In the short span of two weeks we have seen a virtual collapse of our financial system unlike any since the "break" of 1929. The collapse will have all kinds of negative effects, not the least of which is the possibility of putting a lot of people out of work. I think the collapse is also a sign of a breakdown of our understanding of work itself, at least in terms of the ancient Judeo-Christian meaning of the word. Thomas Merton, in his book, Life and Holiness, neatly summarizes that understanding:
Work in a normal, healthy human context, work with a sane and moderate human measure, integrated in a productive social milieu, is by itself capable of contributing much to the spiritual life. But work that is disordered, irrational, unproductive, dominated by the exhausting frenzies and wastefulness of a world-wide struggle for power and wealth, is not necessarily going to make a valid contribution to the spiritual lives of all those engaged in it. Hence it is important to consider the nature of work and its place in the Christian life.
In light of events over the last few weeks, these words seem especially relevant to our present situation. It seems clear that in places like Wall Street and at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, a lot of the work done has, indeed, been "dominated by the exhausting frenzies and wastefulness of a world-wide struggle for power and wealth . . ." and, therefore, has produced little in the way of a "valid contribution" to either the spiritual or financial lives of those involved, or anyone else, for that matter. In fact, much of what these people have been up over the last few years has caused, and will continue to cause, a lot of harm to a great number of people who had nothing to do with, much less any say, in any of it.
Merton's words echo centuries of Christian, especially Benedictine, teaching, there's really nothing new here that hasn't been known, and indeed, generally put into practice up almost to the middle of the 19th century. I think many people today could benefit reading and pondering what they have to say, but that's unlikely to happen because now it's fashionable to disdain anything resembling ancient wisdom. This for the very reason that ancient wisdom is old. It's a predominant attitude today that the past has nothing to teach us, that we're too smart and too far advanced technologically to learn anything from someone like a monk who lived in Italy fifteen hundred years ago; both because he was a monk and because he lived in the 6th century.
Still, that simple monk knew a great deal about human nature and, it would probably surprise many people today, about the nature of work and its place in our lives. For one thing, he knew that to be successful all work should be grounded in prayer: "Every time you begin a good work, you must pray to him most earnestly to bring it to perfection." I wonder what difference it would have made if everyday, just prior to the opening of the financial markets, executives had paused for a few moments of prayer for Divine guidance for the day's activities. I wonder what would happen if we all followed that advice? There might be a new attitude of humility infecting our work places that would have all kinds of positive results, including even making our work more pleasant and productive. It's counter-intuitive, but certainly might be worth a try now that we know what happens in the absence of prayer.
Benedict also had keen insight into the qualities that make for a good manager. For example, Benedict describes the role of the "cellarer" or business manager in the monastery thus:
"As cellarer of the monastery, there should be chosen from the community someone who is wise, mature in conduct, temperate, not an excessive eater, not proud, excitable, offensive, dilatory or wasteful, but God-fearing, and like a father to the whole community."
How many managers of publicly traded companies could be described in those terms? How many could be considered "fathers" to their communities? How many are "not proud" and not "excessive eaters?" I am reminded of the story of a retired CEO of a major
Merton wrote 40 some years ago, after years of study of the Rule and other ancient sources. From these he learned that work done in a sane, prudent, manner, done not for greed but for the glory of God, benefits not only the one working, but also the community at large, spiritually as well as financially. Merton learned what is little understood today, that work done in this way becomes a spiritual act. We've forgotten that lesson, but I'm still tempted to wonder if one benefit that might be realized from the current crisis is a dose of humility sufficient to get us over our chronological arrogance enough to learn from our mistakes. Answers really are available, if only we are ready to listen.