I believe in earlier posts, at least in passing, I’ve indicated that St. Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries would not solve all our problems. That’s not what it’s there for. And Saint Benedict, however wise and holy he was, had no insider’s secrets on life; like all of us, he had to learn the hard way and only learned imperfectly. In Benedict’s era, an old age could be no more than forty–if you lived that long. A monastic life, like any life did not last long. Benedictine scholar Columba Stewart reminds us that St. Benedict’s perspective on work was productive and preventive: productive, to provide for the needs of the community and preventative to guard against laziness, against acedia and having too much time to get into trouble. That reminds me of the strategies we invent to keep a high school class or outing manageable. Such a view does not provide for what happens when such habits are ingrained or how to face the tedium of such a routine after seventy years of monastic life. In the modern era–the age of counter reformation and especially after the Wars of Religion in the next century–a spirituality of reparation arose. As the average age increased everything and anything, from aches and pains to boredom, could be herded into the cage marked “offering it up”. Just because the Rule only speaks of work as productive and preventative, are we really stuck with no other option?
We are living in an era facing longevity that exceeds our historical experience of old age. In Benedict’s day people were old by age forty; their health care–for better or worse–lacked our bag of tricks. In living memory, a benefactor recently reminded me, when Social Security was first established, benefits began at age sixty-five because at that time, sixty-five was the average age of death in the United States. That already exceeded the expectations of the early middle ages. A couple of years ago I heard someone claim that “seventy is the new forty”. In our Retreat House, I often hear from retirees how fulfilling their life has become after leaving their jobs that provide so well for their retirement: they are now involved in community service that brings so much enrichment to their lives. We are, by and large, much more active than our parents at our present ages; possibly, we’ve already have outlived our grandparents. The concept of the “golden years” is hard to swallow when viewed against the realities of ageing, but it was not even conceivable in any earlier era.
On the other end of the spectrum, I recall reading–I believe in an Amtrak magazine–how members of the millennial generation, just out of college and into the workforce, have little tolerance for a job that provides no personal satisfaction. They’d rather risk the insecurity of starting their own business in an area that excites them than stick out a routine job that provides steady income and benefits. Perhaps the key notion here is creativity.
Whether for the retiree or the new graduate, we are yearning, today, to tap our personal resources, to experiment, to discover new ways of doing things. And with good reason. There’s more at stake here than seventy years of tedium in the cloister or avoiding routine on our first job: so much in our present culture is malfunctioning that we need to find creative solutions to live lives that are more than dysfunctional. It may be our vocation, our responsibility to the human race to discover new horizons since the old ones have begun to strangle us. Whether young or old, but especially for the old, we are mapping out territory that never been visited before.
Certainly, creativity is not a topic in St. Benedict’s Rule. There is no single chapter about it nor is it one of the tools of good work. There is much more evidence in the Rule to prize what our ancestors did and how they did it; tradition and God-given authority are guiding principles.
That said, isn’t the Rule itself a very innovative and creative re-interpretation of the primitive monastic tradition? Isn’t there a notable shift from the eremitical ideal in favor of community life? Isn’t it fair to say that Saint Benedict is very selective in what he retains from the Rule of the Master? And, perhaps more importantly, what he doesn’t repeat from the Rule of the Master illuminates a rather innovative mind at work. Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries is quite an exercise in creative thinking. I don’t point that out to legitimize a more creative approach to monastic work: our present need is sufficient. I only wish to note the specifically Benedictine character in taking a creative approach.
Certainly in monasteries, as we face the challenges of shrinking and ageing communities, we spend much time and energy on creative solutions to our challenges. With fewer members to cover all bases we also need to keep monks and nuns energized in their jobs, looking for ways to wake up, looking forward to the day ahead. Perhaps we have the ideal setting for collaborative decision-making to help this along. Realistically, however, even the most creative project involves tedium; the creative writer still has to invest time at the keyboard, battling slow computer connections or other, more mysterious glitches. An imagined text just does project itself from the brain to the computer screen. I’d never suggest that Michelangelo was a hack but he wrote eloquently of his stiff neck and plaster-spattered face as he labored, uncomfortably, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Yet, he was never willing to send assistants up the scaffolding to finish off the ceiling with rollers.
Yes, there will always be a degree of labor in any job. But we can always look for ways to better involve ourselves, our interests, our goals and our talents into our work. Certainly in the monastery. What I need to hear from you is if/how you find ways to tap creativity in your work.