"The brain is a wonderful organ," the poet Robert Frost once said. "It starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office." For too many of us, that sums up the 21st century work experience: Our jobs have become devoid of our true selves, more about money than meaning, and completely lacking connection in a sense of God's presence.
"Too often the ways we earn our living seem almost hostile to faith, interested only in fragments of our whole selves and requiring that we leave our capacities to envision and to embrace at home," writes Norvene Vest in her 1996 book "Friend of the Soul: A Benedictine Spirituality of Work." Vest adds: "In my own work of lecturing and teaching, I often hear people speak of a sense of helplessness about their work."
God's presence can seem all but lost in work environments that dampen rather than foster our creativity: in factories whose products damage the earth--either in their mode of manufacture or their ultimate purpose--and in offices that impair workers' health and welfare in order to help the company turn a profit.
Ever since the Age of Enlightenment, when scientific rather than mystical experiences became our source of truth, and the Industrial Revolution, when time-honored bonds to family and land were broken, we have grown increasingly distanced from ourselves and the meaning of our work. Popping Prozac and "going postal" are all too common occurrences at the jobsite.
But as Vest points out in her book, we can learn from the spiritual approach of the Benedictine monks how to re-infuse our work with meaning and a connection to the sacred. She writes: "God's original intention was that work express the unique gifts and qualities of each person in the service of a unified whole, like a melody that is diminished by the absence of any single note. Many of us harbor some form of this vision: a deep, often unspoken sense that we have been created for a special purpose, that we have a serious and holy calling to be expressed through active engagement with the world around us--that is, through our work."
In the sixth century, when St. Benedict wrote, "Do all for the glory of God", work was considered valuable in itself. Treat even the pots and pans reverently as holy objects because God is found in all things. Benedict counseled. Today, monks continue to serve God through work as varied as growing produce and raising chickens to teaching children and counseling adults.
"Monastics have to work for their living the same as anyone else," notes Beatrice Bruteau, writer and lecturer in the field of spirituality and founder of the Fellowship of The Holy Trinity, an organization influenced by the Rule of St. Benedict but not affiliated with any church. "But they look at their work with great respect, and we can do the same. If we're farming, for instance, we need to study that particular land and climate. We must plant the right kind of crops and give them what they need for their sustenance."
In other words, it's not so much what we do as how we do it. Ron Berges, a lawyer who with his wife, Jody, is an oblate at St. Andrews Abbey in California, describes how he works to bring the principles of the Benedictine Rule to his law practice:
"I have a duty to my clients to watch out for their best interest. But I also have a higher obligation to God," he explains. "I am always trying to do the right thing, so if my clients are on the wrong side of something, I encourage them toward the right side. If I am faced with a conflict, I try to bring resolution. When dealing with my employees, I try to rule with a gentle hand and listen to people before I make decisions that have an impact on them."
Although spiritual approaches of the kind that Berges describes can transform one's attitude toward work, many people still struggle to find meaning in the job itself, especially if it menial or routine. Norvene Vest suggests that we hold onto that tension, share our dreams through regular prayer with God, and never give up or deny that we aspire to more.
"Do the best you can in the circumstance, watch your thoughts, and see if God is going to do something by virtue of the steps you've taken," she writes. "The notion that God has called or invited us to be where we are is a very important one. I look at what I do very differently if I have a sense that God has brought me to this place."
Although there isn't much of it in our workaholic world, time spent away from work is as spiritually important in the Benedictine scheme of things as time spent working--and often turns out to be surprisingly productive. Paul Wilkes, author of "Beyond the Walls: Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life," recalls taking his sons surfing even though a book review and article were overdue. He writes, "I settled into my beach chair. I was able to sketch out both the review and article on a legal pad--and was amazed it took so little time."
And internationally acclaimed chef Thomas Keller tells about the time he needed a new signature dish.The piece de resistance came to him, not while he worried about what it might be, but when he joined a friend for ice cream at a Baskin-Robbins shop. In a flash of insight, he saw how he could use the cone creatively in what patrons now enjoy as "salmon tartare cornet."
Even when we follow these Benedictine practices, however, we won't ever know for certain that we are doing our "right work." But neither do the monks. As Trappist Thomas Merton once declared to God: "The fact that I think I am following your will for me does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that my desire to please you does in fact please you."
Bringing our true selves to our daily work, with open hearts and minds, is the best we can do. That's precisely what we need to do to bring back that lost sense of God's presence in everything we do, says Vest. "I don't believe that God says, 'Here is this box, and you must fit in it for my plan to be accomplished,'" she adds. "Rather, I see God saying, 'I really love who you are. Come and join me with all of what you are. By virtue of your presence, this work will take a shape that is just right.'"