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Contemplation, Office Politics, & the Rule of Saint Benedict

Contemplation, Office Politics, & the Rule of Saint Benedict

The verb “contemplate” is defined as “looking at or viewing with continued attention; observe or study thoughtfully; to think deeply about; to have a purpose or intent.” Sounds nice. “Politics,” however, is defined as “the use of intrigue or strategy in obtaining any position of power or control, as in business, university, etc.” Pairing these two concepts is like inviting God and the Devil to afternoon tea, or so it seems. We’re very familiar with this feeling, and we’ve seen some pretty hellish behavior in our workplaces, from saints and sinners alike. So it makes sense that an engineer and a pastor would co-author this article, asking the tough questions about why the office seems to be the last place you’d go to cultivate your contemplative life. But go there we must. So let’s look at some alternate ways of viewing this potentially volatile tea party.

To begin, we’re going to ask Satan to step away from the scones and approach the subject in a more positive light. Let’s enter the realm of wonder for a moment and ask a few “what if?” questions:

What if the tensions between contemplation and office politics could be viewed in a different way?
What if we could look beyond the labels of power and control that show up in both business and religion?
What if business life and contemplative life could coexist without proselytizing or controlling behavior?
What happens when control is surrendered to God and others?
In exploring these questions, we’ve found some answers in an unlikely place: in a set of rules set forth by our favorite sixth-century monk, Saint Benedict.

New Eyes, Ancient Roots – Life as Prayer

The Rule of St Benedict lays out a different way to look at work. Benedict believed that all work is prayer. ALL work is prayer. Really. In Benedict’s time, agrarian work was labor intensive, repetitive, and an invitation for the mind to wander. Benedict encouraged a practice of using this time to contemplate God in all circumstances. Our modern society has replaced tilling the land with plowing through spreadsheets of budget reports and profit analysis—arguably equally intense, repetitious, and an invitation for the mind to wander. But before you R.S.V.P. to that invitation, consider inviting yourself to enter a contemplative mindset instead, even in the workplace.

Benedictine nun, author, and speaker Joan Chittister writes in Wisdom Distilled from the Daily:

“Work is purposeful and perfecting and valuable. It is not a time-filler or a money maker or a necessary evil. We work because the world is unfinished and it is ours to develop. We work with a vision in mind. After the person with a Benedictine soul has been there, the world ought to be a little closer to the way the kingdom will look.” [1]

Chittister is a Benedictine after Benedict’s own heart. In looking at work as prayer, the politics of work become more about awareness of how God is working through the task than about how we can control outcomes. And, as such, our work becomes an active stance of “Thy will be done, Thy kingdom come.”

Office Politics: Teams vs. Community

The balance of power associated with office politics reaches beyond the individual to the entire community. Benedict valued the integrity of the community and taught that all actions were to uphold the greater good. To that end, team building is a popular, well-established concept in the American workplace. An outing to a bowling alley, bar, or sporting event with the tab picked up by the company gives employees an opportunity to interact with one another on a more social level. As a business-sponsored event, expectations of professionalism and a possible shadow of work dynamics, such as letting the boss win at golf, are commonplace and healthy. Team-building activities help to form a cohesive unit within the group outside a typical work environment that will, hopefully, improve working relationships inside the building.

As contemplatives, we can take this a step further. Benedict was not about building just a team; he was about creating a real community. Benedict’s Rule was written as a practice or school of life with God at the center. The instructors in this school were the community itself. Learning how to work together not from a top-down approach but a listening, discerning, in-community approach with a central focus and some structure is why this Rule has been influential for over 1500 years. The word “community” is not as commonly associated with business, as it invokes a higher level of connection than the notion of “team.” But business communities help to create an environment where the boss not only loses at golf graciously and without retaliation, but perhaps takes a few pointers from his or her subordinates. In community, mutual respect and empowerment become commonplace. This is the type of community Benedict spoke of. He taught that community is about listening to God together, without attaching what is heard to any specific doctrine or religiosity. Of course, few corporations could outwardly adopt a religious overtone to their business environment without the fear of alienating employees. But the Rule of Benedict as applied to business encourages individuals to listen to God each in her or his own way, without specific requirements or proselytizing. How one listens is discerned in the community.

Within Benedictine spirituality, community is not a form to be managed but a living entity. Again, Chittister explains the concept well in her book The Rule of St Benedict:

“The concept is clear: people are not acquitted of their responsibility for their own souls. Personal decisions are still decisions, personal judgments are still judgments, free will is still free will.” [2]

This type of community is not just a “group think” approach where everyone just blindly goes along with everyone else. Each person is encouraged to bring their own thoughts and beliefs to the table. Community is about learning how to move forward together for the common good and not because someone higher up told them to. This way everyone is part of the bigger goal.

Office Politics and Obedience

Theologians tend to explain away the evils of the world as a byproduct of free will: this evil world is filled with humans turning away from God, making amoral choices, and living nasty, secular lives gone terribly wrong. This Hobbesian view is a short slide down from the negative image associated with the word “politics.” However, politics are not inherently evil. Politics have elevated humans from beating one another with sticks to get their way, to using ideas, words, and concepts as a means to the same end. As such, office politics are also not inherently evil (thankfully so, because HR tends to frown on stick beatings!)

One of Benedict’s Rules is based on developing a listening heart, which is by his definition, an obedient heart. “Listen carefully, my child, to my instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from one who loves you; welcome it and faithfully put it into practice.”(Rule of Benedict, prologue) This is how Benedict defined politics. A listening heart holds a stance of mutual obedience from the youngest to the oldest members of the community. The blessing of obedience is not only something that everyone ought to show the monastic leader, but that all people should offer to one another. “We know that we will go to God by this path of obedience.” (RB, 71:1) Benedict’s obedience applied in a business community would not flow in a single, hierarchal direction; it would be open to peer or even subordinate-inspired obedience. The business organization itself is respected and treated as an entity, with equal respect granted to each member of the community.

If the word “obedience” is bothersome to you, keep in mind society is already obeying and serving a lot of entities without acknowledging it. Every day begins with obedience to the voices in our own heads—no matter how cruel they may be, followed by unspoken family rules, traffic rules, etc. Most of us obey the status quo, consciously or unconsciously. As contemplatives, we strive to live consciously. Contemplatives in the workplace might even call themselves conscious workers. We try pay attention to a bigger picture. So, once we acknowledge our obedience to human-crafted rules and dogma, it’s not as difficult to offer obedience to God. An obedient heart is open to stillness and willing to hear God’s whispers, even within the business environment.

A Life of Practice

In Benedictine spirituality, work is done to continue God’s work. What better place to practice the spiritual walk than in the office? Approaching work with an obedient heart shifts the emphasis away from political power struggles to a place where real power comes from remembering why the job is being done in the first place. This all sounds great, but we know it’s easier said than done. How exactly can we to participate in our workplace communities, office politics notwithstanding, in a God-like way? We can start by listening to our coworkers. Joan Chittister points out that Benedict taught us that God “wants holy listeners who care about the effect of what they do on everybody else” and asks us to “imagine a world that was run by holy listeners.” [3] If you set an example in your workplace by patiently listening to your colleagues, chances are they’ll begin to listen better as well. Of course, we can’t control what others will do, but individual, personal behavior undoubtedly has an impact on the whole community.

A Benedictine community allows individuals to grow, explore, and question while upholding the sanctity of the community. The community must have enough flexibility to allow for the diversity of individuals. Even in Benedict’s rules exceptions were always made for outliers (in his day, the old and the young) for the sake of the community as a whole. In a business environment, diversity of opinions, nationality, sexuality, religion, gender, even education is the norm. This diversity is not only a reality. It serves an important business function. A business operates to provide a good or service to a clientele that is probably just as diverse. Benedict’s rules as applied to business invite the individual to think more deeply about the whole office community.

Asking Questions
What if the question you ask each day as you go to work isn’t how to do battle or play the game or get to the top, but “how do I listen to the Divine in the reality of this situation?” If you find yourself chatting up the character flaws of your colleagues and you think God is chiming in in agreement, you might need to be asking yourself more questions. Anne Lamont famously jokes that when God hates the same people she does, she begins to question the validity of the internal voice. A practical implementation of office contemplation might look like this: when you complain about Sally or Samir, do you see God listening intently as you complain? Do you see God smile and suddenly think to yourself that your colleagues are also God’s children? Do you immediately become the righteous sibling dictating to a parent of the imminent punishment needed to reign in these siblings? Or do you practice contemplation and listen as God reminds you of some of your own trespasses?

Benedict’s fundamental rules of humility help us to first look in the mirror before complaining or blaming. In the 7th chapter he lays out a ladder of humility with twelve steps one may only ascend with humility. “Now the ladder erected is our life on earth, and if we humble our hearts the Lord will raise it to heaven. We may call our body and soul the sides of this ladder, into which our driven vocation has fitted the various steps of humility and discipline as we ascend.” (RB, 7) Each step of this ladder helps the one climbing keep their eyes on the goal, relationship with God, through such acts as not always acting on the need to say something and learning to do less exciting jobs with integrity and enthusiasm. The community is held paramount when the individual notices that every time you point the finger of blame at another, you’ve got three fingers pointing back at yourself. Do you pray for your colleagues asking nothing in return? Do you pray for their families? Do you tell God how hard this life of contemplation is? Bringing contemplation into the workplace involves a willingness to be in communication throughout the day with your God and your coworkers.

On a daily basis, many businesses contend with very real, fundamental problems related to the scarcity of resources. The strategy of obtaining control of these resources can be very mundane. Budgets and headcounts are the usual pawns in inter-departmental jockeying. More heads or expansion of the individual’s budget has consequences on the business as a whole. Allowing contemplation to enter into a space traditionally devoid of humility transforms the dilemma. Does the plea for additional resources include serious thought about how this decision affects others? Benedict understood this concept and created rules for a healthy community to function based on the needs of the community:

It is written: “Distribution was made as each had need” (Acts 4:35). By this we do not imply that there should be favoritism – God forbid – but rather consideration for weaknesses. Whoever needs less should thank God and not be distressed, but those who need more should feel humble because of their weakness, not self –important because of the kindness shown them. In this way all the members will be at peace. (RB, 34)

The Politics of Giving and Receiving

When work and life are seen from a contemplative perspective, one tends to become more giving. Every day is an invitation to surrender and experience the gift of grace and Divine love. What is practiced for ourselves is done for the community. Christine Valtners Paintner writes about work in this way:

“Work, if you don’t approach it consciously, will suck us into its demand. Then we become slaves, no matter how high up we are on the ladder…Even people who have jobs they don’t like and find meaningless can still be free within them…by reminding themselves deliberately and often, why they do them. As long as we do work out of love for those who we love, we do it for a good reason. Love is the best reason for our labors. Love makes what we do and suffer rise like music, like a souring line of a chant. “[4]

Even if a job isn’t the dream job, meaning can be found in how it allows the individual to provide for their family or do what they are passionate about outside the workplace. They can show up to work with a grateful heart even if they find it mundane and boring (or their coworkers are getting on their last nerve!) Life is more than the task of the job. Working with a higher purpose also helps each person discern next steps and not get sucked into daily demands and expectations.

A listening heart in a business community is open to the possibility that all work is prayer. One’s prayer to God can also be felt through one’s output in a cubical farm—our modern day agrarian society. This business community is elevated from a hierarchical team structure to that of a diverse organism, allowing for individual growth, when leadership recognizes the value of each individual. Contemplation invites us to see the consequences of unilateral decisions and opens us to the potential of dialogue. Benedictine humility and obedience offer new rules for office politics. Control jockeying and power plays can be positively transformed by inviting a conversation with God into the daily routine.

Remember, contemplation and office politics are not necessarily about a battle of Good over Evil. Over time, contemplation slowly reveals that the answers are not as important as the questions.

[1] Joan Chittister, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the rule of St Benedict Today. (SanFrancisco: HarperOne, 1991) 86.

[2] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century. (New York: Crossroad, 2010) p 36.

[3] Chittister, The Rule of Benedict, 42

[4] Christine Valtners Paintner, The Artist’s Rule: nurturing your creative soul with monastic wisdom. (Notre Dame: Sorin Books, 2011) 140-141.

 

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Contemplation, Office Politics, and the Rule of Saint Benedict

Amanda Peterson
Amanda Peterson

Amanda Petersen, M. Div., is the owner of Pathways of Grace: spiritual direction and workshops and has experience as a pastor within the Presbyterian and United Church of Christ denominations, hospice chaplain, spiritual director, life coach, and artist. She has led many workshops and retreats in the areas of spirituality, creativity, meditation, and the mystics. She is adjunct faculty at the Arizona Ecumenical Institute for Spiritual Direction and adjunct spiritual director at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale, Arizona. Her passion is creating a safe place for people of all backgrounds to explore their contemplative walk. For more information visit http://www.pathwaysofgrace.com