Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 79 (January 1998): 46-48.
Friend of the Soul: A Bendictine Spirituality of Work. By Norvene Vest. Cowley. 156 pp. $11.95.
Reviewed by Gilbert Meilaender
Althought it is sometimes forgotten that a worthy human life can be lived by those who do not work, or do not work for pay, it is still true that work is one of the most fundamental of human experiences. Necessary for human existence, it is also an activity in which we struggle to find meaning and purpose beyond necessity alone. In a book aimed not at scholars but at any Christian reader concerned with the meaning of work, Norvene Vest draws on the Benedictine Rule for an understanding of work as "the friend of the soul." She treats work as a matter of vocation (being called to particular tasks), of stewardship (taking care of God’s creation), and of obedience (as the key to finding freedom even within work that we do not ourselves control). I have found within myself two quite different responses to this book, and I therefore offer below two reviews in paired paragraphs. A reader may take every other paragraph to read only one of the reviews at a time—or the paired paragraphs in turn to read both simultaneously.
(A1) The book is written in a simple, direct style aimed at general readers. Each of the principal chapters concludes with "reflection exercises," and Vest specifically encourages her readers to read the book together with others and jointly explore with them the exercises for reflection. By drawing on the Rule of St. Benedict for her central concepts of vocation, stewardship, and obedience, she locates her reflection within a tradition and achieves a focus that might otherwise be lacking in so wide-ranging a work. Thus, for example, she can ground a discussion of the attitude of stewardship in a sentence from the Rule that says: "The cellarer should look upon all the vessels and goods of the monastery as though they were the consecrated vessels of the altar." Here mundane things are holy things, as holy as the sacramental vessels that contain Christ’s body and blood, and one can begin to sense how the work we do in our bodies might truly be a holy task.
(B1) Simply and clearly written as it is, the book’s prose is marred by a concerted effort to avoid the masculine pronoun for God. This leads, inevitably, to a "Look, Dick, see Spot; Spot can run" style of sentence. Thus, for example: "God’s word has an effective and inherent power of its own. It goes forth from God to enable a response in those who hear. God spoke forth creation, and it was so! God’s purpose is accomplished by God’s very word. . . ." It is as though one were to write: "Sue is leaving Sue’s house across town so that Sue can take Sue’s grandmother for a ride in Sue’s car." (It could be worse, of course. Vest nowhere gives us the equivalent of "Sue Sueself is leaving. . . .") Can the craft of such writing possibly be understood as a holy task? Then too, a reader sometimes feels that the attempt to ground her claims about work in Benedict’s Rule are a bit of a stretch. Thus, for example, the Rule states that the cellarer is to be chosen from the members of the monastic community. Vest finds in this fact "important implications" for us to ponder. "To what extent are we active in encouraging one another’s growth and celebrating the talents of people with whom we work?" One might wonder whether our contemporary delight in "strokes" and our manipulative use of them for controlling others is really best grounded in the Rule.
(A2) Seeking to envision work as a "holy task," Vest begins where the Bible does, with the first chapter of Genesis. She finds there an understanding of work as "co-creative" activity in which we share with God the care of the creation. In our work all of us express our own unique abilities, and we serve as God’s partners in bringing his creation to its intended fulfillment. If Protestants once argued—with some justification—that Catholics were too ready to distinguish those with special "religious" vocations from those with more garden-variety work, Vest has certainly gotten the message. God calls not just some, but every one of us, to work—which is, first of all, the work of increased intimacy and harmony with God and, then, with the whole creation. God labors to create—and sees that the creation is good. Even so, our vocation is an invitation to joy.
(B2) Contrary to what some who teach the Bible in our colleges and universities think, it is not all that hard to understand that there are two accounts of creation (in Genesis 1 and in Genesis 2-3), and many people know this. What is harder is to think through how to read these accounts as part of one connected story. That harder task Vest does not take up. She is content to pit the two accounts against each other, rejecting any view that "we are meant to suffer in our work," and emphasizing only work as a call to joy. This is where the currently popular language of work as "co-creation" easily leads—to a concept of human beings as "workers" that has as much Marx as Benedict in it—and we should have a little skepticism about such an exalted image of our work. I recommend to all devotees of "co-creation" chapter 2 of George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. His unforgettable depiction of the work of the miners is a good antidote and may encourage us to try harder to make place for Genesis 3 in our understanding of work.
(A3) Precisely because it makes us partners with God, work is, as the first sentence of chapter 48 of Benedict’s Rule puts it, "the friend of the soul." And this, Vest believes, is a message that needs to be heard in the contemporary workplace, in which many are "profoundly cynical about any possibility of meaningful and creative work." Increased specialization has fragmented work, making it seem routine and boring, unable to express or develop a sense of wholeness in the self. Rigid job definitions make workers seem to be interchangeable parts, ready to be downsized at any moment. Vest sees these difficulties, but she prefers to regard them as challenges. We are challenged to understand our work not just as a call to do something (that may, in many respects, be routine and boring) but as a call to partnership with God in caring for the creation. She also grants, however, that many people are likely to find that no single activity satisfies them wholly, and she encourages us to use free time in ways that develop aspects of the self for which our work makes little place. Although this suggestion stands in some tension with the claim that work itself is the friend of the soul, it nevertheless seems wise.
(B3) "Work is the friend of the soul" is Vest’s preferred translation of the first sentence of chapter 48 of Benedict’s Rule. But, as she notes, this sentence is more commonly translated, "Idleness is the enemy of the soul." That has a rather different ring, and these are not simply two ways of saying the same thing. If one ought to work because "idleness is the enemy of the soul," if that is work’s point, we should not necessarily look to the realm of work for fulfillment and wholeness. Instead, we might think of work, however irksome and burdensome, as a necessary discipline for those too ready to concentrate only on their own fulfillment. Indeed, from this perspective we might understand the fragmented and routine quality of much work—a quality Vest is careful to note—as an indication that fulfillment must be sought elsewhere. Marx’s hope that, once the alienation engendered by a fragmented workplace is overcome, a man might hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, and be a critic in the evening—might, in short, be whole—asks more of the realm of work than it can offer.
(A4) Throughout the book Vest offers examples drawn from life of people who have found strategies for dealing with a workplace in which competition and production are king. "Stephen" uses his savings to take a leave of absence from work in order to test his growing sense that his true calling is to be a spiritual guide. He practices a certain kind of detachment that the Benedictine Rule recommends. "Jim," a minister, decides to pass by opportunities for a larger congregation, preferring the extra time for his children and the small church community he enjoys. "Clarice," a successful real estate broker with a horse-farm in the country, gets caught in a failing economy and loses her business. After some hard personal times, however, she finds a satisfying position that pays far less but uses some of her skills while still leaving more time for her family and her horse. Whatever the circumstances of work, we need a capacity that Vest finds in the Rule and calls "tender competence"—a condition in which we are neither entirely helpless nor entirely in charge. "If we are fully in charge, there is no place for God’s action. If we are completely helpless, we refuse not only God’s desire to work in our midst, but also the opportunities before us and our own competence to engage them."
(B4) The contemporary workplace can, of course, be a hard and unforgiving arena, and each person must find his own way to make peace with that fact. Granting this, however, it is striking that most of the short vignettes with which Vest sprinkles her exposition are examples of people cutting back, detaching, and, in a certain sense, achieving less. In that sense, this is a book for those saddest of our contemporaries—the driven professionals who have made an idol of their work. But is the answer to such idolatry simply changed patterns that allow more time for the families we have neglected and the private pursuits we enjoy? Or is the answer a genuine conversion that frees us for vocation—a vocation from which we do not detach ourselves but in service of which we offer the whole of our powers? If God intends to fulfill us through such vocation, it will be a fulfillment that comes the other side of the cross that threatens to break us. Not self-fulfillment but self-spending is the first—and the daily—claim that vocation makes upon us.
Gilbert Meilaender holds the Board of Directors Chair in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University.