Skip to main content

Equal concern for the past, present, and future

One of the great Benedictine virtues is “enoughness.” The interesting thing about enoughness is that it is not imbued in the monastic by a chart or canon of weights and measures, as in  “You may have three pair of shoes, one kind of soap, one visit home.” No, the measurement Benedict specifies in the Rule is very straightforward, very obvious. Let the monastic have what she needs, the Rule teaches, and “those who have need of less, thank God.” 

Greed is more a temptation than we ever knew. After all, if you can afford a thing, why not get it? Answer: Because every element we take out of the Earth is affecting the future of the earth, of our families, of world peace. To squander life on the amassing of goods simply for the sake of amassing goods only shrinks the soul to the size of the last pointless and superfluous item. 

The problem is that a commitment to stewardship makes every request a decision: Do I really need this thing, or do I simply want it? It confronts us with the difference between the cultural question, “Don’t I deserve to keep up with the technology, the style, the convenience?” and the moral question, “What is accumulation without cause doing to the breadth and quality of my own soul?” This is surely the question of the age. But how many of us really realize that yet? 

The real value of stewardship lies in its equal concern and care for the past, the present, and the future. A life lived through the filter of stewardship saves things rather than discards them simply because they’re old.

You begin to see that stewardship addresses life everywhere. Stewardship is meant to buttress the weak ends of society so that all good things are available to all at some level of value. Or to put it another way, why are so many fancy old baby cribs, hung heavy with all the mobiles a child could ever need for mental stimulation, still sitting in garages when they should be in the homes of young couples who have no money to buy their own cribs? Or more important than that, perhaps, why are so many computers not given to young students whose parents can’t possibly buy them? 

Stewardship is a long-lost value in a society that equates success with newness. But there is another kind of problem as well. With the invention of plastic, the value of stewardship got dealt a heavy blow. The explosion of plastic as a basic material brought too much debris to oceans that cannot be cleaned up. More than that, artisanship suffered. Too much good art got reduced to look-alikes. The world got too much faux this and faux that to learn the difference between simulation and the real thing. Authenticity became a value of the past. 

Stewardship, then, brings up the question of preservation, of insisting on biodegradable, well-made real objects rather than the impermeable look-alikes that will kill off the fish, poison the land, while we never even have the grace to blush. 

Preservation, conservation, authenticity, and moral impact mark the monastic charism of stewardship. This charism takes the world as it is and sets out to make it better. It gives itself to completing and protecting the work of creation. As the Rule says, “Then are they truly monks when they live by the work of their hands as did our ancestors before us.” 

—from The Monastic Heart, by Joan Chittister (Penguin Random House). This and Sister Joan’s other monastic books in the store at are on sale leading up to the Feast of Benedict on July 11.