The monastic idea is to devote one’s entire attention to God. Doing so during the Middle Ages meant turning against the frivolous distractions of the world and concentrating fully on God, writes Jamie Kreiner in The Wandering Mind: What Medieval Monks Tell Us About Distraction (Liveright, 2023).
Various monasteries and individual monastics (both women and men) used multiple techniques for achieving singular attention. Some practices were extreme. Plenty of monastic types, like most of us, had some amount of attention disorder. The common monastic practice of a daily regimen of prayer, chores, and sleep could be helpful. It was often adopted, with modification, among laypeople within and around the monastery. In fact, the monastic model of spirituality in part guides many Christians to this day.
The premise of an otherworldly monasticism, however, needs to be challenged. Contemporary monks have long recognized the need to adapt.
Is God really found away from the hustle and bustle? Scripture does not depict a remote God. Think about it. The entire saga of salvation history could have ended when Eve and Adam took their easterly walk away from the garden. Had God not followed them into the imperfect world, the story would have been quite brief. Soon enough, though, God was involved in family discord, matchmaking, territory decisions, military strategy, animal husbandry, and lots more.
The entire Incarnation, to read what Christians call the New Testament, is the story of God within our broken world. Scripture tells us about Joseph neglecting motel reservations in Bethlehem on a holiday weekend, about newlywed friends of the Holy Couple miscalculating their wine order, about fishing expeditions, about struggles with chronic illness, about political oppression and many other elements common to daily life.
Yes, sometimes Scripture reveals God breaking through normal routines and expectations. God is miraculous. Yes, Scripture often suggests a short retreat from the world—often to a mountain. But God is here, right now, Tuesday afternoon, lurking within the mundane emails, the crabby coworkers, the wonder of a child, the poor near the train station, the hectic pace in the hospital, and the neighborly encounter.
But how? Tasks must be completed, dinner prepared, children picked up, buses to catch, calls to make, notes to type. The word spirituality can be rendered as discipline. Anything done regularly that puts one in contact with the transcendent is spirituality. Just as in the Middle Ages, attuning to God requires practice. In our day and age, as St. John Paul II (1920–2005) recommended, a “Christian spirituality of work should be a heritage shared by all.” A contemporary spirituality means alertness to the extraordinary amid the ordinary. It means to sharpen one’s analogical or sacramental imagination.
Keep in mind that a spirituality of work does not mean that people are consciously aware of God at every single minute. A busy person correctly makes God their intention in the morning and then spends some moments late in the day recalling when and how God was on the scene unawares.
Keep in mind, too, that confident holiness is not needed before one starts the day or the month. As the monasteries understood, holiness is a byproduct of action. Simply be alert during one’s commute, stay tuned-in during class, double-check the email before hitting send, and apologize to the coworker with whom you have been brusque. If you are on a picket line, keep walking. You might become holy. If your presentation is weak, keep researching. You might become holy. If your office is dysfunctional, stop the gossip and gather others for reform. You might become holy, and discover some specific elements to a “spirituality of work.” ♦
William Droel is the editor of Initiatives, a printed newsletter on faith and work (sign up for a free subscription here), and the author of Monday Eucharist, available from the National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $7).