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Monks making money: A business beyond prayer

By Jessica Ravitz, CNN
  • Self-sufficiency of monastic communities began with St. Benedict in sixth century
  • Figuring out how to make money can be challenge in changing economic world
  • Across U.S., monks make coffee, caskets, fruit cakes, honey, bonsai and more
  • Georgia monastery once raised ostriches and emus; abbot calls that "a bust"

Conyers, Georgia (CNN) -- Nestled amid lush rolling green hills, the sacred grounds of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit are awash in pastoral tranquility. Here 40 Trappist monks who left the world they once knew -- on Wall Street, in academia and elsewhere -- dedicate their lives to prayer, reflection and the worship of God.

Less than 30 miles from downtown Atlanta, Georgia, they seem a world away from the worries that mar modern daily life. And yet it turns out these men, who've chosen the simplest of existences, aren't immune to pressure. There are bills to pay, even here, and in this economy, that can make for some stressed-out monks.

"It's a struggle," admitted the abbot, Father Francis Michael Stiteler. "The world we live in has pushed our expenses, and they have outrun our income."

The idea of monks making money is nothing new in the Christian monastic tradition. St. Benedict, in the sixth century, helped organize the system that many Western religious orders still follow. His motto, ora et labora (Latin for "pray and work"), became a touchstone rule for self-sufficient monastic communities, including the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, known more commonly as Trappists after La Trappe Abbey in Normandy, France, where the order began in the late 17th century.

At this Trappist monastery in Georgia, one of 17 in the United States, the monks dabble in a number of ventures. They run a gift shop, rent out a retreat center and work in the bonsai business. Though they once baked bread, the profit margin wasn't high enough, and they turned to fudge, fruit cake and, most recently, biscotti. They've been commissioned to make stained-glass windows and recently turned 85 acres of their property into Honey Creek Woodlands, a conservation burial ground offering "green burials" (no embalming, the use of plain caskets or shrouds -- or cremation -- and simple stone markers) for people of all faiths.

For the Trappist monks in Utah, it's all about honey; in New York, it's bread. Their brothers in Missouri moved from cinder blocks, when competition drove them out of business, to fruit cakes, which are available through Williams-Sonoma. And while Trappists in Iowa make handcrafted caskets, the order overseas in Belgium is busy brewing beer.

It's a struggle. The world we live in has pushed our expenses, and they have outrun our income.
--Father Francis Michael Stiteler, the Monastery of the Holy Spirit

Ten years ago, the Georgia monastery, which sits on 2,300 acres purchased in 1944 with lofty agricultural goals, could get by on a $600,000 to $700,000 a year, the abbot says. But with climbing utility bills, maintenance, property insurance, food and employees, they need about $1.7 million a year, says Jim Burnham, the monastery's business manager.

About $500,000 goes to health-care costs because the monks, ranging in age from 38 to 99, can't afford health insurance. The donated services of a dentist and doctor have helped, the abbot says, but round-the-clock nursing care for its aging community -- some men have been there more than 60 years, one since the beginning -- or a major surgery or illness can leave the monastery in financial purgatory.

Figuring out how to make money has been an ongoing and sometimes ill-fated process, the abbot says. A popular folk story told around the community is that when monks first arrived here in the 1940s, they sent a soil sample out to find out what they should grow. The diagnosis: bricks.

Over the years, the monks have raised rabbits and chickens and manned a dairy herd. They worked with beef cattle at one point. They even tried their hand at raising ostriches and emus.

"That was a bust," the abbot said with a laugh.

To read more stories with faith angles, go to CNN's Belief Blog

Not all religious orders find themselves needing to worry about dollars. Franciscans, Dominicans and Carmelites, for example, are considered mendicant orders, and the friars -- not called monks -- depend exclusively on charity. They're more along the lines of Buddhist monks who travel with begging bowls, although those bowls have morphed into platters of support presented by benefactors and through organized capital campaigns.

"Friars were supposed to wander around by themselves among the people and preach and live on gifts (as Jesus did), while monks withdrew from the people to devote themselves to prayer as a group," the Rev. Paul Sullins, a sociology professor at Catholic University of America in Washington, explained by e-mail. "You might say that friars were the independent contractors, while monks were the corporate types, of the ascetic life."

Monks invented the hourglass, Sullins says, which fed into their disciplined -- and by all counts successful -- lives. He says 20 to 30 percent of the entire economic output in medieval times resulted from monks who led the way in agricultural innovation. At the time of the Reformation, he adds, monasteries owned a third of the land in England.

You might say that friars were the independent contractors, while monks were the corporate types, of the ascetic life.
--The Rev. Paul Sullins, Catholic University of America in Washington

Capitalism, indeed, was invented in monasteries in the ninth, 10th and 11th centuries, says Rodney Stark, author of "The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success."

"Christianity had made its peace with profit motives," Stark said. "The other thing they had going for them," when thinking about long-term wealth: "They never had idiot sons coming in to control the properties."

Smart monks were appointed to manage the money. They didn't quit their jobs. They didn't throw cash away on women and booze. They became the banks of Europe, Stark says, loaning money with interest.

"When the crusaders went out, that's where they borrowed all their money," said Stark, who co-directs the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. "It cost a fortune to go crusading."

Monk money-making ventures today, however, don't fuel military exploits and the spread of power. They're simply about having enough to get by and give to the poor.

Even the Carmelites, traditionally friars, are stepping into the financial fray. A small band of monks affiliated with the order and based in Wyoming introduced Mystic Monk Coffee, a business offering specially roasted beans as well as logo-emblazoned mugs and hoodies.

And it's not just men called to the religious life who have to make a buck. Take the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Clyde, Missouri. They're celebrating their 100th year of making Altar Bread, or communion wafers, and have a new venture on the rise.

The "Soap Sister," as Sister Cathleen Marie Timberlake in Missouri is called, has been adding holy water and prayers to her handcrafted soaps -- Monastery Scents -- for about 10 years. In recent years she's expanded the product line, adding lip balms, lotions and sugar scrubs. She even has a blog.

Figuring out how to promote business, when living the cloistered, hidden life and not out schmoozing over power lunches, is part of the challenge facing religious orders. The monks may not have or touch computers themselves, but their faces and products now grace websites where goods are promoted and online orders placed.

When the abbot in Georgia was elected to his position six years ago, a term that ends in late May, the monastery was losing as much as $400,000 a year, he says. He enlisted outside help, which included a massive study of the community's assets and where it might make more money.

The answer: tourism.

This month, the monks had a groundbreaking for construction of a gathering space and visitors center. Though they hope to finance the project through donations, it's a $6.5 million "calculated risk," the abbot says. By pulling in more tourists, the monks hope to lighten their financial load so they can focus more comfortably on the business of living a contemplative life.

At least, that's what they're praying for.