Seeking the heart of our daily work
On Labor Day, my wife and I participated in morning prayer at St. John’s Abbey, MN. During our sabbatical we have been visiting many different monasteries in Germany and Italy from different faith backgrounds, so it was a homecoming to sit in the choir, hold the prayer books, and participate in the chanting (in English!) again. The reading was about the meaning of work, from a handbook on Benedictine Spirituality from New Melleray Abbey. New Melleray was founded in 1849 in the hill country near Dubuque Iowa, from Irish monks.
It is an astonishingly clear statement of the importance of work in the monastic life – but it is also a challenging and healing vision of the place work might hold in our own lives. I have been groping toward this understanding for some time, but the reading is such a clear statement of the principle that I was awakened by it (a benefit for prayer at 7 AM).
As a professor of psychology at a liberal arts college, and thus a scholar and teacher, much of my life has been dedicated to chasing the brass ring of academic success. It is my career. Even the word suggests fast movement and accomplishment. I have given myself wholeheartedly to my work, enjoyed its rewards and relished my capacity for work. The pleasures of work, the joy of achievement, the flow of meaningful activity are what draw us to work and what supports our dedication to good work, independent of a paycheck or proper position. When our work is meaningful, we are all drawn to do more of it.
And here lies the trap of this approach: there is always more success to be had, there are always more people to make happy, more people to serve, more achievement, more good work. More. More. And still more. The demand and the desire can become infinite and all consuming, keeping us up at night, driving us during the day. And in the end, we serve the work and it rules us. Even success is fleeting. When you think you have grasped the brass ring, it slips away. As an international academic couple we know the pain of seeing success in one culture devalued and ignored in the other. One moves to another continent and achievements are valued differently. So one must start again and again. And again, our work defines us.
The reading from New Melleray, with its embodiment of the Rule of Benedict (and frankly, the gospel) turns all this on its head:
We work because the work we do is the most effective way we can love and serve our brothers and sisters here and now. The presence or absence of intrinsic rewards in work are secondary considerations. We work for our brothers and sisters because that is the best way we can love them and serve their best interests. ... We love our fellow monks. Therefore, we work to make their life of personal and communal prayer possible. ... Work done for the sake of prayer is itself more prayer than work. We should never let work become the end in and of itself. It must always remain a means of loving and serving others. [see the complete reading here]
How do we know the proper value of work? How do we decide its role in our lives? In a monastic community the value of work is not measured in how much someone will pay to have it done. It is not seen in narrow economic terms. The value of work is instead measured in the contribution of that work to all the aspects of daily, shared, life. For monastics that means daily shared spiritual life – because ALL of monastic daily, shared life is our spiritual life. In the gospel, all life is seen through the ultimate lens of love of God and love of neighbor. And this is the proper measure of the value of work: Does it increase love of God and love of neighbor?
And here lies the paradox of work that is transformed by the gospel. It is deeply meaningful and we should give ourselves wholeheartedly to it. But it is not ultimately meaningful.
So for those of us who work (all work, any work: at home, family, office, church, community, paid and unpaid, honored or unrecognized) and for those of us who long to find work, here is Benedict's wisdom:
Work serves the community. One's passion for work should be the compassion one has for the community and for God. Different people are fit to do different work, at different paces, and those doing hard work may get more food or rest. Benedict allows for shaping the type, pace and quantity of the work to the personality and ability of the individual. But the overriding goal is the spiritual good of each individual in the community and the community itself.
How might this vision of compassion as the central aspect of our work change us? How might it change our communities? What is our work of love? And how can we make peace with the hardships we encounter on this way?
Yours, Almut & Chuck
PS: We invite you to ponder this question with us in a cloisterseminar we will be giving at St. John's Abbey Guesthouse Oct. 16-18 titled Works of Love. We will together consider how to find a better relationship to our work, a relationship of compassion for others and for ourselves.
In this Sunday to Tuesday retreat we will learn from St. Benedict the proper attachment to work and to the contemplative life. From Kierkegaard's famous Works of Love, we will contemplate how we can burn for the work we do without burning ourselves out. Interwoven with these readings will be opportunities to explore, contemplate, and evaluate your own commitments and expectations, and for long walks in the beautiful Fall woods of the Abbey.