Mike Garside didn’t know what he was getting into. Easing his BMW off the busy main road connecting the boom towns of Reading and Newbury in southeast England, he felt he might be wasting the weekend. He could be spending the time at work or with his family. But here he was, on his way to a Benedictine monastery for a weekend retreat for business professionals that his wife and his parish priest had encouraged him to attend.
What can Benedictine monks possibly teach me about how to live and work in the “real world,” he wondered? Aren’t the Benedictines hopelessly out-of-date, their monasteries romantic replicas of a long-gone medieval world?
But over the weekend, Mike changed his mind. Since then, he has applied what he learned not only in the workplace but at home and in his life generally. And the new insight he gained not only improved his professional life but enlivened and deepened his Catholic faith.
Many business professionals like Mike are signing up to take one of a burgeoning number of Benedictine business training programs offered in England. These programs claim to teach business professionals how to be more successful by applying the Rule of St. Benedict to their business dealings.
Twenty-first-century business seems a far cry from a sixth-century hermitage. Nevertheless, the principles of Benedict’s life and work speak well to the modern world.
Benedict was born around the year 480 into a noble family. As a young man, he was sent to Rome to study. Shocked by the squalor and depravity of the city, he fled south, to the hills of Subiaco, to follow the hermit’s life. He soon realized that the answer to his own problems and the problems of the world was to be found not in solitary escape but in laying the foundations of a society based on prayer.
The Roman Empire had crumbled by Benedict’s time, and in the midst of collapsing institutions, moral decay, and social chaos, Benedict established religious communities based on gentle discipline, strict morality, and a well-ordered routine. Drawing on earlier monastic writings, Benedict crafted a rule that lays down the principles of Christian community life. The Rule of St. Benedict is a classic of Christian spirituality, and the fact that it’s still followed by monks and nuns 1,500 years after its composition shows its abiding relevance.
The rule is not so much a spiritual treatise as a practical guide for living with others. It gives detailed instructions on the monks’ liturgical life, but it also provides down-to-earth guidelines for the proper qualities of an abbot, prior, and cellarer (the leaders of the community). It outlines how the monks must constantly listen, respect, and forgive one another and the attitude they should have toward material things. The monks are not allowed personal property. But unlike St. Francis of Assisi, St. Benedict did not espouse complete poverty. The Benedictine community may hold wealth and property in common, and this property is to be treated with care, restraint, and reverence. In a famous line, Benedict noted that the vessels of the kitchen must be treated with the same reverence as the vessels of the altar.
Throughout his rule, St. Benedict emphasized the importance of everyday duties. For Benedict, the spiritual life was not a great ascetic ascent to holiness. Instead, holiness is found in the routine, the mundane, and the ordinary. This is not just the theory of a practically minded person. Seeing the spiritual within the ordinary is incarnational and therefore a deeply Christian way of regarding the world. Benedict believed that God is nearer to us than we imagine. He’s there in the everyday duties, and paying close attention to our ordinary tasks is the best way to find Him.
Benedictine Principles for Business
Benedict’s eminent practicality makes his way of life applicable wherever people live and work together. His principles can be applied to the family, the parish, the school, and the workplace.
The Rule of St. Benedict provides us with four general principles for success in business.
Principle #1: Every successful business begins with a strong foundation.
The principles of Benedictine life are summed up in the vows each monk or nun takes. According to the rule, Benedictines promise to pursue a life of stability, obedience, and conversion. This is surprising to most people who are more familiar with the Franciscan vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The Benedictine vows are more subtle. As writer Esther de Waal points out, they’re interwoven: Obedience creates stability, and both obedience and stability bring about a total conversion of life.
The Benedictine vows may seem solely monastic, but underlying them are universal motivations and meaning that can become the basic principles for good business practice. Benedict’s rule is interwoven with constant demands for a monk to listen. Indeed, the first word of the rule is “listen.” So the vow to obedience becomes the demand to listen. Every successful business professional must learn to listen — to the market, his suppliers, his customers, and his staff. The Christian businessman must listen to the voice of the Spirit speaking through Scripture, the Church, and the lives of others. He will listen so that his business life will be an extension of his Christian values and goals.
For a monk, the second Benedictine vow — a life of stability — means promising to remain faithful to one community in one place for life. For the modern businessman, the vow of stability means building strong and sure foundations, avoiding unnecessary and foolish risks, and investing for the long. For his employees, a manager must invest in their training, make the workplace enjoyable, and ensure that they remain on board for the long run. Maintaining stability in his relationships with customers means building a strong customer base, remembering that it’s always easier to bring a satisfied customer back than to win a new one. For the Christian businessperson, seeking stability means building a solid, disciplined spiritual life and knowing and holding to one’s spiritual values despite the pressures of competition and a constantly shifting marketplace.
Finally, the vow to conversion of life means the Benedictine monk or nun pursues a life dedicated to total conversion into the image of Christ. The businessman who is intent on conversion of life will see that it’s through his business that he can work out his salvation with fear and trembling. His business life is not separate from but integrated with his spiritual life. It may be through his business that he has a real opportunity to convert the world. This doesn’t mean the workplace can be made into a forum for open evangelization. Instead, ethical principles can be introduced and adhered to in the workplace; worker’s lives can be improved; and people can begin to see that there’s more to life than profit. Conversion of life in this context doesn’t mean a subjective “conversion experience” but the gradual, dogged, and determined conversion not only of one’s own personal life but the life of one’s whole community and world.
Principle #2: People are your most valuable resource.
Again, Benedict’s rule is not primarily a manual on prayer — it’s a treatise on living with others. However, for Benedict, prayer is inseparable from living and working in community; it’s integrated completely with life’s joys and sorrows. The second area in which Benedictine principles have a bearing on business is therefore in personnel management. In Benedict’s monasteries, men of all social classes were thrown together in equal partnership. Men with hugely varied gifts and personalities were joined together in an effective team. The leader of this team was the abbot (from abba, meaning “Father”). Benedict takes a chapter of his rule to outline the necessary traits of a good abbot.
The abbot must lead with a firm but loving hand. He is meant to be both “tender as a father and strict as a master.” Benedict’s abbot is aware of the individual needs of each of his charges and directs each of them according to this knowledge. He only expects obedience from the other monks because he has first gotten to know them. The wise leader in Benedict’s mold builds his community into an efficient and responsible body in which communication, listening, forgiveness, and mutual obedience are essential. He teaches them that they’re not working for their own welfare (or simply for the good of the group) but for a greater good — the glory of God. Likewise, the modern manager helps workers to see that no matter how mundane their task, it can be part of a larger team effort, not only to help them all get richer but also to help build a better society.
Principle #3: Treat all your material resources as gifts from god.
The third area in which Benedict has something to say to modern business is the management of tools and resources. Throughout his rule, Benedict encouraged his monks to treat material things with care because each natural thing is a gift from God for which the recipient has been made the steward. This emphasis on stewardship gives businessmen the right attitude toward their resources — computers, office supplies, raw materials for manufacturing, customer goods, and the money of investors.
They’ll enact policies that reflect their attitude of stewardship and husbandry of creation’s goodness and will turn away from practices that exploit people or natural resources simply for a quick buck.
Principle #4: Transform yourself to transform your workplace.
The fourth area of Benedict’s influence is in personal development. Benedict encouraged monks to spend equal time praying, reading, and working. This develops the body, spirit, and mind. As one is developed the other two are also fed and nourished, so the person who prays and reads will work better, and the person who works well will read and pray with more vigor, direction, and meaning. If we work all the time and neglect the other aspects of life, then our work simply won’t be as good as it could be.
One might wonder why the Benedictine monks have turned to business training. Could it be a rather shallow attempt to be “relevant”? While some monasteries are thriving, many more are not attracting new vocations.
In England, the monks have traditionally run large boarding schools, but the need for such expensive private schools is disappearing. The monasteries have huge grounds, old buildings, and dwindling resources, and it’s ever more difficult to make ends meet. Is the trend for conference centers, retreats, hospitality centers, and Benedictine business training simply a desperate ploy to bring in much-needed cash? The retreats are not cheap: A business weekend at Ampleforth can cost as much as $350. The “Spirituality in the Workplace” series at Douai Abbey costs about $700.
Furthermore, how many in the world of business really care about the Rule of St. Benedict? “So far we have not had difficulty filling places,” Dom Dermot Tredget of Douai Abbey said. “There is a strong interest, especially from people who are engaged on a ‘spiritual journey’ or want to find out more for their own professional development.”
Spirituality in the workplace certainly seems to be the going trend. There are “urban shamans” who visit companies for a fee to eliminate their competitors’ bad vibes, cast spells, and pronounce blessings for success. Feng Shui experts tell businesses where to locate, how to build their headquarters, and where to place everything from the potties to the potted plants. Companies are even relying on the advice of astrologers and fortune-tellers as well as employing “stress busters” to give hugs and backrubs. Are the Benedictine monks setting up another stall in the gaudy marketplace of postmodern spirituality?
There are many dubious practitioners of spirituality in the public square, Dom Dunston O’Keeffe of the St. Bede Center said. “All the more reason for us to offer some sound, practical input which is traditional and deeply Christian.” O’Keeffe sees business training as a way to inform others about monasticism and the Benedictine tradition, but he also hopes it will show people how practical Christianity can be. It might even attract some new vocations to the monastery.
“No one has joined the community as a direct result of coming on these retreat workshops,” Father Tredget said. “However, participants say they are spiritually nourished by their 48 hours of monastic experience. This experience has caused a number of lapsed Catholics to return to the Church. Other non-Catholics are undergoing instruction to become Catholics. What people see is an alternative way of living that is faithful to Christ’s teaching and works.
“In addition, we have four monks in our formation program at present and all of them have come from the world of secular employment,” Tredget told me. “I think people are attracted to our form of monastic life because they see that we are faithful to the core teaching and values of the Rule of St. Benedict. Yet, at the same time, we are also relevant to the 21st century.”
Tredget makes a good point. The Benedictine way of life has survived because the monks have been immensely adaptable. They’ve always understood the relevance of Benedict’s principles and have been ready to apply those principles wherever they’ve happened to live. From the first monks who set up communes to the great monastic powerhouses of the Middle Ages to the Cistercians colonizing and cultivating land nobody else wanted, the Benedictines have been smart and shrewd operators for the kingdom.
We’d be wise to imitate them.
This article originally appeared in the March 2002 issue of Crisis Magazine.