Imagining Healthy Work: Why We all Have to Become Monks

By Jeffrey Bilbro for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

This essay was originally presented at Spring Arbor University’s annual Focus series.

I am speaking today not as a literature specialist, nor as a professional economist, nor as a business expert, but simply as a human.  So in talking about work, I’m going to try to take an expansive view. And while I won’t be able to include everything (you can breathe a sigh of relief), that will be my standard; my goal will be to leave nothing out. Wendell Berry has a poem about work that expresses this desire with an analogy that’s rather apt for Michigan this time of year:

Suppose we did our work

like the snow, quietly, quietly,

leaving nothing out. (Leavings)

The irony is that in order to leave nothing out, in order to include everything, I’m going to have to think on a small-scale, I’m going to have to think little.  If you leave here today remembering one thing, let it be this paradox: to include everything in our work, we have to work on a small, local scale. This is why we all have to become like monks.

I’m going to argue that if we want to work well, we should seek to work in a local community, for a common purpose, and at a variety of tasks. In our current economy, good work often seems impossible, as we can either make money or we can do satisfying, kingdom-serving, humane work, but we can rarely do both. The root cause of this impasse is overspecialization in search of machine-like efficiency; the assembly line operated by robots seems to be the ideal that guides our economy. So while some specialization is inevitable and even needed, we ought to begin imagining more complex, integrated economies of work, which are only possible when our work becomes more local. A helpful model in this search is the monastery, where a small group of people come together to serve a common purpose, to make their living together. This requires each person to do a variety of tasks, and because their work takes place on a human scale their work is more satisfying and accountable. Now, it’s not likely that many of us will actually join a monastery (I’m not planning to do so), but the monastic model can inspire our imaginations as we look for creative ways to make our economies more local, to work for and with those who live nearby. So I’ll give you a few suggestions of how the monastic model can be adapted today, but we all will have to consider how we can extend this model in our own lives.

I’ll begin with a rough definition of good work, one we can refine as we proceed. Good human work participates in God’s redemptive work; thus it is our loving, healing, and humane acting out the image of God that we bear, the image that obliges us to be God’s representatives to his creation.  Thus, as Wendell Berry argues, bad work is actually blasphemous: “To work without pleasure or affection, to make a product that is not both useful and beautiful, is to dishonor God, nature, the thing that is made, and whomever it is made for. This is blasphemy: to make shoddy work of the work of God” (“Christianity and the Survival of Creation” 104). This may seem like an extremely high view of work, and that’s because it is.

Such a high view of work, however, encourages us to consider how we might actually fulfill the gospel’s call to love God and to love our neighbor. While we often give lip service to these commands, I’m not sure we consider all their implications. For starters, loving our neighbor would mean knowing them and participating in an economy with them. It’s hard to love someone if you don’t know them or work with them; such work is the physical means through which we enact our love for those around us. Yet the way our economy functions today is more global than local, or at least it appears to be, and this makes practicing any sort of real love for those with whom we share an economy quite difficult.

Now “economy” sounds like a technical, abstract word, but it really just means “household,” it’s the study of how we live with those with whom we share our household. Actually, it’s also related to several other words, like ecology—the household of all creatures—and diocese—the jurisdiction of the local church—and it comes from the Greek word “oikos” that refers to the church or the “household” of God in the New Testament, yet many of our economic relations no longer take place within a household or even a diocese. And this divorce of economy from household, this abstraction of our work from our neighbor, is at the root, I think, of what makes good work so difficult for us to imagine.

As college students, many of you experience the fears and worries brought on by the difficulty of imagining good work. You likely fear being forced to do bad work, which typically comes in one of two forms. One is by being able to make a living only by doing something destructive or reductive for people who are made in the image of God: you dread the meaningless office job, or, even worse, a destructive job that exploits people. Yet any job at all avoids the second kind of bad work: not being able to earn money at all. Both of these dangers now threaten all work in our American economy. College students are keenly aware that there aren’t many jobs available, and those jobs that do exist are often boring and unfulfilling and give little opportunities for the kind of redemptive work that enables ourselves and others to flourish.

Now, part of this difficulty is simply due to the fact that we live in a fallen world; our work is subject to frustration. We will always need people to do the mundane working of weeding, taking out the trash, cleaning the toilet, and those other tasks that are seen to be beneath human dignity. Yet the point of life isn’t to escape such menial labor, it is to find the work to which we’ve been called, work that serves the healing of others. This work may be dirty and not very interesting—Christ’s last task before his crucifixion was washing his disciples’ feet—but if it’s work that cares for those we love, it can still be rewarding and fulfilling. Such work is part of our condition and our calling, and it becomes demeaning only when we ask some people to spend their whole lives doing repetitive, dirty, or destructive work so that others can just do interesting and rewarding work.

Thus I’m going to argue that the chief cause of the bad work that prevails in our economy is overspecialization. Now before you reject this claim outright, let me say that all specialization isn’t bad. It would be fairly hypocritical of me to argue this when I spent five years of my life to earn a specialized degree. My dissertation is on the Christian roots of ecological ethics in American literature, so there are other people who know much more than I do about American literature, about the Christian tradition, and about ecological ethics, but I figured that if I kept piling on qualifiers, I could find a subject that was narrow enough for me to make myself one of the top experts on it.

This is what all Ph.D. students have to do; we have to find some field narrow enough so that we can make a new contribution to it. This move to specialize in order to maximize originality, in order to contribute something unique, structures much of our economic system. Of course the problem with this is that the more qualifiers you add, the more narrow (and often irrelevant and abstract) you have to get in order to be scarce and thus able to command a high salary. If I can do something better than anyone else, even if it’s a very narrow, particular something, then I’m likely to be able to charge a lot of money for my services. Thanks to the way supply and demand operates, we pay super-specialists a lot and we pay less for those jobs that may be more important, but not as specialized. This is why athletes who are consummate specialists can earn a lot of money for being able to throw a little round ball one hundred miles per hour, or for being able to put a ball through a metal hoop. Yet we pay much less for work which is arguably more important to the wellbeing of our society—like growing food, collecting garbage, maintaining roads, or teaching children—because these kinds of work can be performed by more people and don’t require specialists. Specialization puts you as a worker on the right side of the supply-and-demand curve, but it can also lead to disease.

The problem with overspecialization is that as the pressure increases to become super-specialized, people will push themselves to be deformed and will do more damaging work in order to command a higher salary. So we have NFL linemen who have to be almost obese to perform their jobs, or we have the rampant problem of steroids in athletics where people choose short-term gains in strength over long-term consequences. Even people who want to do good work find themselves thwarted by the fragmentation such specialization causes. So we have farmers who can’t make a living growing healthy food in a sustainable manner, and instead they must maximize the yearly yield of whatever monoculture currently offers the best profit margin, regardless of what this does to the health of their land, their ecological community, or the people who eat this crop. We have doctors who go into medicine hoping to heal people and end up treating one specific disease (and filling out tons of paperwork) rather than working toward their patients’ health. We have politicians who go into politics to seek the common good and find they have to spend all their time raising money and navigating power plays rather than serving their communities. We have university professors who know just one narrow field and can’t teach an introductory course or practice wisdom because they are so focused on their research specialty. This frustration in our work is not only part of the curse, part of the reality that our labor is doomed to frustration, but it is also a result of a fragmented, overspecialized, diseased economy. Thus we should not simply accept an industrialized economy as an inevitable tragedy and capitulate. Rather, we should seek to make as many jobs as possible healthy, able to serve God’s kingdom.

So what can we do? Almost 1500 years ago, faced with a corrupt economy and a failing empire, a young man decided to form a small, intentional community of Christians which could be self-supporting while doing the most important of all Christian work, prayer. Benedict began one of the most important church movements when he established his monasteries, and while we may not all want to join a monastery right now, monasteries may be able to teach us much about how we can imagine good, redeeming work.[1]

Benedict believed that faced with economic and political fragmentation, at least some Christians needed to form healthy communities to model and preserve a lifestyle that witnessed to God’s Kingdom. These communities would not only need to pray and worship, but also to be self-sufficient, so in his Rule, he emphasizes the need for all the monks to work growing food, cooking, and cleaning. So while the monastic community exists to do the work of liturgy, the work of prayer, they do not specialize so much that they spend all their time in structured prayer. Indeed, the Benedictine motto, ora et labora, indicates the unity Benedict saw between these two practices. This integration of work and prayer improves both: prayer makes their physical labor more reverent and careful, and their work offers them opportunities to act in accordance with their prayers. Thus Benedict lays out a schedule that balances work and prayer, listing specific times that the brothers should pray and do the work of liturgy, and also specific hours they should be at work in the fields. If they have to work even more, Benedict says, “they should not be despondent, because it is when they live by the work of their hands, like our fathers and the apostles, that they are truly monks” (Rule 48, translated by Carolinne White).

This Benedictine emphasis on moderation and balance counteracts any tendency toward specialization. Benedict does recognize, however, that skilled workers, artists and craftsman, can make a unique and valuable contribution. He specifies, though, that their craft must always serve the community. Whenever a monk is tempted to think that his specialized work makes him more valuable or important than the community, he must be removed from his vocation: “If there are any craftsmen in the monastery, let them practise their crafts with complete humility, as long as the abbot gives his permission. But if one of them becomes arrogant because he is skilled at his craft, believing that he is benefiting the monastery, he should be removed from that craft and not allowed to resume it until he has shown humility and the abbot tells him he can” (Rule 57). Other aspects of the Benedictine monastery cultivate this integrated, communal economy: monastics can have no personal property, each is required to serve their turn in the kitchen, they pray and eat together daily, and they take a vow of stability, which requires them to commit themselves to their community. This is the kind of household where the good work that Berry describes, work that “honors God’s work” seems imaginable.

There are at least three attributes about work done in a monastic community that contribute to its healthy character: such work serves a common, locally understood purpose, it is communal, and it is integrated and diverse. I’ll look at each of these in turn. The first, a common, locally understood purpose, can make even tedious work satisfying and fulfilling. Weeding a flowerbed outside of an industrial building, even if you’re getting paid for it, is much less satisfying than weeding a garden whose produce will feed you and your family; the same physical act takes on a different meaning depending on its context.

A classic story gets at this same principle. There were once three stonecutters working together. A man came up to the first and asked him what he was doing. “Cutting this stone,” he replied. The man asked the same question of the second stonecutter: “I’m earning a living for my wife and family.” Finally the man came to the third stonecutter and asked him what he was doing: “I’m building a cathedral,” he said. “This stone I’m cutting will form part of the east transept.” The first was just going through the motions, the second just wanted the wage, but the third was working for a purpose that he believed in. So while they were all doing the same task, only the third was doing good work. This is part of the reason why a liberal arts education is so valuable: by teaching us the common language and structures that all disciplines share, it prepares us to see how our work relates to the whole.  If we know that we are building a cathedral, we can take pride and joy in our work.  And if we discover that we are being employed to build a dungeon, we can quit working.  The worker who sees only his own task is a slave.

In order to see the whole toward which our work contributes, however, we need more than just a liberal arts education. We also need to work in or near our household. This enables us to imagine, to perceive, the way that our work serves the health of the household. If we are building something that will be used in some far away place by people we will never meet, then it’s nearly impossible to imagine or understand the purpose our work serves. This is not only dangerous—we could be working for something damaging—but it is also reductive of our humanity; we are made to do fulfilling work that participates in God’s redemptive work, and when we can’t see how our work might serve God’s kingdom, we take little pleasure or satisfaction in our work.

This local, human scale not only enables us to imagine the purpose our work is serving, but it also makes our work more communal and thus improves the quality of our work. When we can see the results of our work on those we live with and love—when our work either serves them or harms them—we will work with greater care, particularly when, like Benedictine monks, we don’t have the option of moving away to escape the consequences of sloppy work. Work done within a household is responsible because it is able to respond to its effects and correct its mistakes. Good work is adapted to its context; it is particular in its care for its object and beneficiaries. For instance, when my wife and I laid tile around our shower last spring, we worked carefully because we were well aware of who would have to live with the result of our work—us. Unfortunately, as Berry notes, “Much modern work is done in academic or professional or industrial or electronic enclosures. The work is thus enclosed in order to achieve a space of separation between the workers and the effects of their work. The enclosure permits the workers to think they are working nowhere or anywhere – in their careers or specialties, perhaps, or in ‘cyberspace’” (“Going to Work” 33, emphasis added).  Responsible work, work that is accountable to its effects and influences, is “possible only if the worker knows and accepts the reality of the context of the work” (33-34). Working locally, on a human scale, enables us to look beyond the narrow concerns of “profitability and utility” and ask crucial questions that recognize the ramifications of our work: “What is the effect of the work upon the place, its ecosystem, its watershed, its atmosphere, its community? What is the effect of the product upon its user, and upon the place where it is used?” (38). So local work is not only more satisfying and fulfilling, but it’s also more accountable and hence more likely to be done well.

Yet if we’re going to work within a human scale, we’re going to have to do more diverse work; in each household or neighborhood there are too many different tasks and too few workers to have each one done by a specialized expert. Working within local economies will require our work to grow more complex, more diverse, and more widely accountable to our lives. In a monastic community, each person takes on responsibility for some frustrating tasks—doing the dishes, taking out the trash, etc.—but each also participates in the tasks of prayer, and contributes their unique vocation or craft to the life of the community. This integrated, holistic mode of living combats overspecialization and can contribute to a more healthy life where we work with and for those we love and where our household is strengthened by this cooperation. As I’ve said, some specialization is good, and I certainly specialize in reading literature. But if all I did was read literature, I would be living an unbalanced, unhealthy, anemic life—I’d get obese and my wife wouldn’t be very happy with me. So just because some specialization is good, doesn’t mean that more specialization is better.

But such an integrated economy will require us all to get our hands dirty. I’m afraid college is often viewed as a ticket out of manual labor: if I go to college, then I don’t have to work with my hands anymore. But why would we want to stop working with our hands? Manual labor enables us to relate to the world in more intimate, precise ways than we can if we use only our intellects.  For instance, when I work on my bike or when I do plumbing in my house, my theoretical, abstract knowledge is sharpened and corrected by the physical matter I’m working with.  I understand how gear shifters work on my bicycle better after adjusting them than after just reading about them.  I understand how plumbing connections work more deeply after making some connections that leak. This is why a good teacher doesn’t just have you read a book about biology and then give you a passing grade.  She has you read a book, and then she has you work with the material, applying it to new questions, or doing experiments based on it.  We have to play, to manipulate, to work with knowledge in order to deepen our understanding. The result of this more intimate knowledge is that we are able to care better for those around us.  We are less sloppy, less removed from our place. And this intimate knowledge prepares us to participate in restorative, caring work, work that shares in God’s work.

So, maybe by this point you’re convinced that a monastic community offers a better sphere for good work than does our contemporary economy. But if you’re not going to become a monk, isn’t this a rather pointless, academic argument? How does this actually help us find better ways of working here, where we are?  I’m going to offer a couple of examples that I hope will get your creative juices flowing and help you imagine concrete steps you can take to do more work within a local household. Our goal should be to participate more in amateur economies—ones based on love—rather than professional economies—ones based on exchanging money. So while we may not all become monks, we can all seek to participate in healthy, local economies where good work can be done.

A good place to begin is finding ways to participate in our local food economies. Gardening is an easy way to work toward the health of our households, which is why we started a community garden at Spring Arbor University. Hopefully working in this garden can teach us how to garden well and inspire students to grow their own food after they graduate. The rise of farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture makes it much easier to get food from people who live nearby. In addition to shopping at the Jackson farmers’ market, my wife and I buy a dozen eggs each week from a chicken farmer near Concord. Last year we bought a quarter cow from a local farmer and picked peaches and berries at nearby farms. There are many opportunities to buy food directly from those who grow it. Buying food from our neighbors has all kinds of benefits—it gives more money to the farmer, it keeps the farmer responsible to his neighbors for using sustainable practices, and it deepens our personal relationships with our community.

Secondly, we can participate in a DIY culture, doing as much of our own work as we can instead of hiring others to do it for us. Mow your own lawn, shovel snow off of your driveway and sidewalk, change your own oil, do your own home repairs, cook for yourself. Doing this work provides great joy: The satisfactions of cooking a good meal from raw ingredients are immense; I enjoy the process, and my wife and I are the recipients of our good work. It may be more “efficient” to buy processed food or go to a restaurant, but the work of cooking leads to a more healthy, delightful life. Doing the work to sustain our households also contributes to a more healthy culture; when we outsource our work to specialists, we tend to also outsource our entertainment, but when we work alongside our family and neighbors, we are more likely to share meals, games, and conversation with them.

Doing all this work for yourself may get you criticized for taking someone’s job. This past Thanksgiving I read a blog post complaining about black Friday’s encroachment on Thanksgiving day and urging people not to shop on Thanksgiving to discourage stores from this practice. One of the first comments on this article complained that this boycott would not hurt big-box stores themselves so much as their workers, who depend on their paychecks to pay the bills and buy Christmas gifts for their children. It seems like I hear similar complaints about taking people’s jobs whenever someone encourages us to opt out of our consumer economy or do our own work. But such complaints beg the question, or assume an answer to the real question, which is what kind of work is good? We shouldn’t count jobs in the abstract: all jobs are not created equal, and all jobs are not equally good. Maybe we need fewer people working in big-box stores and more people running responsible, locally-accountable businesses. Maybe we need fewer fast food workers and more people doing the work of growing our food, something all of us can be involved in.  Maybe we need fewer people who spend their whole lives mowing other people’s lawns and more people living complexly interdependent lives. So I’m not saying we can magically achieve a just economy overnight, but I am saying we shouldn’t give up simply because working well might take away somebody’s job.

Finally, consider participating in the growing Sharing Economy. Communities are using new information technology to find better ways of sharing resources and working together. This takes various forms, for instance ride sharing via Lyft or Sidecar or room sharing via Airbnb or Couchsurfing. But we can also participating in local sharing economies. I carpool to work almost every day (unless I ride my bike), and last fall several of us started a google document where we listed all the tools we own that we’d be willing to share, essentially forming a tool library. So we might not be willing to go as far as Benedictine monks, who give up all private possessions when they enter a monastery, but when we work together and participate in a sharing economy, we are working against an economy that seeks to commodify everything by putting a monetary price on it. Shared rides, tools, and work won’t dismantle our industrial, specialized economy, but they will make vibrant, healthy households more imaginable.

No matter how well we work within our local households, though, of course there is no way to leave “nothing out.” Wendell Berry’s dream of doing “our work / like the snow, quietly, quietly / leaving nothing out” is not a standard to achieve but an ideal to aspire to. Or perhaps it is a prayer: May we do “our work / like the snow, quietly, quietly / leaving nothing out.”  For as we approach this ideal, our work becomes more and more holy, it becomes an act of prayer. Berry explains how as we understand the Christian narrative of which we are a part, we will increasingly realize how our work becomes a form of prayer: “If we think of ourselves as living souls, immortal creatures, living in the midst of a Creation that is mostly mysterious, and if we see that everything we make or do cannot help but have an everlasting significance for ourselves, for others, and for the world, then we see why some religious teachers have understood work as a form of prayer” (“Christianity and the Survival of Creation” 111).

But not only should our work be prayer, our prayer should be our work. Indeed, the highest work to which we are all called, and the only work we can do that might leave nothing out, is the work of prayer. Stanley Hauerwas, in reflecting on the role of education in preparing Christians to do good work, writes that Christians of all people should find satisfaction and happiness in their work, and that “not least among the good work Christians have been given is prayer. . . . We call that work ‘liturgy,’ which is the work of prayer” (The State of the University 121). The 17th Century monk Brother Lawrence, author of Practicing the Presence of God, exemplifies the way that faithfully giving ourselves to the work of prayer brings deep joy and satisfaction as we participate in God’s life. Brother Lawrence spent most of his time doing mundane tasks, working in the kitchen and washing dishes, and yet while serving his community in this physical way, his work also participated in the work of prayer, of communion with God. He knew that no amount of local, careful work could effect the healing of his community, but he also knew that by doing the work to which he had been called faithfully and well, he could be present as God was working out his redemption.

So let us work well, work locally, and be creative and imaginative as we seek to do diverse work in our communities for a common purpose. But let us also attend to the work of prayer, so that by God’s grace our work may be like the snow, leaving nothing out.


[1] Alasdair MacIntyre famously called for a new Benedict at the conclusion of After Virtue, and Rod Dreher has recently been exploring what the “Benedictine Option” might look like today. One of the exemplars Dreher points to is Berry, whom he calls “A Latter-Day Saint Benedict.”

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