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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Report: Orthodox Monastic Communities in the United States

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The Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America has published a new report on Orthodox Monastic Communities in the United States (here). The report contains a lot of great information (“great” for nerds like me, anyway), including a whole section entitled, “‘Monastic Economy:’ Ownership of Property and Sources of Income in US Orthodox Monasteries.”
According to the report,
In summary, the three most common sources of income in US Orthodox monasteries are:
  • Occasional private donations including bequests and offerings for performed sacraments (87% of all monastic communities mentioned this source of income);
  • Sale of religious items (except candles) that are not produced by monastery (52% of all monastic communities mentioned this source of income);
  • Production and sales of candles (24% of all monastic communities mentioned this source of income).
Thus, after private donations, the top two sources of income are through commerce: 52% sales of items not produced by the monastery and 24% candles produced by the monastery. Income from other items produced by monasteries, such as books, devotional items, and food items, was also significant. Our Merciful Saviour Russian Orthodox Monastery in Washington state, for example, lists sales of their “monastery blend” coffee as their primary source of income.

This does not come as a surprise to me.


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The most recent volume (vol. 8, 2014) published by the Sophia Institute, of which I am a fellow, includes a paper by me entitled, “Markets and Monasticism: A Survey & Appraisal of Eastern Christian Monastic Enterprise.” While my paper is not a comprehensive history, it does include a section on modern Orthodox monasteries in the United States.
I write,
In December of 1997, Our Merciful Saviour Russian Orthodox Monastery in Washington State found itself facing potential litigation from Starbucks. The monastery operated a small business selling coffee over the internet, and Starbucks charged it with violating its trademark of the label “Christmas Blend.” While two other businesses responded by changing the names of their blends, Our Merciful Saviour refused. A year later, embarrassed over the negative publicity that threatening a monastery with a lawsuit engendered, Starbucks dropped the charges. Today Our Merciful Saviour uses the story as a marketing point for its “Christmas Blend” coffee on its website: “Made famous by our battle with Starbucks some years ago … this wonderful seasonal blend of Arabica beans is perfect for drinking around the hearth.” Due to their persistence, many other coffee makers still use the label as well.
Our Merciful Saviour is not the only modern monastery benefitting from globalization, conducting business over the internet and benefiting from high speed shipping. I offer here a sample of only a few American Orthodox monasteries and the products they produce and sell: St. Paisius Monastery, a Serbian convent in Arizona, specializes in prayer ropes but also sells books, music, icons, crosses, and rings. The Hermitage of the Holy Cross, a Russian monastery in House Springs, Missouri, features pumpkin spice bar soap and also sells other bath and body products, books, incense, food, greeting cards, icons, jewelry, and various Orthodox CDs and DVDs. Holy Transfiguration Monastery, part of the schismatic Holy Orthodox Church in North America, is well-known for their icons and books. In addition, they also sell prayer ropes, crosses, oils, incense, lamps, CDs and DVDs, and prosphora seals. St. John Chrysostomos Greek Orthodox Monastery in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin (whose website entirely consists of its online store) sells icons, candles, jewelry, and other devotional items. The Monastery of St. John of San Francisco, part of the Orthodox Church in America and located in Manton, California, has a bookstore that also sells candles, soaps, icons, crosses, scarves, honey, prayer ropes, and greeting cards. St. John the Forerunner, a Greek convent in San Francisco, sells various baked goods as well as prayer corner items, icon cards, natural soaps and lotions, honey and jams, fresh roasted coffee, and sterling silver Jesus Prayer rings. Paracletos, a Greek monastery in Antreville, South Carolina, has its own, separate website for its store where it sells icons, neck crosses and gifts, censers, incense, oil lamps, and prayer ropes. Dormition of the Mother of God Romanian Orthodox Monastery, a convent in Rives Junction, Michigan, sells books, prayer ropes, vestments, and specialty items, including handcrafted monk and nun dolls.
This brief survey gives no indication that the Orthodox tradition of monastic enterprise shows any signs of diminishing or, for that matter, any uneasiness with participating in the global markets of the twenty-first century.
I also examined the economic wisdom of one Abba Pistamon of the Egyptian desert fathers in an Acton Commentary last month (originally published at Ethika Politika here). In it, I wrote, “In ancient Christian sources, contempt for the merchant and trader is common, but the reality is more complicated. Sometimes traders and merchants went by a more respectable name: monks.”

As we can see, at least in the Orthodox Church in the United States (though also far broader than that), this ancient tradition of monastic commerce and enterprise is still alive and well today, offering an example of the good of business and human creativity guided by a commitment to the kingdom of God.

By Dylan Pahman

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