By Contributor Sr. Teresa Jackson
I hate it when homilists are right. Not just right about interesting pieces of Bible trivia or right in saying nice, affirming things. I hate it when they are right about things that really force me to take a cold, hard look at myself.
Our chaplain here at the monastery gave a homily in which he quoted from a Benedictine abbot (talk about hitting below the belt) who said that busyness can be form of pride. Uh-oh, this isn’t looking good. In fact he linked it to the ancient monastic teaching that pride is one of the patterns of thought that led us away from God, a teaching that evolved into the idea of the seven deadly sins during the Middle Ages.
So why is busyness linked with pride? I’m not sure I remember exactly what he said, and I don’t need to. In many ways I’m an expert on the subject.
When I first came to the monastery one of the greatest struggles I had was that it was an experience of completely starting over. I no longer had my previous identity, no one knew me, what I had previously done or achieved didn’t matter. I had to start over and learn to be a monastic, a Benedictine sister. For those first few years I wanted to wear a sign around my neck: “I used to be a busy, important person.” In starting over I was stripped of my hard-earned sense of being a capable, competent professional. I had to start from scratch and learn all the things that were important about being a monastic, most of which had nothing to do with my previous life.
Now, almost 15 years later, I have regained my sense of being a competent person, but that is not all good. Hard work is a key value in our Benedictine culture. Whether it is our German and Swiss heritage, simply the fact that it takes hard work to keep a monastery functioning or whatever else, we work hard. And, probably unconsciously, we pride ourselves on how hard we work and judge others according to how hard they work.
Maybe it is an unfortunate part of human nature, the need to distinguish ourselves from one another, to judge others. In a monastery it is hard to tell how someone is praying but it is pretty easy to tell (or so we think) how hard someone is working. In a culture where we can’t judge one another by how much money we make, there are no strong indicators of status, we are left with work and busyness as a way to distinguish one another. And this is where pride comes in.
A sister complains about how busy she is and I catch myself thinking “doing what?!” Another seems to be everywhere, always helping with what needs to be done and I find my opinion of her as a “good community member” rising. My opinion isn’t based on who they are as people, whether they are committed to the hard, inner work of transformation in a monastery but on how hard they work at the never-ending tasks that comprise modern, monastic life.
It’s a subtle, tricky trap that creeps up and swallows us. The real hard work that all of us should be doing is what is outlined in the rule and in the Gospels. Benedict was concerned about whether monks were growing in humility, growing into the full stature of Christ. He wanted them to commit to the monastic way of deep service, awareness of God, experiencing compunction that would be transformed into the joy of knowing God. This is the real hard work of monastic life and the life of faith in every tradition. It has nothing to do with how many committees we are on, how many hours we spend in our offices, how many tasks we complete or how hard people think we work. This is the true work of monastic life, the true work of faith.
G.K. Chesterson once said, “It isn’t that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and never tried.”
One could easily apply the same insight to monastic life. The hard work we should really be about will never lead to pride. The hard work of monastic life is that which leads to humility, the profound realization of grace, that when we cling tightly to our work it will turn to ashes in our hands. Our true work is to open our hands in hope, supplication, praise, ready to receive the grace that requires no work on our part.