Rose: We are looking at the intersection of money and faith. How did that become an area that you were interested in?
Bernard: At first money seemed to be totally divorced from faith for me. I was born and raised as a Roman Catholic. I left the Church in adolescence. Then I basically crossed the desert in terms of religious affiliation until my late 30’s. I came back to the Episcopalian Church in 1999.
At that time, I had been an investment banker for 12 years. I started thinking about the meaning of my work as a banker and the purpose of all the money that was being processed. I wondered, “What impact does all this money have in people’s lives?” I had thought about that very little before that.
The closest I had come to thinking about that was when I borrowed money to purchase my home in Brussels. That was the biggest financial transaction in my life. Yet the loan, which I was going to repay for 30 years, was less then a ten thousandth of any transaction that I was doing on an average day. That woke me up.
It was an intellectual question for me more than a spiritual one. I was wondering what good the money that I was transacting was having on the world. In most cases I could not figure it out. What was gnawing at me was that so many of my transactions were derivative; they were financial transactions that were one or two steps removed from the real economy, so it was nearly impossible to imagine what the money was doing in the lives of people.
That gnawed at me. I tried to ignore it because I was still earning the big bucks as an investment banker and it was an annoying question. I tried to silence the question. It was only when I lost my job in the merger of two banks that I was free to start looking at that.
Rose: What was your relationship with money like in your personal life at that time?
Bernard: I was never one of the biggest earners in my business, but I earned a six-figure salary. I had access to the comforts of life that come with that kind of money. I probably lived a simpler life than the amount of money I was earning allowed, but I had a lot of money at my disposal. I was free to make any kind of decision I liked, within reason. You can always imagine a financial transaction that is beyond your means no matter how rich you are, but in the realm of the things I was interested in and desired to do or to have, I had enough to do any of those. I never had to ask if I had the money to do something. For me, that is a definition of wealth.
Rose: Wealth, for you, is when you can satisfy what you want to do without having to ask if you can afford it?
Bernard: I guess you can have a lot of money and not be wealthy in that definition if you always have thirsts and desires that are beyond your means. In that case, you will never feel wealthy. You will always feel like you’re constrained and that there is not enough. Some people have millions of dollars at their disposal and feel that’s not enough. I never had millions of dollars. My wealth was not even several hundreds of thousands of dollars, but it was wealth. I had enough. I could even talk with my financial adviser and be told that I did not need to save money for retirement. There are very few people who can do that.
Mind you, I lived in Manhattan. It was not cheap but I didn’t spend extravagantly on cars or on clothing. I didn’t own my apartment and I didn’t buy real estate as investment, so all that simplified my financial picture. I had a salary. I had rent. And there was a lot to spare.
Rose: When you lost your job, there was more space to look at the gnawing question. Can you say a bit more about that?
Bernard: I worked for JP Morgan and Chase bought JP Morgan. I did not get laid off in the first few layoffs. In a merger situation, if you’ve not been in wave one or wave two of layoffs, you think, “My job is safe. I will probably keep it.” But then the Internet bubble burst and I lost my job with most of my department.
I had been working for that bank for 14 years and had developed an identity that was deeply enmeshed with the corporate identity. By the time the layoff came, it was difficult to disentangle my-self from the job in terms of my identity and to realize that Bernard is not really this banker. The bank job was what enabled me to put bread on the table, lavishly so, but it was not who I am.
At first there was the impoverishment of identity. I had an amazing career counselor who worked with me for several months. She held me by the suspenders and said, “Don’t go and apply for jobs at other investment banks. Step back and take some time.” I guess she intuited in interviews with me that there was something else in me. She wanted me to explore the possibility of what else was out there for me in terms of meaningful work.
I’m forever grateful to her. I did not know it at the time but she had a terminal disease and was working out of a passion. There was a vocation in what she was doing which was to kindle in people who they really were and what their mission or vocation might be rather then their career. That was quite amazing. She and another friend of mine who worked in human resources at the bank really helped me shift my view.
My friend who worked in HR called the day that I was laid off and said, “I know this comes as a shock but I’m going to ask you to think about the following question, ‘What did this job give you that you valued? What are the things in this job that you have not yet done that you really would like to do?’” And, I heard it. It’s amazing that the day of my layoff I was able to hear the question.
I thought about it for a few days and realized that the job had given me amazing intellectual possibilities and amazing opportunities to travel. I had learned a lot about financial markets and the economy. I had learned a lot about managing people and projects. What was still left was for me to continue creeping up in the hierarchy of the bank to have access to more power and more money. As soon as I had that thought I realized that I was not interested in the sacrifices that creeping up would imply. I had never thought that. I could have, but I needed that golden kick in the pants to realize I did not want more of the same. I intuited what the human cost of going for more money and more power was and I didn’t want to pay that.
Rose: What were the things that would have to be sacrificed?
Bernard: I would have had to become an increasingly political animal within the inner power hierarchy in my corporation. It becomes a highly competitive game in which there are winners and losers, and increasingly if you’re winning, you have enabled the loss of somebody. Up until then I had been in jobs where there was competition but it was not highly political. The higher echelons of the bank would have required ruthlessness about being the competitor for the bigger jobs and the bigger opportunities. That did not appeal to me.
It also would have involved giving up a lot of freedom in terms of my personal life. I had worked hard up until then, but I had gotten to a place where I had some balance between personal and work life. I knew that in order to get to the upper echelons you have to basically sacrifice everything in your personal life. You have to be willing to no longer have free time and no longer have availability with your social networks and your family. I didn’t want that.
The layoff forced me to look at those questions. There had been this growth of how much my work took in my life without my even questioning whether I wanted it to take that much place in my life. I realized that continuing to perform highly in that type of environment required something that I was not willing to offer. But I had no idea what the alternative was.
Over the summer of 2001, I did the work necessary to see myself as another individual than I imagined at work. My career counselor forced me to go back and dig deeper in terms of my natural aptitudes, my personal aspirations, and my values, regardless of what kind of job that seemed to describe. By the end of the summer, I realized that I never wanted to work for a large corporation again. I wanted to work in a line of work that would make a difference in individuals’ lives. I still didn’t know what that looked like, but that was enough to stop me from writing a resume that would have fit the bill at another investment bank.
I also knew that I probably would have to create my own job. It was daunting because I had always relied for my financial safety on a very big organization with big muscle. Suddenly I was saying, “I’m going to rely on my own acumen to provide for my own needs.”
Rose: How did you get from there to this monastery?
Bernard: During that summer, I realized that I wanted to become a business coach and a personal life skills coach. I started my own practice, which I operated for about 3 years out of my apartment in Manhattan. Very quickly I decided I wanted to help clients look at goals in at least 3 areas of their lives. It turned out that spirituality was an important area to a lot of clients. I ended up working with a number of clients on developing their own spiritual life. I had become an active Christian again by then and realized that the coach has to walk the talk and I wondered what I was doing to develop my own spiritual life.
I started coming to this monastery on retreats. Here, I found a wonderful resource for my own spiritual life. When I realized I needed to become more intentional about my spiritual life, I started coming more often.
At the end of that summer on September 11, the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington occurred. I was not in New York City that morning, even though I lived three blocks south of the World Trade Center. I was volunteering on an Aids fundraiser bike ride.
In December of that year, I came to this monastery for a silent directed retreat. That was a full week of retreat, entirely in silence, with the exception of meeting a spiritual director once a day. It was obviously a portentous time. I was living in the mayhem that was downtown Manhattan after September 11. I had lost my job just two months before the attacks. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to create a job that would sustain me. For a while, I thought I had lost my home. Everything seemed to be up in the air.
But after September 11 many New Yorkers started to focus on questions like: Why am I here? Why do I live this life? Why have I survived? Is this all there is? Is this really what I am meant to do? In that boiling kettle I came here for a week-long retreat of spiritual direction. It was an eye opener and a soul opener. It opened my heart and my mind to what the spiritual journey was in ways that I had never done before. I had had a good training in what were basic behavioral devotions but I had never had a very thought through spiritual life before. Suddenly that opened up an avenue of theological thinking. I decided I wanted to keep that going, so I went back to New York and found a spiritual director at Trinity Wall Street who worked with me for the next 3 years.
In the years I was a coach, I discovered that I loved to help people. It was the most meaningful career I’d ever had. I wanted to do nothing else for the rest of my life. I thought I would retire in New York City a happy coach. I realized that I would not have as much money as I had before, but since I did not have a luxurious lifestyle, I knew I could live with what I could earn as a coach. But in the process of looking at my spiritual life, little by little, the quest for meaning became ever bigger.
One of my prayer practices, which emerged out of coaching techniques, was writing gratitude lists. I started writing them in my diary and I started praying gratitude prayers when I was alone. I would pray my gratitude list when I was in the subway. The subway is actually a wonderful place for praying because unless you want to engage the strangers in the subway cars you’re pretty much alone and it’s down time between things. In the course of a gratitude prayer, I ended up having a mystical experience in the subway, which sort of jarred me into realizing that I needed to answer the love that I felt I was receiving from God in even more meaningful ways than I was already as a coach. I realized I had somebody to be grateful to for this life and I wanted to return the love I felt I was receiving. I didn’t know what that looked like at first, but I kept coming to the Monastery on retreat.
One day the taxi turned into the driveway and I had a gut feeling of home. It felt like a huge weight had been relieved from my shoulders. There was this burst of gratitude coming out of my chest saying, “Yes this is it. I can breathe here. I’m home.” My intellectual mind, which is what I had always let my life be ruled by said, “What are you talking about? Home is in Manhattan.” But, I paid attention to my gut feeling enough to look into this. Little by little I realized that I was attracted to this place and I wanted this place to become home for me. A lot of guests come here and say this is a spiritual home for them, and it is. But for me it became even more than that. I wanted to live here permanently.
I started discerning a vocation as a monk in the second half of 2003 and entered at the end of March 2004. It was a three-year period during which I went from being an investment banker to being a coach to becoming a monk. It wasn’t a sudden transformation from a banker to a monk. There was an interim stage that was necessary, that allowed me to be willing and able to hear the call to become a monk. I probably would have been pretty deaf to it before.
Rose: What do you see the monastery has to offer people who want to explore their relationship with money?
Bernard: I think a monastery like mine offers an alternate image of what wealth can be. We are wealthy in many ways. We are not wealthy as individuals; none of us has personal assets anymore. We’re wealthy because we live together. We are wealthy because we have common purpose. The fundamental reason why we live together is to worship and pray together and to deepen our relationship to God. That’s a deep commonality of purpose, even if we are very different.
And we have access to a huge amount of resources. I sometimes joke that I am wealthier than I have ever been. We live in a mansion that’s more then 100 years old and has more than 100 rooms; we have 9 staff members who work for the monastery; we share a fleet of vehicles; we live on 26 acres of Hudson River facing land. All of these could be markers of wealth in another context. We are not living a life of poverty. We live a life of simplicity in that we are no longer trying to increase our own wealth and be the single captain of our boat. The poverty that we have is the poverty of no longer being able to make our own decision and implement it at the drop of a hat. There is a poverty of choices that you can no longer make. But there is a wealth of commonality of purpose and means.
Rose: You started by saying that wealth was when you have enough money to do what you want to do. But now you see wealth as living with people who share a common purpose. The monastery offers a very different paradigm of wealth.
Bernard: And through having that commonality of purpose we’ve been able to accumulate a collection of material means, which is by no means negligible. We have here a material wealth that has been accumulated by earlier generations of monks and donors that we get to use for the purpose of seeking a greater relationship with God for ourselves and to serve others. There is wealth here. It would be disingenuous to pretend there isn’t.
Rose: Yet in order to step into this paradigm of wealth you had to release the money that you had. What was that like?
Bernard(laughing): Well, luckily the release happens in stages. We only ask a man to disinvest himself from his financial assets at life profession. Typically, there is a period of 4 to 6 years between entry into the Monastery and life profession. During that time, you’re asked to no longer use your financial assets so as to learn simplicity of life and full dependency on the community. But you can hold title to them so that if it doesn’t work out, you can fall back on whatever financial assets you have parked away.
At life profession you let go. The only exceptions are tax-exempt pension savings plans, which we keep until pension time as to not lose the benefit of the tax exemption. With the exception of that, I had to let go of everything. By the time you get to that you have lived this life for so long that for most of us it is a non-event. You have lived into the practicality of not having and using that money; in your mind and heart you already have relinquished that money, even though you still have legal title to it. So at that time you have one last big choice to make which is to decide to whom to give the assets. You can do whatever you want at that time. You can give it to the Order. You can give it to charity. You can give it to your family, or any combination of the above. That is the last big transaction we make.
Rose: It does not automatically go to the community?
Bernard (laughing): No, we’re not a wealth captation scheme. Obviously, if that was a condition you could argue that it would stack the incentives for a community in a very perverse way to look for wealthy vocations. Historically, in the middle ages it happened that way. Noble families would give one of their sons to a monastery and usually with the son would come substantial gifts of land and resources. Whether the guy had any religious vocation or not was secondary because it was going to give a lot of survival tools to the monastery as a collateral gift.
Rose: By the time you got to the point where you were releasing all of your personal holdings it was a non-issue because you had already transitioned your life to the monastery.
Bernard: I had made a few divestment decisions already, even though we advise people to wait until life profession to do that. I was so convinced that this was going to be it that I had already made substantial financial gifts to my niece and nephew, to charities and to the Monastery. There were some assets left and at life profession I made one last decision about how to spend it. I created a trust that pays revenues to somebody who needs the income for the duration of that person’s life. When that person dies, before or after me, the remainder will come to the monastery. I used my self-will one last time to make a big meaningful decision.
Also, the last year that I had access to my financial assets I asked permission from my prior to invite my 3 godchildren for one big weekend, all costs paid. I contacted them and said, “I invite you to come and spend 3 days with me in the Ardennes in the south of Belgium.” Two of them were able to come and we spent a wonderful weekend at a hotel in the Ardennes and went kayaking on rivers and they got to know each other. It felt very fulfilling that one of the last things I did with my money was to connect these young people whom I had had spiritual charge of, even though I hadn’t been very spiritual at the time I had become their godfather.
Rose: What is your relationship with money now?
Bernard: I have learned to ask if I need something. Mostly, my needs are taken care of by the kind of life we have. There is very little that I need to ask. But, for instance, my family lives in Belgium so if I go visit my family once a year the airfare is substantial. I have to ask for permission to purchase the airfare. Before I would just drop my credit card without thinking. That is very different.
Rose: How is that for you?
Bernard: I’ve gotten used to it. In the beginning I found it very embarrassing. It felt like begging and I did not want to beg. My pride didn’t want me to have to beg. In truth, it is not begging and even if it was there is nothing wrong with it. There was a lot of learning humility in that. I have chosen this life. Therefore, I am dependent on my community. And it’s only normal that my community should be the place where I ask for the resources I need, and that my community should be, in most cases, happy to provide the resources that I need. That is a tremendous shift and it’s linked with everything else that shifts when you become a monk. You are not your own person anymore in terms of decision-making. It can feel con-straining, and it sometimes does. But I’ve done this so long now that it’s become second nature. And it’s linked to the idea that I don’t have personal wealth but we have wealth as a group of men. That is how we use it. We ask permission of one another.
Rose: That is such a different model than American culture around money. The culture says that we are free when we have enough resources to do what we want. You have a different kind of freedom, completely different.
Bernard: Yes, it is very counter cultural because the culture says the more money you have the more you are yourself and the freer you are.
Rose: But that wasn’t your experience.
Bernard: No. There is also the fact that there is wealth that we hold together and there are ethical questions as to how even this community of monks uses its financial might. We have financial reserves. We are a community of 16 monks. This is a guesthouse that sees about 7000 guests nights a year. There is an annual budget of a million dollars in order to get this place rolling. We have to earn money. We have to spend money. We have to have some reserves because we need to be prudent for the sake of our elder brothers who need to be taken care of. The decisions about what you do with the money you have don’t go away, even if you are a monk. What happens is that the decisions are made as a community, and there is one of us who is the bursar who has a greater responsibility looking into that.
Rose: Have you found ways to work with the money that you steward as a community that feel like an expression of the monastic life in the world?
Bernard: There are several things that are striking when you start looking at finances of the monastery, certainly with my background. There is no debt. Zero. You have this huge operation and there is absolutely no debt. In times of financial crisis like we’ve had recently, that is a blessing. But, it’s also constraining. It means you don’t use the leverage that debt could give you. For instance, we have huge renovation projects that we’ve dreamed about that we could do. If we were willing to go and borrow, a lot of it could be done in the next couple of years. But instead, we rely on our ability to create financial surplus on money we earn and on donations from the generosity of our donors in order to be able to do anything we need to do.
Rose: You don’t do anything unless the money is there?
Bernard: That’s right, or is known to be coming very promptly. That in and of itself is a vote of confidence in providence. It is trusting that what we really need will be forthcoming either through our own work or through the generosity of our donors.
Rose: I am aware that there is a movement towards developing local economies in this area. Has the community been involved in that?
Bernard: We have not been involved in alternative ways of using local money. I have been very interested and very supportive of efforts like that in the region. But, one caveat that there is in being a community is that communities are not very pioneering and daring in using their money in novel ways. Religious communities tend to be pretty conservative in how they invest whatever surplus money that they have.
One of the things I realized was that this place doesn’t have a large endowment. When I first arrived here there was zero endowment. I started thinking that that was not very responsible to our brothers, and I advocated to start building something of a reserve so that there would be a financial buffer in times of need. We have an endowment of a half million dollars. A place like this should have somewhere between 7 and 20 million dollars of endowment to enable financial safety for about six months of hardships. At first I looked at that as an ex banker and I thought we need to work harder and harder towards that amount of money. Now I look at that as a monk and I think it’s good. We need to be vulnerable.
If a religious community becomes rich to a point that you feel safe out of the richness of what you have, that can generate a conceitedness that is spiritually dangerous. We have to live on the edge somewhat in order to continue to be involved with the world and concerned about the world and not sloppy and slothful about our spiritual life because we feel like we’ve got it made.
We are rich in resources and in the people we serve. If you had to sell this land there would be a lot of money. But if you sold this land that would mean that there’s no Order of the Holy Cross left to live. So, we’re wealthy in resources that are not available. An endowment would be readily available financial resources. I think we have to live in a paradox of having enough of an endowment so that there is something of safety cushion, but not such a large safety cushion that I don’t care what’s going on. Does that make sense?
Rose: Yes. I’m also aware that the experience of living on the edge is a continual reminder of the need to trust God.
Rose: What else have you learned about what it means to have a Christian centered relationship with money?
Bernard: Your money should put you in relationship with people. Money should not become so virtual and disincarnated that money is in places where you don’t know what it’s doing anymore and who it’s doing it with. One should use resources in such a way that you understand how they are affecting positive things in the world.
We’re not there yet. We still have reserves that are invested in the financial markets. I don’t know what Exxon Mobil is doing with the money that we have in Exxon Mobil and I don’t like having money in extractive industries. So, I’m not saying this as if we’ve got it figured and we’re perfect. I am saying that we should look at ways in which our money is engaged in the world, in ways that we understand and are happy about. If you are a wealthy Christian who is doing that, I think you are using your wealth for the greater good. The danger is when our money becomes so disengaged from who we are and we don’t really understand what our money is doing anymore. That’s not a good use of money for a Christian.
Rose: Have you had any moments with money where you felt the presence of God?
Bernard: I don’t think there is a moment, but there is an era. I think the era is now for me. In the last few years, I’ve realized that it’s not all about financial planning for the safety of the future of the community. Grace is at work here. There are things that I thought would never be able to be done because the money wouldn’t be there, and then suddenly the money has been there. Unforeseen situations developed that enabled money to be there and I couldn’t possibly have imagined them. It’s this radical trust and providence.
It’s not the prosperity gospel; I’m not saying pray for money to shower down from heaven and it will. I’m sure that there will be times when the money will not be forthcoming. But there have been substantial projects here at the monastery that have been made possible by money suddenly being made available through a donation but it could be other means. We unfortunately lost a monastery through fire. There was a substantial insurance settlement on that. We resettled the community in ways that were cheaper than the settlement and therefore there was money available and the Order made a grant to this community in order to start to cover the enclosure with a new roof. That is a half million-dollar project. Nobody would have said we would have been able to do that without a major capital campaign to raise funds but there you are. God provides.
 A belief that right belief in God enables the prosperity of the believer.
This is an inspiring interview that stirs up my thinking on money. Thank you, Brother Bernard and Rose, for this thoughtful and heartfelt work.
Thank you for sharing your story. Though not considering entering a monastery, as I close a 3+ professional practice, continue a spiritual learning and practice, my thoughts, prayers, hopes, and dreams for my relatively modest means continue to grow, taking shape more and more as part of how can I serve.
P.S. Just finished the first day of the Center for Action and Contemplation’s last Conspire conference.