Are you keeping busy?
What if you were to answer the question by saying, No, why should I? Do you think I’m a slave that I should work all the time? If you were to say that, people would think you are lazy.
If you think about it, we believe we ought to be busy. It is a way we Americans have of bragging about how we are proper persons, or even, when we say it happily, to announce our own importance: I’m so busy!
It is entirely contrary to the attitude of late antiquity. Leisure for the leisured occupations of leisure was the ideal then. You retired, you contemplated, you proceeded without pressures, anxieties, or stress. You inherited wealth, were adopted into wealth, married into wealth, and then you attained to the enviable leisure to pursue an examined life. If you were limited in terms of wealth, you limited yourself so as to avoid needing too much, and thus you achieved some of that rare, valued leisure. If you were busy, you lived an unexamined life, and the unexamined life was the life of a slave.
The transformation of that attitude is a curious thing, if I have it right. Let me attempt to sketch it. I begin with the Benedictine rule, which was formulated to make monasticism bearable, but still rigorous. The ideal of martyrdom was gradually transformed into the ideal of withdrawing from the world as toleration and official recognition came to Christianity. The monastic withdrawal was about a Christian ideal, it was an attempt to preserve an ideal in different circumstances. The Benedictine rule also included a counter-cultural value: the humility of manual labor. Monks were to be obedient, submissive, praying routinely and working to provide for themselves. The point of including work was not simply to provide for the monastery, but also to promote Christian humility.
Such was the depth to which the territories of the former empire fell that the world, in that moment, came after the church, which sought to preserve its treasured ideal in the monasteries. Of course there’s more to it than that, but the role of the monasteries in preserving, informing, and eventually resurrecting civilization in Europe is indisputable. Polygamous barbarian warlords wanted the sanction of the only remaining think still associated with a glorious, past civilization.
As society changed, monasticism reformed. Not only did monasticism decline and require reform, monasticism changed, adapted itself to the conditions on which it exerted influence that is might further influence those conditions. The Cluniac reform with its novelty of houses in hierarchical relationship, its networks along the routes connecting all of Europe to the central shrine in Santiago de Compostela, knit the territories together and provided a common identity, one that arose from monasteries. The Cistercian reform was the impulse to grow, seeking the frontiers, seeking deliberate hardship in simplicity, expanding not only territory, but turning the ideal of the spiritual life gradually from ritual toward preaching, toward rational investigation and discourse. This impulse to learning is seen in the amazing twelfth century, with the cathedral schools leading to the unity in diversity of the university, a microcosm of a society growing complex and inquiring. As well, you got the first manual of preaching, the concern to take the monastic revolution in preaching beyond the walls of the monastery and into the cathedral pulpit, to benefit the swelling crowds of the growing cities.
Now come the preaching orders, monks without monasteries, friars, rather than monks, though they were awfully monastic, devoted to improving the quality of the Christianity of a Christian society. Christianity had been put behind walls to preserve it from the world, and now it emerged from those walls to inform the world, to shape and guide it. After this the impulse to reform—which one might say is monasticism—was seen in the spiritual, the more fervent correction of these same preaching orders. Savonarola did not end well, but he tried his best to turn Florence into a devout, city-wide monastery. All along, it seems to me, you have the monastery which gave Europe its cohesive identity going out of itself, spilling beyond its walls, sending persons forth to continue the transformation and remaking society in the form of its ideal. And all the while the notion of the indignity of work, work as an affliction and humiliation, was also being transformed.
Because now we come the Via Modena, the Brethren of the Common Life. This looked an awful lot like monasticism for laymen. It was a precursor of Protestantism, the educator of many a humanist, and it was the beginning of the abandonment of the ideal of poverty which the Reformers so much reviled. All along, poverty had been a problem for monks—they kept getting prosperous and indolent, and the reforming impulse always called them back to that. The culmination of that reforming impulse for us Protestants, the Reformation, did not.
Cluny was a successful enterprise, and it prospered the way a good business does; and it ushered in the Cistercian reaction toward simplicity of place and the simplicity not only of life, but also of liturgy, which forced preaching into greater eminence. The Cistercians are still remembered for their ingenuity, for their own inadvertent prosperity.
The ideal of poverty was taken to its greatest limit in the mendicant orders (and the Reformers abolished in their cities not only religious but also secular, vagrant mendicancy). These were they whose labor was entirely intellectual, never strictly physical. They begged long before they lifted a finger to work, though they turned pages readily enough. There is nothing more medieval than a mendicant friar, and yet what could be more classical it its adherence to leisure for the sake of study, and less protestant? Still, what could be less classical in its concern to instruct the average man, and more protestant?
With the New Devotion the use of labor takes on new dignity. We are very close to saying here that to work is to pray. It is devotion for everyman and fully self-supporting. Consider further that when the monasteries of England were closed, the liquor industry began a new age, as the brewing and distilling monks had to scramble for means of income. And Protestantism was as industrious in education as the mendicant orders, continuing the impulse of reform not only beyond the walls of the monasteries, but in a new society entirely devoid of monasteries. So you get a concept of the Christian life in which working is no longer something that humbles you, but it is something virtuous, a part of a healthy Christian life.
You put the concept in the meat grinder of monasticism, the concept that work is for slaves, and you do it to humble and afflict yourself. But when it comes out at the other end, the way European Civilization did, in a Protestant work ethic, the notion is now that we are made to work and that we ought to be busy, to keep active. It went from indignity to a far-reaching, all-embracing dignity, didn’t it? I find it a curious thing, and for some reason it makes me think of this passage: Luke 17:7-10.
But who is there of you, having a servant plowing or keeping sheep, that will say unto him, when he is come in from the field, Come straightway and sit down to meat; and will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink? Doth he thank the servant because he did the things that were commanded? Even so ye also, when ye shall have done all the things that are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants; we have done that which it was our duty to do.