Looking for meaning in work? The secret lies in a Rule for monks 1,500 years ago
Tan Wen Li // October 27, 2019, 6:00 am
As the Benedictine Rule suggests, meaning is found in God alone and work is made meaningful only through our relationship with God. Photo by Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash.
Work is a restless place for the millennial. A LinkedIn study last year found that four in five young professionals in Singapore have experienced a “quarter-life crisis”, where they changed jobs or switched industries in a bid to find a job they are passionate about.
Many factors have contributed to this – perhaps above all else, an inevitable disappointment at the inability of work to produce satisfaction, meaning or engagement.
Work is made meaningful only through our relationship with God.
For the millennial, the constant restless search for a better job is a constant restless search for transcendent meaning, for an ideal or a cause bigger than themselves to which they can be devoted. But, contrary to those who argue that organisations can improve employee engagement if they are able to infuse the workplace with spirituality, work cannot provide the ultimate nexus for meaning.
Rather, as the Benedictine Rule suggests, meaning is found in God alone. Work is made meaningful only through our relationship with God, and seeing work in relation to the larger picture of creation, human relationships, and the whole of life.
St Benedict wrote the rulebook over 1,500 years ago for monks in communal life, yet it continues to provide wisdom for Christians today in the areas of work, leadership and even innovation.
A call to be God’s friend
The vision undergirding Benedict’s Rule unfolds from an understanding of the human being as one engaged in “vocation”.
Though the link between vocation and occupation is understandably strong, St Benedict’s understanding of vocation is not primarily about work; rather, it is first and foremost a call to pursue a relationship with God, to be a “faithful partner and friend of God”, wrote Norvene Vest in Friend of the Soul: A Benedictine Spirituality of Work.
Vocation is not explicitly tied to a special, unique work which only a particular individual can and should do.
In Genesis 1, we see mankind in partnership of fruitful labour with God. This is the vision sustaining the original integrity and purpose of work: Work is not only a means to support oneself and a means of charity and service to others, but also an “expression of our particular gifts as partners with God in bringing the whole of creation to its intended fulfilment”, wrote Vest.
Closely related to this is the process by which humans discover their individual, unique gifts through their vocation, a concept widely utilised in modern society today. However, St Benedict’s understanding of vocation is not explicitly tied to a special, unique work which only a particular individual can and should do.
In fact, it is worth noting that the notion of gifts and talents hardly appears at all. In the few specific job descriptions that are included, character and spiritual maturity are emphasised as key indicators of suitability, not gifts or talents – thus the cellarer is to be one of ‘good character’ (not one with mathematical gifting), while the abbot is to be chosen for his ‘worthy manner of life and his fundamental wisdom’ (not his leadership abilities or talent for public speaking).
Not just about that “perfect” job
The age of the millennial is one somewhat preoccupied with self-discovery – with understanding what my gifts and talents are, what kind of personality traits I have, how my personal history shapes my strengths and weaknesses. The constant search for a new job is so often the search for a better fit, a special and unique work which only I am equipped to do, and which will somehow bring significance and direction to my life.
Work is primarily a school for the building of character and community.
Yet this does not necessarily result in personal satisfaction (it is more likely to result in workaholism), particularly if it results in spirituality being sought in work, rather than as the product of a call to relationship with God.
For St Benedict, vocation seems to have been a much more fluid concept that encompassed both the reality of individual uniqueness and community conformity.
The millennial who is unable to find the perfect job fit, who does not feel drawn to any kind of work in particular, or who feels drawn to a work which he may not feel equipped to do, need not despair that they have not discovered the unique work which God has created them to do; St Benedict calls us first and foremost to find meaning in relationship with God and community, during which the stewardship of creation becomes a natural outworking in our lives.
Stability. Obedience. Humility.
Work, according to St Benedict, is primarily a school for the building of character and community – the whole of the monastic lifestyle participates in the training of the individual in virtue.
Of these virtues, the three greatest are stability, obedience and conversion of life.
Work does not have meaning merely because of what it produces, but because of how it shapes character
Stability speaks of the perseverance and commitment of an individual. Yet it is not a blind sense of loyalty but a choice, carefully and reflectively undertaken – the Rule is read to potential brethren at least three times during the initial probation period of nearly a year, and its difficult demands clearly set out. It is also about commitment to a community, not a particular occupation or work, for it recognises that each person entering or leaving the community will impact others in profound ways.
Closely linked with stability is obedience. This speaks of mutual submission in the context of community – not merely the submission of younger brethren to older, or of brethren to the abbot, but of all the brethren to one another.
St Benedict’s belief in mutual submission and love is undergirded by a strong call to personal humility, for humility enables the individual to live and persevere in community. It is a virtue very much at odds with the culture of the modern workplace, often emphasises confidence, self-promotion and a healthy dose of aggression.
The virtues of humility, obedience and stability are all deeply counter-cultural.
In fact, the virtues of humility, obedience and stability are all deeply counter-cultural. Sometimes, they cannot be simplistically applied to the modern workplace – for example, the pace of technological and scientific change often necessitates the constant upgrading of skills, which may result in job changes if the individual is unable to find opportunities for professional development in his workplace. Likewise, obedience to one’s superiors may not always be prized in work environments where mutual questioning and challenging are encouraged.
Yet there are two important ways in which Benedict’s virtues can shape and form our thinking about work.
First, work does not have meaning merely because of what it produces, but because of how it shapes character. Second, a well-formed character in turn infuses the workplace with meaning because it values the workplace as a community, not merely as a place of production.
For the millennial, the notion of the workplace as a training ground for character is not always welcome. One does not want to think about responding in humility, obedience or perseverance when faced with the reality of tedious, routine work, dehumanising structures or tyrannical bosses.
Yet the restlessness of heart which many millennials experience is so often rooted in a failure to develop character, a failure to see how uninspiring or overly-challenging situations can be transformed with perseverance, humility and love, rather than simply abandoned for the next better fit.
Meaning comes not only from self-fulfilment but also from the success of the community working together.
This failure then propagates the same cycle of dehumanising work structures, in which workers are not members of a community requiring commitment from one another, but cogs in a wheel whose primary function is simply to produce.
Maybe it is when we start to consider our workplaces as places of community that we can recognise the wisdom of St Benedict: Meaning comes not only from self-fulfilment but also from the success of the community working together.
Work in itself, though intrinsically good and valuable, is insufficient to provide meaning. “But the (millennials) are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest, whose waves cast up mire and mud. “There is no peace,” says my God, “for the (millennial).” (Adapted from Isaiah 57:20-21)
St Benedict would probably have agreed with Isaiah that the tumultuous restlessness of the tossing sea has its roots in the evil of the heart, the antidote for which must begin with a transformation of the individual’s attitude to himself, human relationships and work in the context of creation.