Redeeming our Relationship with Work

Last night at our monthly meeting of Theology-on-Tap we discussed our relationship with work and how modern-Westerners have a complicated if not disordered relationship with work. I then suggested that a Benedictine vision of work can help us to redeem and re-order that relationship into something more human and wholistic. You can read my introductory talk below and consider the discussion questions yourself. Theology-on-Tap will resume again on Tuesday, February 12 as we consider the theme of self-discipline.

Under the mercy.

Fr Turtle.

Beer Blessing
Our help is in the name of the Lord.
Who made heaven and earth.

The Lord be with you.
And with thy spirit.

Let us pray.

Bless, O Lord, this creature beer, which by your kindness and power has been produced from kernels of grain, and let it be a healthful drink for the human race. Grant that whoever drinks it with thanksgiving to your holy name may find it a help in body and in soul; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Last month we looked at the theme of prayer and found that for Benedict and his monks prayer was not simply a good spiritual exercise but was rather the foundation of their whole life. As one contemporary Benedictine monk put it: “Prayer is the life of the soul, it’s the life of each individual monk. It’s the reason why we’ve come to live here. The goal of our life as monks is to deepen the life of prayer, to grow in prayer,” (Father Basil). For the Benedictine monk prayer is life and the goal of life is to learn to “pray without ceasing,” as Saint Paul put it.

We recalled how monks pursued what is called the contemplative life: the goal of freeing oneself from the cares of the flesh/world to adore and praise God and to reflect on his truth. For monks, prayer is their primary work. Seven times a day they gather to pray what is called the Liturgy of the Hours a practice that Benedict himself calls “the Work of God” and exhorts his monks to make their chief responsibility.

While prayer, or the contemplative life, is the main work that monks are called to they do not shun the active life. Rather, says one commentator, “[the active life] should be integrated into a life ordered by prayer. Good work is a fruit of a healthy prayer life,” (Dreher 60).

For Benedict prayer and work go together and he expected each of his monasteries to be self-sustaining. One monastery that I have visited is sustained by orchards and the tending of sheep. Other monasteries brew some of the best beer in the world (Trappist ale). Work is good says Benedict and the monks must work for, “idleness is the enemy of the soul,” he writes (Chapter 48). While idleness can open the door to slothfulness work isn’t good simply as a distraction from sin, rather work is good in and of itself. Work is sacramental, contributes to the common good, and brings glory to God.

This Benedictine insight into the good of work challenges some of our modern ideas about work and can, I believe, help us to understand our work in a more holistic sense. Modern Westerners in particular tend to have a disordered relationship to our work and we seem to fall prey to three temptations each of which Benedict can help correct.

The first temptation is for work to become our identity. We define ourselves by what we do. It’s the first question we ask one another at cocktail parties: “What do you do?” We all know someone who has devoted themselves to their work immoderately at the expense of contemplation or at the expense of leisure or family. Just the other week Elon Musk—who is himself notorious for working very long hours and getting little sleep—said, in reference to his companies, “There are way easier places to work, but nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.” We sometimes call this temptation workaholism.

The second temptation is for work to become something we do in order to get something else. Work is a burden that we accept for the sake of making money and funding our real goals and dreams. We live for the weekend. In this case work is disconnected from the rest of our life, especially our spiritual lives.

The third temptation that relates to the first two is when work is ordered towards self-fulfillment. Work is something that we do to serve or glorify ourselves. How often have you heard the mantra, “Find something that you love to do.” The only work worth doing is work that we personally find fulfilling. Removed from the picture is any sense of necessity, discipline, and service.

I believe it is important, especially for Christians, to recover a Benedictine understanding of work so as not to fall into these three cultural temptations. For Benedict work is good and dignified because it is sacramental, it contributes to the common good, and it is a way of bringing glory to God.

First, work is sacramental. That is, work is a means or channel of experiencing God’s grace. Consider the account of creation in the first chapter of the book of Genesis. After making all things God turns on the sixth day to make human creatures in his own image. The author of Genesis writes: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth,” (Genesis 1:26-28). Jewish and Christian interpreters of this text understood Adam to be a priestly figure set in the midst of the garden to tend it and to offer it back to God in love.

As such, human work proceeds from our being made in God’s image and the vocation of human creatures to be involved in the ongoing work of creation by subduing the earth both with and for one another. One contemporary Benedictine monk put it this way: “Creation gives praise to God. We give praise to God through Creation, through the material world, and into our areas of work. Any time we take something neutral, something material, and we make something out of it for the sake of giving glory to God, it becomes sacramental, it becomes a channel of grace,” (Father Martin Bernhard, quoted in Dreher, 61). Understood in this way, work is a duty that honours the gifts of the Creator and the talents we have received.

Benedict helps us to see that everything is sacred, everything is to be treated as a gift from God, every thought and act is an opportunity to enter more deeply into communion with him and with one another. A Benedictine vision sees even the most ordinary parts of our day—doing the dishes even—as a means of experiencing the grace of God.

Second, work is a way of contributing to the common good. When the Israelites were in captivity in Babylon the Lord spoke to them through the prophet Jeremiah saying: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare,” (Jeremiah 29:4-7).

That is to say, work is an expression of love for and stewardship of the community. There is the sense in which work provides a life for one’s family: build houses and live in them, take wives and have sons and daughters. But there is also the sense in which work provides for the common good: seek the welfare of the city.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, for example, that, “Everyone should be able to draw from work the means of providing for his life and that of his family, and of serving the human community,” (CCC 2428). One contemporary monk put it this way: “Ultimately, work serves as an expression of charity, of love, and that is what all work really should be. This is a lesson we have to work all our lives to learn. Work is not something I do in order to get something. Doing it is good for me, it’s constitutive of my happiness, because in it and through it I show love for others,” (Father Basil).

There is much that can be said here about the right to gainful employment, fair pay, and the ordering of economic activity firstly to the service of the whole human community rather than simply to the multiplying of goods and profits.

Third and finally, work is a way of bringing glory to God. This follows from the previous two points. One might think of Saint Paul’s words to the Colossians: “Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for men, since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ,” (3:23). In the Benedictine vision work is understood chiefly as service to God and then to neighbour. It certainly isn’t about self-fulfillment. In fact, in his chapter instructing monastic craftsmen Benedict says that if they become too proud of their work the abbot must find something else for them to do.

Our modern relationship with work tends to be disordered. We are tempted either to over-identify with our work or to see work as a burden that gets in the way of real living and we tend to see work as part of the larger project of self-fulfillment. On the contrary, Benedict can help us to re-order our relationship with work in a healthier and more wholistic fashion. For Benedict, work is a channel of God’s grace and a way of loving one another and contributing to the common good. It is also to be done for God’s glory not our own glory.

Questions for discussion:
1. In your own work do you tend towards workaholism or “work as a burden”/means to an end?
2. Do you understand your work as an opportunity to glorify God? What makes this difficult?
3. Describe a moment in your daily work where you experienced the grace of God.
4. How can prayer help us begin to recapture a Benedictine vision of work? How else can we resist a disordered relationship with work?

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