at the keys, the organist looks out over the loft and directly at the altar. The pictures in today’s post all come from Weingarten, and for a selection of music from the organ, you can visit this link.