Benedictine Wisdom for Our Overworked Age

I’ve had troubles with work for a long time. In the 1960s my struggles to get into graduate school as a wife and mother alerted me to feminist discrimination in the system. Today women still face difficulties in the workplace but other problems also plague our work world. I see my grown children and their peers battling to get a foothold in careers with a future. Middle-aged friends are hit with sudden unemployment when they are downsized by companies that merge, close down or move away. Meanwhile, workers at both the top and bottom of the status ladder endure overwork and exhaustion from ever-longer hours. Even those fortunate workers who love their work and feel called to a permanent vocation can also fall prey to burn-out from overwork.

The pervasive digital technological revolution allows employees to be on call at any time, any place—sometimes for more than one employer. Computers make work more abstracted and less interpersonal or connected to shaping the material or natural world. Work, or the search for work, can threaten to take over all of life and usurp other identities. The unemployed, retirees, the old, the ill and the disabled can be made to feel “useless” and ashamed. These postindustrial problems of work produce challenges for Christian thinkers.

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Theologian Jonathan Malesic tackles these questions in a provocative article in the current Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics. He describes the changing characteristics of work today as precarious,” “discontinuous,” technologically abstracted, and increasingly demanding and demoralizing. Talk of permanent vocations or work as co-creation may rarely apply. Malesic finds helpful insights toward possible solutions in the Benedictine monastic tradition of “cultivating monastic detachment” from work. The Rule of St. Benedict upholds the value of work without overvaluing and over self-investing in achievement as the measure of identity. For Benedict the one thing necessary in life is participating in God’s spiritual work of prayer, worship and praise, the “work of God.” Becoming holy and a devout disciple of Christ takes precedence over any other work, valuable as it may be. Achieving status or power from one’s work can be a hindrance to humility and communal charity. Monks must be committed to a balanced, disciplined life of worship and life. Scheduled and limited hours are set for manual labor, intellectual study, recreation, communal meals and hospitality.

Manual labor, despised in the ancient pagan world as degrading, is honored and undertaken for whatever the community needs. As all are equal members in Christ, all participate equally in the labor; jobs are rotated to avoid specialization and encourage participation in God’s good creation. Work is valued but monastic detachment and commitment always judges subjective spiritual prayer as of higher importance. This ensures that who I am is always more important than what I do. The monks tamed work and kept life and values in balance and so can we.

The discipline and effort needed to achieve a balanced Christian life are also lessons to be learned from monasticism. Obedience and penance are a part of work as well as the path to spiritual progress. But the great Christian reward is to gain meaning, joy and freedom. Unemployment, old age, disability and illness cannot destroy the spiritual values of individual persons. It also seems to me that our society’s turns to meditation, mindfulness and contemplative prayer are signs of felt needs for spiritual meaning beyond secular achievements. Are we not retrieving a form of monastic detachment through exercise, yoga, art, nature and study? In business circles growing attention is now paid to “work-life balance” and worker satisfaction studies. All such efforts value time over money. Many of today’s families fight the good fight to cope with the stresses of work by simplifying their lives in order to putting love and spiritual values first.

Certainly larger political issues of workers’ rights and welfare should be a focus of Christian reform measures for social justice. Limitation of hours and guaranteed access to jobs and education are valuable goals. But changing our own attitudes and practices right now is something we can always do. I can testify that in my own life, Benedictine theologies of work and manual labor got me joyfully through 13 years of diapers (along with St Therese’s “little way”). Moreover, the monastic conviction that manual labor should be combined with intellectual study led me to reading, writing and teaching as well as homemaking. And now that I am old, retired and less energetic, the monastic spiritual ideals of contemplation inspire me. They also help wean me from egoistic overvaluations of past work achievements. So “Thank you Jesus,” as my Alabama Baptist grandmother would say. And as her Catholic granddaughter will add, “And thank you, St. Benedict.” 

Sidney Callahan, Ph.D., is an author, lecturer, college professor and licensed psychologist. Her most recent book isCreated for Joy: A Christian View of Suffering.

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