Today marks the feast day of St. Benedict of Nursia, one of the fathers of Western monasticism. One of his most famous dictums was ora et labora: “pray and work.” His Rule served as the standard community rule for monasteries in the West for hundreds of years.
Consistent with his dictum, the Rule of St. Benedict contains some wonderful passages about the value of work in addition to other pious practices. For example, Benedict writes,
Idleness is inimical to the soul; and therefore the brethren ought to be occupied, at
fixed seasons, with manual work and again at fixed seasons with spiritual reading….
Knowing the spiritual dangers of idleness (such as boredom, depression, and gossip), Benedict prescribed regular daily work for the monks of any monastery that followed his rule. However, he did not absolutize the value of work, recommending time for rest and “spiritual reading.”
Furthermore, he offered consolation for those who labor in poverty:
And let them not be distressed if poverty or the needs of the place should require that they busy themselves about gathering in the crops with their own hands; for then are they truly monks, when they live by the work of their own hands, as did our fathers and the apostles.
Yet, he tempered even this by adding: “Let everything be done in moderation however on account of the faint-hearted.”
Indeed, we can see in St. Benedict’s Rule an excellent expression of the basic Christian view of the merits of work as well as its limitation for the sake of the worker:
To weak and delicate brethren let there be assigned such suitable occupation and duties that they be neither overcome of idleness nor so oppressed by exhaustion through work that they be driven to flight [from the monastery].
Due to the current economic condition of our country, many have had to settle for less than ideal work in order to make ends meet. St. Benedict provides a wonderful reminder about the honor inherent in all honest work, especially when enlivened with prayer.
I for one have worked at plenty of restaurants and factories and cleaned my fair share of toilets. Looking back, the best jobs (until I got my job here, of course) were not necessarily those at which I was the most comfortable but those in which I embraced St. Benedict’s dictum and united my labor with prayer. On this, his feast day, I hope others too, through him, can find satisfaction even in less-than-ideal jobs, embracing the vocation of prayer even if their desired vocation of work remains out of grasp.
All quotes from the Rule of St. Benedict are taken from The Rule of St. Benedict, translated into English. A Pax Book, preface by W.K. Lowther Clarke (London: S.P.C.K., 1931), which can be found online here.
Where is God already at work? Who is making an impact in their sphere of influence? What can you do to make a difference?
The “mountains” in my title here describes the ways some have divided culture, erroneously setting apart the areas in which we would need to impact (business, government, media, arts and entertainment, education, the family and religion) in order to realize real, sustainable change in the Christian world.
Transformation 2012 is a one-day virtual conference designed to equip and engage Christians for workplace, city and nationwide transformation. Through keynote sessions, organizational showcases, panel discussions, and real-life stories, attendees will learn what God is doing to realize transformation and how He wants to use us in that endeavor.
Acton Institute will be an exhibitor at this conference on February 18th. This will give us an opportunity to showcase resources such as Call Of the Entrepreneur, Birth Of Freedom, Business As A Calling, and Work: The Meaning Of Your Life. Attendees will enter our virtual booth online from their computer, browse the resources we have placed there and will be able to interact with the Acton representative by online chat. Click here for more information on the conference and please share this with friends and co-workers whom you feel would benefit from such an event.
In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Solyndra and the False Hope of Green Jobs” I look at the original problem with federally funded Green Jobs. The Solyndra debacle has been called a “microcosm of Obamanomics,” an example of what always happens when the Federal Government starts handing out $500 million checks. That’s true, but it’s a microcosm of something more — of an economy that’s lost it’s understanding of vocation. We stumble around trying to “create jobs” by Congressional action without really knowing what a job is.
A concern for jobs, simply, is dangerous. The dignity of a man’s employment does not come from his salary per se. Rather, it comes from his nature — man is called to work, to till the soil, from the very beginning, and the nobility of his labor is wrapped up in both the activity itself and in its ends. It does not befit a man to do work that is of no consequence.
Sadly, in the rush to “create jobs” by government stimulus, little thought is given to what work really is, or how more of it can be created. It is considered enough that a job run from nine in the morning till five in the afternoon, and that it come with a regular paycheck.
The green jobs movement is especially guilty of this unthinking attitude — indeed, it has never been defined what a green job is, and various bodies give widely varying definitions. If it’s not known broadly what a green job is, it won’t be possible to know whether all green jobs are compatible with the dignity of human labor, and whether governments are really capable of spurring their creation.
The now ubiquitous pictures of the president’s visit to Solyndra last year perfectly illustrate our now-empty conception of work: it is the U.S. Government that now creates jobs, not the entrepreneur.
The risks taken within the free market by an entrepreneur are calculated to yield a profit. That profit is, as Pope John Paul II put it, “the result of the overall expansion of work and the wealth of society.” The entrepreneur must create meaningful jobs, or else face the consequences imposed by the market.
Governments, because of their coercive power, do not feel the consequences of failure. The Department of Energy is the entrepreneur’s antagonist: it has just taken $535 million and flushed it, over the course of two years, down the drain. The loss was unintentional, but predictable, and we should expect that it will happen again, because the department’s work as a regulatory body is to consume, not to produce—as long as it is pretended that a job is nothing more than a desk and a salary, “jobs” will be created at a loss.
No arm of the government can purchase jobs as commodities and promote the common good, because such a purchase commodifies the worker and strips him of the dignity of real work.
Full piece here.
Reactions from religious communities to last week’s jobs speech from President Obama are running the political gamut, as one might expect. Over at Think Christian, my piece has garnered some rather vociferous response.
And at the Faith in Public Life blog, Jessica Barba Brown compiles some responses that focus on “the need for serious job-creation legislation.” The problem here is that while a society with opportunities for employment for all is seen as a moral imperative, the primary agent responsible for creating those jobs is viewed as the government rather than actors in the market.
The faith in government evident here is really just astonishing. Politicians promising jobs is just another example of making grandiose promises that they can’t hope to fulfill. It’s really just telling us what we want to hear (or at least what they think we want to hear), rather than what we need to hear.
It’s true of course that work is an essential part of what it means to be human. But it is a serious confusion of our social life to think that government is the institution primarily responsible for providing work. Rev. Kevin DeYoung addressed the question cogently last week, “Daddy, where do jobs come from?” The answer, as you might suspect, is not the government (at least it shouldn’t be!).
And Cal Thomas’ piece from yesterday is also worth noting: “If we want government to become smaller and perform within its constitutional boundaries, we are going to have to expect less from it and more from ourselves.”
For more on the real moral imperative of work in our lives, I highly recommend Lester DeKoster’s little classic, Work: The Meaning of Your Life–A Christian Perspective.
Do you view the work you do each day as worship, or is it something you do to pass the time or merely collect a paycheck? Remember work is not only the actions you perform to obtain a pay check, but includes any action “people do to earn a living.” Signs indicate that evangelical practice is entrapped in a dangerous snare of limitation and complacence. By placing almost sole emphasis on Bible study, worship attendance, and giving/tithing — the churchly aspects of discipleship — churches have in effect diminished the importance of everyday, temporal Christian living. Time spent in the workplace and at home with one’s family is subordinated to Sabbath Day activities. However, man is not intended for part-time discipleship, but for a devoted life of constant service to Christ and neighbor.
Lester DeKoster in his excellent book titled Work: The Meaning of Your Life says, “Work is the from in which we make ourselves useful to others.” God has created us to work and worship. Additionally, it is His will for our whole-life to be used to further His Kingdom in this world, not simply what we do in Church on Sunday morning. Whole-life discipleship is something very important to the work we are doing and we promote it through one-day conferences, outreach, church kits, and a new worldview video curriculum being developed.
Take a look at this video, which talks about how — for so many of us — our mission is in the marketplace.
Last summer I wrote a commentary titled “Spiritual Labor and the Big Spill.” I made the point that ultimately the kind of spiritual labor that goes on in the Gulf is invaluable. The work done by the fishermen and those working in some other industries along the Gulf is nothing short of a cultural heritage. It is the kind of work that is more than a paycheck and is a superb example of the value of work. I also highlighted the resiliency of the people who work the waters along the Gulf Coast. This from Garden & Gun magazine, taking a look back at the oil spill from one year ago:
The full impact of the spill on the fragile ecosystem of the Gulf has not been determined, but now, a year after the disaster, shrimpers are readying their fleets for another season. “Remarkably there is an optimism and resilience among the people of the Gulf Coast,” says [Jeremy] Craig. “Despite the hardships, they still have a lot of faith in their way of life. Right now, Vegas is getting his boat ready and looking forward to getting back on the water, and that is what gets him up in the morning.”
Here is a highlighted portion of my commentary from July:
Many Americans are proud of where they come from; this is no less true of the people of the Gulf Coast. Human interest stories have gripped viewers and readers following the news about the BP oil spill, which often highlights the locals’ pride in their roots. Sal Sunseri, the owner of P&J Oysters in New Orleans says it well: “The history and culture of the seafood industry in Louisiana is part of the fabric of who we are. The world should not take this lightly.”
Sunseri brings to life an important point about the spiritual and cultural aspect of work that is especially rich on the Gulf Coast. Work in a free economy is an expression of our creativity, virtue, and response to a calling. Christian authors Gerard Berghoef and Lester DeKoster note that “God so arranges work that it develops the soul.”
BP is airing a commercial in which it vows to compensate fishermen and others for the loss of income until the cleanup is completed. This is a good start. But it also serves as a reminder that earnings are secondary to fishermen whose very labor is the preservation of heritage. It is not uncommon to hear fishing crews speaking Cajun French off the coast and in the bayous and marshes of Louisiana. Cajun French, an endangered language, was at one time banned in Louisiana schools. The spill is another threat to communities and a way of life for generations of a proud and sometimes marginalized people.
I read with considerable attention “Congressional bosses from Hell: Sheila Jackson Lee” in the Daily Caller today. From the article:
Congress was in recess, and the 435 lawmakers who drive the frenetic pace on Capitol Hill were home in their districts glad-handing constituents. For that reason, the door to [Sheila] Jackson Lee’s office was open and the sounds emanating from inside were pleasant laughter and conversation.
‘You could tell when she wasn’t there,’ Stephens said. That was because on a day in which Congress was in session, a different set of sounds often came through closed doors to Jackson Lee’s office: screaming and, many times, crying.
Having worked for a U.S. Congressman, former member Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss), I find some of the congressional staff dynamics and stories both entertaining and troubling. Many of the stories and anecdotes I tell from my time working on a congressional staff are among the most popular for audiences. I also learned a lot of valuable people skills, patience, and greater compassion for helping those in need. In my case, I had the privilege of helping many military veterans with federal issues.
Recently, I attended a social event where some staff of several well known Michigan lawmakers openly unloaded on the arrogance and temperament of their bosses to me in conversations. It did not surprise me. I have heard many similar stories before. It continually reinforces the well known Lord Acton adage about the corrupting nature of power.
I learned a lot from working with and for a congressman and his staff. Many of the lessons I will retain forever. In contrast to the piece in the Daily Caller, here is just one important lesson I pulled from a talk and essay I wrote for Acton on Tap:
The congressman I worked for, Gene Taylor (D-Miss) did help to reinforce something timeless and virtuous.
One day I was dispatched with the duty of locating him in the Rayburn House office building. The reason was simple; the Secretary of the Navy was waiting for him in his office. Some of the staff was panic stricken and mildly embarrassed because they could not ascertain his whereabouts and he was terribly late for the meeting. Congressman Taylor was not frequently attached at the hip with his cellular phone or pager. I remember looking in all the places you would look for a House member in the Rayburn building and not being able to locate him. After I had given up, I preceded to walk up the stairs and found him talking with a maintenance worker in the stairwell.
I told him that the Secretary of the Navy was in his office and he nodded his head and introduced me to his friend, whom he treated like a celebrity, bragging up the individual’s fishing skills. While I did not always agree with the positions or votes he recorded on issues, Gene Taylor always reinforced the significance of treating people the same. He also taught me a valuable life lesson when he told me:
‘You know why I’m friends with the capital police, the maintenance workers, and the common fisherman down at the harbor? It’s because they will continue to be my friends when I am no longer a congressman.’
In this week’s Acton Commentary, “The Sheep and the Goats: Work and Service to Others,” I visit Lester DeKoster’s interpretation of the parable of the sheep and the goats from Matthew 25. Although not many have discussed this as an “economic” parable, DeKoster’s point is that anyone who truly serves another through legitimate work, whether paid or unpaid, can be understood to be a “sheep.”
Work, for DeKoster, is “the form in which we make ourselves useful to others, and thus to God.”
I don’t discuss another point DeKoster makes in his book, Work: The Meaning of Your Life–A Christian Perspective, that relates to what results from the aggregation of individuals’ work. The answer is civilization: “Work shares in weaving civilization, which is the form in which others make themselves useful to us, by providing us with the tools for doing our work well.”
DeKoster points to the chair in which you sit while you read, or any of the other myriad objects that surround you, that could only have been produced by the contributions of countless workers through the assembly line and supply chain. Joseph Sunde over at Remnant Culture has a post up today that echoes this, focusing on the example of the toaster. His poignantly asks whether this illustrates “that free trade is primarily about collaborating and sharing? Hasn’t free trade shown that it holds great power for expanding, connecting, and shaping a global community?”
Or as Kevin Schmiesing has put it, “No Man is an Economic Island.“
In this week’s “Two Minute Warning,” Chuck Colson shows that “work is something we are all called to do, using our gifts to God’s glory.”
As a special offer this week, the Colson Center is giving away complimentary copies of Lester DeKoster’s little classic on this subject, Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective from Christian’s Library Press. Be sure to sign up at the Colson Center website for your free copy, and order a copy or two for important people in your life who could use some perspective on the importance of their work to God.
Where we serve others through our work we are serving God. That is the central insight of DeKoster’s book. He writes that “a right view of work becomes the key to a satisfying life, as it now looks to me. And whenever, and wherever, I see people working—at any kind of work, such as head or hand, blue-collar or white-collar, trade or profession—I want to shout out the good news: This gives meaning to your life! Right here! Right now!”