Benedictine Work and Human Dignity

Besides some excerpts from the Rule in history class, my first introduction to St Benedict was Esther de Waal, Seeking God: The Way of St Benedict. Taking up the theme of work from yesterday, here is a quotation from that book where the Benedictine belief in the worthiness of all work — manual, intellectual, spiritual — feeds into daily life:

The respect for people and the respect for the work they do and the things they handle interconnect and deepen each other. … The implications of this in modern terms are quite far-reaching. My own preference is for books rather than for petrol, to take an absurd example, which I am sure many others would reverse. And if I am totally honest with myself it means that I have, perhaps quite subconsciously, a greater respect for a writer or lecturer than for the man or woman who manages a garage and sells me petrol. If I take the Rule seriously, it frees me to notice this, and if I am trying to live by it, it forces me to re-think my attitudes. (p. 118)


Work, work, work

Work is prayer, and prayer is work. Service is love. This is the heart of the Benedictine view of work.

Ora et labora — work and pray, an unofficial Benedictine motto (not from Benedict).

Dreher doesn’t think the world is about to end, but he does think that Christians are going to find it harder to maintain a balance in the workplace in the years ahead. He thinks that if you believe in traditional sexual morality, you are going to find it harder and harder to keep your job in certain lines of employment. But I’m not sure.

First, I’m not sure because, speaking of the sorts of places where I work (universities), which are one of Dreher’s danger zones, I think that hiring policies should not give a flying fig about sexual orientation or if someone is transgendered or votes Labour or kisses icons or sings, ‘Hare Krishna.’ Furthermore, all of those things are, legally speaking, ‘protected characteristics’ in the UK, of which there are 9 (I don’t know what the official order is):

  1. Sex
  2. Age
  3. Religion or belief
  4. Race
  5. Disability
  6. Sexual orientation
  7. Pregnancy or maternity
  8. Gender reassessment
  9. Marriage and civil partnership

Now, that doesn’t mean I run around proclaiming the fact that I’m a religious nutter. I actually play it quiet, because I do think that people can have a subconscious bias against certain beliefs. That is, while I am charitable enough to think that no hiring committee would consciously reject me because I actually believe the Council of Chalcedon, I’m cynical enough to believe that they may do so unconsciously.

Second, I’m not sure about Dreher’s concerns because, while I don’t think any conservative Christian should officiate at a gay wedding, I sometimes wonder if perhaps photographers, bakers, florists, and pizza places should do their jobs for gay weddings out of charity. That is, if you believe that gay marriage is an ontological impossibility because biblical and traditional anthropology sees marriage as bound up with the difference of sexes wherein we reflect the image of God, you must also believe that love, charity, agape, is the highest good of all. Right? So bake those lesbians the best cake you can!

The whole question of Christian (and traditional Jewish and Muslim) entrepreneurs and gay marriage is fraught with difficulty, and I won’t get into it now. In fact, same-sex marriage and homosexual sex acts are among the things I actively avoid discussing on this blog since discussions of them turn toxic fast, into a vile cesspool of trolling, with all sides making all sorts of unsubstantiated claims.

That said, Christians have had a terrible track record with homosexuals in the past (like condemning Turing to hormone therapy). In The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers makes an offhand reference to the fact that, if you abrogate moral law, you will pay the consequences. Due to our failures to truly love homosexuals, perhaps traditional Christians are now paying the consequences for our own failure to live up to the highest moral law of all — charity.

Whether the future is as dire as Dreher imagines, the theology of work sketched in this chapter is a taste of what all of us can and should take away from the Benedictine tradition. We are created to work. Work can be redemptive. Manual labour may even be good for us spiritually and psychologically. But we are also created to worship God and take care of our families and spiritual world. Just as family and church community should not become idols, neither should work.

I remember a monk from Athos interviewed by National Geographic a few years ago. He was clearing huge stones for a garden or something, and he said that the stones are a reminder of his sins.

FYI, the best discussion of work I’ve yet read is Dorothy L. Sayers in The Mind of the Maker.