“Be always employed in something useful,” wrote young Benjamin Franklin, promoting the virtue of industry and discouraging the wasting of time.
“Cut off all unnecessary actions.” Surely, though, he did not intend that we maintain a perpetual busy-ness just for its own sake. After all, as Thoreau pointed out, “It is not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. What are you industrious about?”
Franklin undoubtedly meant that we should keep engaged in activities that make us productive members of society, that advance our prosperity and improve our character. Probably of less consideration in his era was the more contemporary notion that our work should also be personally meaningful – in other words, it should nourish our soul.
“Idleness is an enemy of the soul,” reads The Rule of St. Benedict for monastic living, written twelve hundred years before Franklin created his list of thirteen virtues. Though we usually think of the monastic life as contemplative and spiritual, St. Benedict believed that ora et labora – prayer and work – formed a partnership of labor that not only engaged, but united both body and spirit.
For the Benedictine monks, if undertaken in the right frame of mind, there was a humbling, spiritually nourishing aspect to work. Being “always employed in something useful” in this way then becomes more than just productivity, and worship becomes more than just “making long prayers filled with flatteries and compliments,” as Franklin once complained. The right labor performed in the right spirit becomes a form of worship – or, for the less religious, a form of meditation. Either way, bringing a kind of prayerful focus to our productivity adds a more meaningful dimension to it.
When I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid-1980s I spent more than a year working full-time at the home of my friend, mentor, and professor, a medievalist named George Tuma. He had hired me to help him with what I gradually realized would be the never-ending process of remodeling his home. I was a complete novice at carpentry – my previous experience wielding a hammer had been limited to putting together a few prefabricated bookcases – but that wasn’t important to him; I would acquire the basic skills quickly enough, he knew.
What was important to him was that I understood the spirit of the project and brought the proper attitude for an apprenticeship.
I quickly realized that this project had more in common with the construction of a cathedral than the typical home remodeling. In the Middle Ages, the erection of a cathedral was a Herculean endeavor that often took hundreds of years and involved, in one way or another, most of the community. It was possible to work one’s entire adult life on one of those extraordinary edifices of soaring stone arches and resplendent glass and see neither its beginning nor its completion, but its purpose was grander than any one person. Participating in raising this holy monument toward heaven, then, was a centuries-long labor of humility, devotion, and spiritual satisfaction for generations of individuals and the community as a whole.
Like the cathedral builders and monks of the Middle Ages, the medievalist George Tuma had undertaken a project that was a similar act of daily ora et labora, albeit on a much more modest and personal scale than that of a cathedral, of course. From replacing the Spanish tiles on the roof of his single-level home to crafting a skylight to making and hanging doors, George saw the ongoing construction and remodeling of his home as a lifelong partnership of prayer and industry, a reflection of the Benedictine imperative to combine both. He never intended for the work ever to be “finished” – there was always something to add or change or perfect – because that work was George’s daily devotion. Each morning that he wasn’t teaching he went to work on his home with a commitment of body and soul that was as spiritually meaningful to him as if he were constructing a cathedral.
That was the spirit of his project, and that’s what I had been invited to participate in, and to learn from.
Mine was an apprenticeship not only in the craft of carpentry, but in this monastic focus. In his bestseller Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew B. Crawford shied away from acknowledging that there is a mystical dimension to craftsmanship, but anyone who has experienced the “flow” resulting from focused manual labor knows that that dimension is part of the “soulcraft,” and knows how satisfying it is.
Eventually I moved on from George’s house and out of the San Francisco Bay Area as well, but he continued teaching and working on his house until he passed away several years ago. The lessons of that apprenticeship stayed with me: to not only make my Franklinesque busy-ness productive but to bring to it a Benedictine commitment of body, mind and soul that make it spiritually meaningful.