St. Benedict: the patron saint of (recovering) workaholics
The resort was as posh as they come: all-inclusive, tucked away in a pristine corner of the Arizona desert and boasting stunning vistas of sun-drenched mountains around every bend of its adobe buildings and manicured gardens.
A favorite of celebrities, this wellness retreat was renowned for its focus on mind-body balance. Perfectly toned guests dined in bathrobes at midday, sipped organic kale smoothies on their way to group therapy sessions with horses and meditated to the tune of vibrating crystal bowls while lounging in silk hammocks. The more adventurous among them paid extra to play “mindfulness games” with strangers or walk a 30-foot-high tightrope with a partner to “explore the balance between self-care and support of others.” Finding your Zen did not come cheap: One night at the resort could set you back $1,000 or more.
It all seemed rather ridiculous to me, but I wasn’t complaining. My visit was covered by the sponsors of a retreat I was giving for a small group of well-heeled Christian women who had chosen this spot for their ladies’ getaway. I truly enjoyed the women I was speaking to and was grateful for a chance to see how the other half finds balance. Yet I could not help but notice how many bored faces I saw in this man-made paradise, how all the self-improvement mantras and life-guide gurus felt like a shtick concocted to lure rich workaholics who were trying to find a quick fix for a problem with no quick fix.
For Benedict, the road to holiness is paved with fidelity in the ordinary.
I couldn’t blame them for trying, of course. Workaholism had been a lifelong struggle for me, too, and it was only after I found myself homeschooling four children while working and zig-zagging between failed attempts at balance that I realized how desperately I needed a new, more biblical approach.
I found it in an unlikely place: the 1,500-year-old Rule of St. Benedict. A sixth-century Italian monk known as the founder of Western monasticism, Benedict of Nursia once struggled with balance, too. He saw Scripture’s command to “do everything for the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31), and his perfectionist streak predisposed him to run with that verse.
Yet Benedict also learned from experience that pushing yourself and others too hard can be a road to spiritual ruin. There is a fine line between work that glorifies God and work that merely glorifies yourself. Benedict saw our willingness to set aside our work when work time is over or a more pressing need arises as a good indicator of whether or not we have crossed that line.
The Rule says that a life of constant activity is not exceptional; it is lazy.
In the Scripture-steeped rule of St. Benedict, this recovering perfectionist saint emphasized the importance of creating schedules that leave us enough time each day to pray, work, eat, rest, read and study God’s Word. Benedict saw our daily routines as a concrete expression of our priorities and a reliable way to keep first things first. It is one thing to say we love God. It is another to drop what we are doing seven or eight times a day to pray the Psalms together, as monks who follow Benedict’s Rule did and still do.
Where other monastic rules of Benedict’s day encouraged feats of extreme asceticism that tended to produce eccentrics and burnouts, Benedict’s Rule emphasizes leaning on grace and loving God and neighbor. It is a love expressed in the little things: how promptly we drop what we are doing to get to church or meals on time, how warmly we greet the stranger who knocks on our door, how graciously we deal with housemates who need more food or rest or creature comforts than we do. For Benedict, the road to holiness is paved with fidelity in the ordinary.
The Rule turns many contemporary notions of work, success and balance on their heads. Our culture prizes specialization and niche achievement; the Rule keeps the whole of our lives in view, reminding us that the conditions that limit our professional accomplishment may be God’s means of leading us to a broader, richer kind of flourishing. The world says what counts are dollars earned, honors won, people served; the Rule says what counts are intangibles only God may see, including our slow but steady growth in humility and our gradual shift from insisting on our will to desiring his.
Even our conventional wisdom about work-life balance pales in comparison with the older, deeper wisdom of the Rule. Our work-hard-play-hard ethos says that fanatical fixation on work is fine as long as it is paired with an equally obsessive focus on sports, travel or charity work. The Rule says that a life of such constant activity is not exceptional; it is lazy. Anyone who cannot discipline himself to shut up and sit still long enough to pray, read and listen to God in his Word is “slothful,” Benedict says, and should do extra manual labor to curb his addiction to “idleness.”
The Rule challenges me to look beyond the world’s version of success and even the world’s version of balance to the richer vision found in God’s Word: “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well” (Mt 6:33). That promise is the one around which I want to organize my days and on which I want to stake my life.