Just this week I finished reading Friend of the Soul: A Benedictine Spirituality of Work by Norvene Vest. Vest is a spiritual director and author who focuses much of her work on Benedictine spirituality. I was looking for some more resources around vocation and calling as I develop a new course called The Religious Dimension of Work, so this work was recommended to me by Chris Smith of the Englewood Review of Books.
Who is this friend referred to in the book’s title? It is work. Through the Rule of St. Benedict, Vest offers that work is to be our friend, a friend of the soul. For me, this was a beautiful, fresh insight!
Not that I don’t already know that work is good and all work of all types can be done to the glory of God. But seeing work as our friend calls us to see it as something very personal, very intimate. Even more, rather than seeing work as something we simply deal with or, worse yet, despise, I have come to better appreciate work as our companion of the soul.
The book addresses three primary categories: 1) vocation, 2) stewardship and 3) obedience. I’ll take a moment to briefly flesh out each of these.
This word is not as familiar today as the word calling. But, as Norvene Vest notes, “The Latin root for vocation is vocare and it means ‘to call.’ In its earliest meaning, the word vocation meant that a person was called by God to his or her work” (18, author’s emphasis). In speaking of God’s call, which gives purpose to our lives and work, Vest recalls Frederick Buechner’s compelling definition of vocation: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” (25). I absolutely love this over-arching perspective on vocation!
Vest provides these reflections especially in light of conflict, competition and production. I’m reminded myself of Henri Nouwen’s own stirring words, “Jesus never asked us to be productive. Jesus asked us to be fruitful.” In the chapter, Vest tells us, “The underlying principle of stewardship is that our work matters to God. Ultimately we work not to fill in the time, nor to make money, but because we are co-creators with God in the unfolding of the world” (67). It is, no doubt, difficult at times to believe that our work truly matters – first to God, then to others. But stewardship holds the idea that God has entrusted us with our work. We can do it well and we can do so to his delight and our own satisfaction.
This may be the most difficult chapter to read. Through the lens of Benedict, we are encouraged to serve in our work as those under authority, even if that authority is unhealthy. We are encouraged to embrace this through the notion of true freedom, which is more about “freedom for something”. . . rather than “freedom from something” (113, author’s emphasis). Of course, in light of Benedictine monastic spirituality, the greatest principle in which we learn the faithfulness of obedience is through community: “We must be obedient, in the sense of listening deeply, not only to God, but also to one another” (116). In all, we are serving (obeying) Christ in our work and we do this best through the support of others.
Let me say this. I’m aware that a book about vocation that flows out of the writings of St. Benedict could seem somewhat irrelevant for those living in the modern world. How can cloistered monastics understand the intricacies of something like 21st century, urban America?
Perhaps Benedict can’t understand all the in’s and out’s. But let me offer that Jesus wouldn’t have understood either, especially in light of his own cultural context. Try not to pull the card out that says, “Jesus knows all because Jesus is God.” As a real human who lived in a real contextual setting, I believe he would offer (did offer) similar directives that are quite foreign to the modern world. Yet we embrace those ancient words; we allow them to teach and guide our lives. So, even as we may contort our faces in frustration at some of the thoughts in this book, let us consider that Benedict’s (and Vest’s) own words can instruct us in understanding God’s purpose in our vocation and work.
I personally look forward to using this book as I develop material around vocation, calling and work.