Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords readers the opportunity to join Dwight Longenecker as he explains the importance of applying St. Benedict’s Rule to the business world. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
It seems a far cry from a sixth-century hermitage to the world of twenty-first century business. But the outlines of Benedict’s life and work speak to our world with great relevance. Benedict was born around the year 480 into a noble and wealthy family. As a young man he was sent to Rome to study.
Shocked by the squalor and depravity of Rome, he fled to the hills of Subiaco just south of the city to follow the hermit’s life. He soon realized that the answer to his own problems and the problems of the world lay not so much in solitary escape as 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 which were based on gentle discipline, strict morality, and a stable sense of order.
Like most of the saints, Benedict was an extremely practical person. He also had a shrewd awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of human nature. We think of Benedictine monasteries as elite houses of prayer or otherworldly refuges from reality.
Benedictine Principles for Business
His eminent practicality makes Benedict’s way of life supremely applicable wherever people live and work together. His principles can be applied to the family, the parish the school, and the workplace. There are four areas of business life and practice in which Benedict’s practical, but spiritual, approach to life comes into play.
The first is in the area of general principles. The general principles of the Benedictine life are summed up in the vows which each Benedictine monk or nun takes. According to the rule they promise to pursue a life of stability, obedience, and conversion of life. This surprises most people who are more familiar with the Franciscan vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The Benedictine vows are more subtle. As the writer Esther de Waal has pointed out, the three vows are totally interwoven so that obedience helps build a stable life and both obedience and stability help to bring about a total conversion of life.
The three traditional vows may seem totally monastic, but underlying them are motivations and meaning which are more universal, and can be become the basic principles for good business practices. The root of the word obedience is the Latin for “listen.” Benedict’s rule is interwoven with constant demands for the 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 person will begin by learning to listen. Once he has listened and learned, the successful manager will continue to listen. He will listen to the market, listen to his suppliers, listen to his customers and listen to his staff. For the Christian in business, listening is also a vital primary skill. The Christian businessman needs to listen to the voice of Spirit speaking through Scripture, through the Church, and through the lives of others. He will listen so that his business life will be an outworking of his Christian values and goals.
The second Benedictine vow is for a life of stability. For the monk, this means promising to remain faithful to one community in one place for life. For the modern business person, the vow of stability points the way to a stable attitude towards business. Stability in the business context means building strong and sure foundations, avoiding unnecessary and foolish risks, and investing for the long-term. Stability amongst staff means investing in training, making the workplace enjoyable, and ensuring that staff remain on board for the long run. Stability in relationship to customers means building a strong and sure customer base, remembering that it is always easier to bring a satisfied customer back, than to win a new customer. For the Christian business person seeking stability in life means building a spiritual life that is disciplined, solid, and sure. Stability means knowing one’s spiritual values and keeping to them 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 business person uses this principle to guide his approach to business. It means being adaptable and ready to change according to the demands of the market and the demands of society. But it means more than that. The business person who is intent on conversion of life will see that it is through his business that he actually has an opportunity to work out his salvation with fear and trembling. His business life is not separated from his spiritual life; it is integrated with his spiritual life.
Furthermore, it may be through his business that he has a real opportunity to convert the world. This is not to turn the workplace into a forum for open evangelization. Instead, it is through the workplace that ethical principles can be introduced and adhered to. It is through the workplace that worker’s lives can be improved. It is through the workplace that people can begin to see that there is more to life than profit.
Therefore, it is through the workplace that real change can be effected in the world. Conversion of life in this context does not 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 one’s world.
People: The Most Valuable Resource
Benedict’s rule is not primarily a treatise on prayer. It is a treatise on living together. However, for Benedict prayer is not separated from living and working together; instead, it is integrated completely with the joys and sorrows of living and working with other people. 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 is the abbot (from abba meaning Father). Benedict takes a chapter to outline the necessary traits of a good abbot, and the principles he lays down are simple and practical for all managers.
The abbot is required to lead with a firm, but loving hand. He is meant to be both “tender as a father and strict as a master.” Furthermore, Benedict’s abbot is one who is aware of the individual needs of each of his charges. He only expects obedience from them because he has first got to know them and listened to their needs. Because he knows the gifts and needs of each one, he does not give all of them the same thing.
Instead, he gives all of them what they need. The wise leader in Benedict’s mould builds his community into an efficient and responsible body in which communication, listening, forgiveness, and mutual obedience are the key. Vital to the whole scheme is the realization that they are not working for their own welfare, neither are they working together simply for the good of the group. Instead, Benedict’s monks are working 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 and a better world.
The third area in which Benedict has something to say to modern businesses is in the management of tools and resources. Benedict famously teaches that the tools and equipment of the monastery are to be treated with the same reverence as the vessels of the altar. Throughout the rule, he encourages his monks to treat material things with care because each natural thing is a gift from God and he has been made the steward. This emphasis on stewardship gives business people the right attitude to their resources whether those resources are computers and office supplies, raw materials for manufacturing, customer goods, or the money of investors.
An old monk told me that when he broke the arm of a fellow novice on the rugby field the novice master scolded him by saying, “Brother, you have broken one of the vessels of the altar.” In other words, people too are a great resource, and the Benedictine minded business person will treat them with the greatest of reverence. Finally, Benedict’s reverence towards the physical world means ethical business people should see themselves as stewards of the world’s resources. They will enact policies that reflect their attitude of stewardship and husbandry of creations’ goodness and will turn away from practices that exploit the world’s people or raw materials simply for a quick buck.
The fourth area of Benedict’s influence is in personal development. Benedict set up a three-fold approach to life. The Benedictine way of life encourages an equal time spent in prayer, reading, and work. Again, this regime sounds totally monastic, but the general principles apply to everyone once their underlying ideas are recognized. We may be very spiritual people, but Benedict reminds us that if all work and no play make Jack a dull boy, then all pray and no work also make him dull.
Life is to be balanced between work, reading (or personal development), and prayer. The widest reading of Benedict’s reverence for reading and prayer will include time for proper recreation and refreshment. If we work all the time and neglect the other aspects of life, then even our work will not be as good as it should be. The balanced person seeks to develop the three areas of work, prayer, and reading. In doing so, he develops his body, his spirit, and his 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.
Benedict the Wise
In so many movies the wise old man is the mentor of the hero. Whether it is Gandalf or Dumbledore or Morpheus in the Matrix movie, the old man is the steward of tradition. He passes on to the next generation the invaluable lessons that time has taught him.
St. Benedict is rightly named the patron of Europe and the father of Western civilization. As we turn to him to learn how to live together, we draw deep from the wells of Western wisdom, and our businesses and our lives will be nurtured and grow not only prosperous but peaceful—and we will become not only wealthy but wise.
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in November 2015.