Business Ethics

At first sight, it may seem strange to turn to a sixth century monastic rule for guidance on business ethics, but RB 31, What Kind of Person the Cellarer Should Be (together with RB 57, On the Artisans of the Community), has a lot to say about our current concerns.

The cellarer is effectively the business manager of the monastery, responsible for everything from finance to food. Benedict begins by giving us a pen-portrait of the qualities the cellarer should have. Some of them, turned into corporation-speak, are still used today to identify senior management, but there are others which touch on the cellarer’s moral identity. How many financial institutions would dare to ask themselves whether the person they are considering for a senior position is ‘wise, mature in character (not necessarily age), abstemious, not greedy, not conceited, not a trouble-maker, not offensive or lazy or wasteful’? (RB131.1-2) To do so would be to acknowledge that the values by which we live our private lives are reflected in the public sphere. Benedict is principally concerned here with honesty and integrity and a watchfulness over oneself which is the mark of maturity. Such qualities have taken a battering of late, but they are at the heart of the trust on which so much economic activity still depends.

Benedict sees the cellarer’s responsibilities as all-embracing. In effect, he asks the question, what is wealth for? The answer he gives highlights the danger of losing sight of the purpose of God’s gifts. The cellarer is to ‘take meticulous care of the sick, the young, guests and the poor’, in other words, the most vulnerable members of society, yet at the same time to treat the monastery’s goods and property ‘as if sacred altar vessels.’ (RB31. 9-10) Again and again, the cellarer is reminded that his authority over these is given by the abbot and he must neither neglect anything nor go further than his instructions allow. He is essentially the servant of the community, but not in the menial sense we often ascribe to that word: his service is that of a father to the community (RB 31.2), one who provides, enables, fosters growth. So often we think about business success in terms of ‘what’s best for me’ rather than ‘what good I can do’.

It is clear that Benedict expects the work of the monks to generate something over and above what they need for mere existence, something that can be shared with others. Even this sharing, however, is not exempt from the need to be consistent with what the monks profess to believe. The cellarer is warned against the temptations to which his power makes him susceptible. Instead of arrogance, there must be humility; when there is nothing else to give, a good word must be spoken; he mustn’t use his office to demonstrate his own importance by acting haughtily or making others wait to receive their due.(RB 31 13 to 16) These are not only the temptations of the monastic cellarer and minor bureaucrat, they are the temptations of every person who is given a great deal of freedom in the exercise of his or her responsibilities.

The recent Note on Financial Reform from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the protest at St Paul’s, the Report of the St Paul’s Institute and, above all, the daily turbulence within the Eurozone have served to remind us that the economic structures with which we are familiar are all rather fragile; that ignoring the moral dimension of wealth creation and distribution is to undermine the basis of a civilized society which cares for the weak as well as the strong; that selfishness and greed make for general misery; and, most important of all, that it doesn’t have to be like that. We can be, like Benedict’s cellarer, good stewards, worthy of the promise contained in 1 Timothy 3.13. The question is, do we want to be?


Macro Finance, Micro Finance and the Common Good

The G20 meeting is focusing attention on the fragility of the world economy again. At one level, it beggars belief that a country as small and ‘economically insignificant’ as Greece could jeopardize the whole of the Eurozone and thereby the world; but so it is. The U.S. and U.K. economies are faltering and China has made it clear that with high inflation at home and a stagnant manufacturing sector, it is in no mind to come to anyone’s rescue. These are issues of macro finance, but they translate into the detail of micro finance. They decide whether individuals have enough to eat, whether they can afford adequate heating or healthcare or education. The link between the macro and the micro isn’t always obvious, but like the bullet fired at Archduke Franz Ferdinand, small actions can have huge consequences.

The concept of the common good isn’t particularly difficult to grasp, but by and large, we interpret it to mean what we are comfortable with. It is easy to point the finger at others and say, they are enjoying an unfair share of the world’s resources, but I suspect that could be said of most of us living in the west. I am not sure what we ‘little people’ do in moments of crisis such as those we are living through. Ultimately, I think each one of us must ask ourselves how we can contribute to the common good and stick with it. We may think that what we do is very trivial, but even a cup of cold water given with love is a key to the Kingdom.


All Saints

The communion of saints is something I never tire of meditating on. The thought that you and I are saints by virtue of our membership of the Church is always uplifting. Weak, fallible, crotchety creatures that we are, there is something about us that is infinitely more important than the sum of our failures. Add to that our fellowship with the saints in heaven, and you can see why the Church regards the Solemnity of All Saints as one of the most important feasts of the year. With the celebration of All Souls tomorrow, this great feast of the Church will be complete: the Church in heaven, the Church on earth and the Church in purgatory, awaiting the resurrection.

I suspect that for most people this rather lofty and liturgical conception of All Saints is much less interesting that the ‘tents and temple’ situation at St Paul’s. I don’t pretend to understand what is going on, but it is deeply troubling that, as many have mentioned, a dispute about capitalism should have become a dispute about the Church. It is in the nature of tent dwellers that they should move on; the temple stands as a reminder of the eternal. St Bede’s most important book, De Templo, was a sustained meditation on Solomon’s temple as an image of the Church with lots of number theory thrown in. Perhaps it would make good reading today for the tent dwellers around St Paul’s because it asserts the unity of the Church, both those who dwell within and those stuck outside in the courts, and the salvation possible to us all in Christ.


Seven Billionth Baby

Somewhere, sometime, probably today, so the statisticians tell us, baby number seven billion will be born. For the media, he or she is just a number, something on which to hang a story about population growth or indulge in a little sentimentality lite. To God (and hopefully the parents also), baby number seven billion is unique and precious, called by name to share God’s beauty and holiness: someone, rather than something, a person who can reflect the divine as no-one else ever has done or ever could. This is a day for wonder and thanksgiving rather than anything more trivial.



Each of us carries within a personal calendar: this day is important because I met so-and-so, because I did such-and-such, because something or other happened. Despite the proliferation of social media and the ease of sharing online, these personal calendars tend to be very private. Earlier this week a friend asked me to pray for his mother on 29 October and I said I’d have no difficulty remembering because today is also the anniversary of my own mother’s death. He was immediately contrite, as though he should have known, but why should he? He was empathizing with me from the way he would feel had the situation been reversed. That was generous. It was also kind, literally, expressing kinship with me.

Clock time and emotional time do not always coincide, nor do we always know why someone who is usually bright and bouncy is a little sad or subdued. Sometimes we need to ask; sometimes we don’t. The one thing that is never out of place is kindness and a prayer.


Gaddafi Reconsidered

Earlier this year I blogged about tyranny and the Gaddafi regime. You can find the post here. I haven’t changed my opinion about the legitimacy of resisting tyranny, but this morning I find myself considering another problem, one that has been prompted by the expressions of glee and horrifying photos circulating on the internet. There is something not quite right about what is going on: ‘Every man’s death diminishes me.’ True, but it is more than that. As a Catholic, I believe that praying for the dead, ALL the dead, is a sacred duty because we share a common humanity and because, whether we acknowledge it or not, we are all children of the one Father.

Gaddafi alive was monstrous; Gaddafi dead is pathetic. If we forget our own humanity in face of that, what hope is there for us?


Money and Madness

With inflation at 5.2%, interest rates the lowest they’ve ever been, and unemployment, especially among the young, assuming quite frightening proportions, the ‘other-worldly’ message of the Churches can seem far removed from reality. In vain we argue that it is the true reality: that we are more than the sum of what we possess, infinitely more than what may ‘possess’ us. But our words sound hollow, especially when most of us are involved in fund-raising for this or that. Our language of gift and tithe is alien to many. Are we mad or simply a bit thick, unable to comprehend the new world economic order in which the haves will tend to acquire more and the have-nots to have less and less? Wasn’t it ever so?

Yes and no. The perfect community of Acts 4 has always left me unconvinced. We’re fallen creatures and it shows. The best we can hope to do is to embrace a frugal lifestyle that allows us to be generous to others. We must learn to love not having as once we loved having. One of the great things about being a nun is that we can really live the dispossession of the gospels. Here at Hendred it’s no fiction: the community finances are permanently on a knife-edge, but we still aim to be as hospitable as possible. We don’t experience the poverty of many in the so-called Third World, but by many of the indices used to assess poverty in Britain, we are down there with the best of them, and I myself wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. It is when one is utterly dependent on the mercy of God that one knows true freedom. The trouble is, most of us don’t really want to be free. We prefer the chains of habit and possession. Maybe the rather grim economic future we all face will make us think again about our priorities: we may not have much money, but perhaps the very lack of it will help us regain our sanity.


Care of the Elderly

The latest report into N.H.S. care of the elderly is pretty damning, but before we all raise our hands in horror/point the finger or whatever other cliché is appropriate to manifest disgust, we should ask how we treat the elderly ourselves.

It is possible to romanticise care of the elderly. The white-haired grandma or grandpa, sitting quietly in a rocking chair and dispensing wisdom and kindness to everyone, is, more often than not, a fiction. We don’t associate such figures with the frailty, querulousness, and smelliness of old age which is the reality. Anyone who has cared for a very old person over a long stretch of time will know the tiredness and guilt that such care often imposes on the carer. It is complicated further when the care must be given in cramped conditions, with lack of understanding or downright hostility to contend with from other members of the family. If we don’t do all that brilliantly at home, should we expect any better in hospital, which is not, after all, meant for long-term care but for getting people better as quickly as possible?

Perhaps the real problem is not so much the failures that have been highlighted in N.H.S. hospitals as the attitudes of society in general to the elderly. Respect nowadays has to be earned. In Benedict’s day, it was accorded automatically. Unless we genuinely respect others and see in them the person God has created and redeemed, I think we all run the danger of seeing the elderly as a nuisance, a drag, not worth bothering about. That is a chilling thought.

If nothing else, I’m not sure I would want to stand before God on Judgement Day and say I found any of his children ‘not worth bothering about’, would you?


Steve Jobs, R.I.P.

Not long ago I wrote an article about how Steve Jobs and Apple had transformed the way in which we communicate and the debt we all owe in consequence, especially the Church. Today’s homepage on Apple’s web site demonstrates what is good about Apple products: it’s simple, stylish and extremely effective. If only all Church communication were equally so.

Steve Jobs was a showman, with a flair for knowing what people wanted and would buy. He was also autocratic, apparently not easy to work with. But among the many tributes to him pouring across the web, I like this reminder of the other side of Jobs, the man who had looked into the face of death and was not afraid:

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.
Steve Jobs, 2005.

Requiescat in pace.


The Cloister of the Heart

Michaelmas, when we think about realities usually unseen, is a good day on which to respond to a question raised by a number of people about what we mean by our ‘cloister of the heart’ and the internet as its ‘fourth wall’.

I hope Sr Joan Chittister won’t mind my saying that I think we were using the phrase ‘cloister of the heart’ before she coined the phrase ‘monasteries of the heart’. Although there are similarities between the two, there are also major differences.

When we began life as a fully autonomous monastic community, we had practically nothing in material terms, but we did have a vivid sense of the importance of chapter 53 of the Rule of St Benedict, On the Reception of Guests. Benedict exhorts us to welcome the guest tamquam Christus, as if Christ. That means that the monastery must not only give to the guest, it must also receive: the guest should not only find Christ in the monastery but also bring Christ to the monastery. Hence, hospitality is a sacred duty, and a mutual duty. For us, without a physical space into which to welcome guests, the internet provided an opportunity to exercise Benedictine hospitality, no less real for occurring within a virtual space. That is why we have tried to introduce elements of interactivity and to create a space that is at once welcoming and imbued with a sense of the sacred. There is a lot still to do, but we have to work within the constraints of our resources, both human and financial.

We commonly refer to this virtual space as our ‘cloister of the heart’, and the internet, which is both the means and mode of its existence, as its ‘fourth wall’. To understand that, you need to have some knowledge of the role of the cloister in monastic history. Historically, the cloister is usually a quadrangular covered walkway, adjoining the three most important places within the monastery, church, chapter house and refectory. It links them all, and is traditionally associated with prayer and reading. In medieval times, it was often also the scriptorium, where monks and nuns worked at manuscripts.

Church, chapter house, refectory: where is the fourth place to encounter Christ? In the guest, of course; and how do we at Hendred chiefly encounter the guest? Through the internet. There is a further point to make. We speak of the internet as a ‘wall’ as well as a vehicle of welcome. That is because a life of prayer requires discipline and sometimes distance from many of the preoccupations of a more secular lifestyle. The internet is a way in which we can take the monastery to others and enable those who wish to share in our life of prayer to experience something of God’s love and explore with us some of the big questions of life; but it is also a way in which a small and ‘economically challenged’ community can protect itself from being devoured by the needs and demands of others.

We hope that readers of this blog and users of our various web sites will always feel welcome in our ‘cloister of the heart’. We cannot always meet your expectations or demands, no human being could; but we hope you will be encouraged to go further into God. It is the greatest of all journeys. May St Michael and all angels attend you on the way.