The Order of Saint Benedict

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Monastic Topics: Work


Work Is Prayer: Not! Part II
by Terrence Kardong OSB

From Assumption Abbey Newsletter (Richardton, ND 58652). Volume 24, Number 1 (January 1996).

In the first part of this article, I endeavored to show that "Work is Prayer" is not only not a quote from St. Benedict; it is also a misleading and harmful maxim for the Christian life. In this second part, I would like to expand my comments upon overwork and contend that it is a serious problem in American life in general. The whole society is working itself to death. The statistics are no secret: People now have about half the leisure time they had thirty years ago. At least according to Al Gini (an expert on the philosophy of work), we now have about 16 hours to ourselves a week; down from 32 hours. This statistic is amazing when you consider that it was once predicted that technology would cut the workweek down to 30 hours by the end of the century. In fact, it has increased to about 50 hours! What on earth is going on here?

Someone might say: It's obvious, stupid! People now have to work that much more to support themselves. Clearly, part of the statistic comes from the addition of women to the work force. The norm is now two spouses at work, not one. And no doubt there are other factors that should be noted if we are to truly understand what has happened to work and leisure. But a key question is this: Are people working more because they have to, or because they want to? By and large, it is because they want to. Or rather, it is because they have to if they are going to be able to afford what they want. In other words, it is a question of lifestyle: people work to maintain a certain level of material existence.

Certainly this is a generalization that does not apply to everybody. Some people, perhaps a lot of people, are working longer hours simply to survive. There seems no doubt that more and more Americans are falling below the poverty line. To put it another way, there is an erosion of the middle class in this country. Increasingly, decent jobs, that is, jobs that bring in a living wage, are unavailable. In their place we now have jobs that carry with them no benefits, jobs that do not even feed a family. These are the jobs that increase the welfare rolls; they do nothing to sustain the human community in any decent fashion.

So the work place in this country is deteriorating. Who is the culprit? Who but the giant corporations who are taking over all aspects of life on the planet right now? These outfits have succeeded in convincing most of the American people that the problem in this country is big government but they have not succeeded in convincing this writer. No: the problem is them. The multinational corporations are literally out of control since society has no way of holding them to account. They are happy to pay some Mexican a dollar an hour to make products that never seem to come down in price. Who is pocketing the profits? Guess.

Rather than indulge myself into a complete diatribe against the Big Companies, let me take up another point. To complain that people today are working all the time, I may seem to be ignoring the fact that many people like their work. They find it very satisfying, so why should they cut back? Truly engrossing, fascinating work, that is a matter that the ancients such as St. Benedict never considered. To read them, work is simply something one does to stay alive; a sort of penance to be gotten through because of Original Sin.

But for many people today, and especially professional people, work is intensely interesting. Furthermore, they believe that they are realized as persons through their work. Obviously, not everyone can find this kind of work, but for those who can, it is hard to imagine that they are overworking. How can you be overdoing something that is enhancing your existence? Yet it is a matter of balance; work should not be and indeed is not the whole of human life. Where it has become everything, life is truncated and diminished, whether we realize it or not.

Moreover, there is also the notion of "vocation." The theory is that some people are "called" to certain kinds of work (such as medicine) that are really more than just work. These people are expected to invest themselves more completely than others in their work, perhaps even to give their lives for it. Unquestionably, these vocations make heavy demands on people, and sometimes they even seem to preclude other aspects of life. To use the doctors as an example, they often seem to find it difficult to find time for their families. Some people with a special vocation, such as Gandhi, were horrendous family men. Here was work that literally took over a life, and yet who would say he should have cut back?

The old monks used to pray while they worked, which was often simple since they did such simple work. But modern work typically requires such a high degree of concentration as to make prayer impossible. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this. After all, it is very commendable to be fully intent on the task at hand. In fact, there is something a bit disconcerting about the idea of prayer during work since it implies that work is less intrinsically worthwhile than prayer. The point here is not to decide which is better, work or prayer. The point is to insist they are different things.

We noted earlier that an accurate motto for the Benedictines would be "prayer, work and lectio," but we admitted that monks have the hardest time with the third member, lectio. If we were to translate that word as "leisure," we can see a connection to our society. It was once assumed we would become a leisure society through technology; instead we seem to have fled leisure. It is possible to see our overwork as essentially a flight from leisure.

Now, it is not so easy to define leisure. Webster is of no help, since it merely defines the term as the absence of work. Philosophers of leisure such as Josef Pieper, however, invest the idea with much more significance. They see leisure as freedom to pursue those human activities that enhance the person and the community. Admittedly, that is still terribly vague, but at least it indicates that leisure is unconstrained and that it is worthwhile. They point out that leisure has no purpose, but it does have meaning. It is not meant to produce anything; yet it results in health and wholeness (holiness).

The Death of Leisure

Consider the things that necessarily suffer when we do nothing but work: family, friendship, art, politics, worship, and so on. All these things take time, quality time as we now say, and they require energy and enthusiasm. People who work all the time have nothing left for anything else. The result is the withering of the rest of life. The old chestnut is still true: all work and no play make Jack a dull boy. They also result in an impoverished society and that is where we are currently heading, if we have not arrived there already.

For example, people no longer have time for hobbies. Now, hobbies may not be as prestigious as art or politics, but they are still very good for mental health. People with hobbies do not get in trouble, nor do they succumb to a life of passivity (read: couch-potatoes). One novice-master in our order insisted that every novice learn a hobby, which he contended was crucial for their future mental health as monks. And those who are real hobbyists know that some of their happiest hours on earth are spent in this way.

Hobbies, of course, are not just for kids, but kids have taken a special beating in this work-driven society of ours. Nowadays, teenagers regularly work at part-time jobs after school. Admittedly such work is preferable to cruising main street or doing dope, but it has gone too far. Schools now cannot put on plays and field choruses because everyone is out flipping burgers. And for what? Not to pay for necessities, but to meet the payments on the car and the VCR. Again, money is the source of most of our evil.

Another by-product of overwork is a withdrawal from the democratic process. People who work 60 hours a week by and large do not participate in civic life. It is frequently said that Americans have lost confidence in democracy, so they are less and less willing to join the citizen groups that carry on public life in our nation. Certainly the statistics are there for everyone to see: declining party membership, declining voter tallies and so on. Anyone who has tried to recruit members for citizen action groups knows how wary people are of committing themselves for anything but the briefest period of time. Getting people out to public meetings, enlisting them on committees and boards, all of this is increasingly difficult. They might be willing to send a check to a cause, but in the end, you cannot pay others to run a democracy for you.

As this essay on overwork rambles on and on, it might occur to someone that it has not even mentioned the opposite problem, namely, underwork. Indeed, many people in this society are completely out of work; they have lost their jobs or never gotten one. For such people, this whole discussion might seem fantastic. And yet that is not the case, for even though 6% of the population is chronically unemployed, the other 94% are overworked. It appears that someone in high places has decided that this situation is acceptable, since nothing is done to change it, but it is not acceptable to anyone who understands how much the 6% are suffering.

The answer to this problem seems plain enough: if the 94% would cut back, there would be plenty of work for the 6%. But that's not the way things work in this heartless system of ours. Take the auto plants: They are currently swamped with work, so everyone must put in so much overtime that they are crying out for relief. But the owners won't hire new workers because they don't want to create new jobs with all the benefits brought on by the union contracts. It certainly looks as if a reasonable, balanced life of work and leisure is of no interest to the owners. Just profits.

One possible solution to this strange dilemma lies in the direction of simple living. Al Gini points out that we worked a lot less in 1948 but we also enjoyed a much simpler lifestyle. Now if we would be willing to cut back on the latter, we might be able to regain the former. Is this nonsense? Is anything harder for people than a voluntary reduction in the amenities of life? This could well be the hardest spiritual challenge of the 20th century, or perhaps of all time since no culture ever had to face it before.

Friendship

A final victim of overwork is friendship. The reason is simple: it takes time to be a friend. Nowadays we don't think much about friendship. We worry about things like money and sex and status, but friendship does not seem very high on our list of priorities. At some periods in history, people have valued friendship very highly, so much so that writers like Plato and Cicero and Cassian and Aelred have written whole treatises on the topic. But when was the last time you read a best-seller on friendship?

The only way to be a friend is to deliberately take time for the other. You have to be willing to sit around and chew the fat, waste time together. But one gets the impression that there is less and less time to do nothing together in this society. There is no way to prove this, but time spent in another country can be an eye-opener. Take Italy. To the visitor, it appears that the Italians have an unlimited amount of time to sit around or stroll in cafes and parks and piazzas. They aren't doing much of anything, just talking. It is especially surprising to see two young men having what appears to be an actual conversation about something substantial. Is this possible in America? Theoretically, perhaps.

It might be objected that the Italians are a poor model for how life should be lived, since their society doesn't work. Their government is endemically corrupt, their workers don't work and things in general don't work either. No doubt the Japanese have a much better reputation for these things. But nobody ever accused the Japanese of being happy. To judge from appearances, the Italians are actually happy. They seem to have figured out how to live. The Japanese are rich, but they are driven, and we seem to be following in their footsteps.

Friendship may not involve physical presence, which is often not possible, but it does require deliberate effort on the part of two people to "stay in touch." To describe it this way makes friendship sound like another form of work, which is, of course, exactly what I am trying to knock in the head: work is not everything; work is not prayer.

Part I

Assumption Abbey Newsletter
P.O. Box A
Richardton, ND 58652-0901

Editor, Terrence Kardong, OSB
Published quarterly in January, April, July
and October for friends of Assumption Abbey.

 

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Rev. 12 January 2009 / © Copyright 1996-2009 by Assumption Abbey, ND 58652 / www.osb.org/gen/topics/work/kard2.html