Faith And Work: The Middle Ages
January 17, 2007 • By Allistair Mackenzie
During the Middle Ages a tension developed between the calling-consciousness of the monk and that self-consciousness which resulted from economic and political advances. Benedict laid down his Rule for a balanced life, including manual labour, intellectual exercise and prayer, in the sixth century. However all this activity is directed to the Opus Dei or ‘Work of God,’ and the place of manual labour is clearly secondary. Nevertheless, a more positive evaluation of manual labour is plainly evident: ‘Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore the brothers should be occupied according to schedule in either manual labour or holy reading ... They are truly monks when they must live by manual labour, as did our fathers and the Apostles.' (Benedict 1975: 86). And this Benedictine influence had a powerful civilising effect.
Previous to the institution of Monasticism labour had been regarded as the symbol of slavery and serfdom, but St. Benedict and his followers taught in the West that lesson of free labour which had first been inculcated by the fathers of the desert. Wherever the monks went, those who were not employed in preaching tilled the ground; thus whilst some sowed in pagan soils the seeds of the Christian faith, others transformed barren wastes and virgin forests into fruitful fields and verdant meadows. This principle of labour was a powerful instrument in the hands of the monastic pioneers, for it attracted to them the common people who learned from the monasteries the secrets of organised work, agriculture, the arts and sciences, and the principles of true government. (Alston 1907: 456)
However, Benedict also warns about the dangers of mastery in art and trade. He urges that any thoughts of pride or accomplishment must be suppressed, and denounces greed and selling things at secular market prices...But, even if...monasticism did try to resist this secularization, it could not stop the development of city economies with their distribution of labour and more planned approaches to working for the common good. And these trends soon led to the development of a higher evaluation of secular work.
For its theological undergirding, this re-evaluation of secular work could also appeal to Basil’s reminder that when the New Testament says that everything should be done for the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31; Col 3:17), this includes all human acitivity.
Nevertheless, there is still a clear division between the classes which deal with spiritual works and those which carry on manual labour. The first are considered more necessary for the well-being of society than the second, because theirs is the ministry of spiritual care. It is recognised however that, if they are to be set free for this spiritual ministry, they must be supported by others. Hence both ranks belong together. It is divine providence which has established various professions to care for the needs of all people.
Yet, although the professions doing manual labour have been drawn into the order of providence, this does not mean that they stand on the same moral and religious level as the higher professions. Even the most progressive medieval theologians who take the world and its work seriously and want to identify every human concern in the overarching order of God’s creation (eg. Aquinas) seem to agree that, while the active have an indispensable service to render, and a service ordered by God, they still do not have a calling in the true sense of the word. The states closest to perfection remain those of the nun, friar and monk.
This is not to suggest that work was rejected. On the contrary, idleness was condemned and work was acclaimed. But although people must work and not dissipate their lives through sloth, religious energy should not be focused on a person’s occupation unless they have a religious vocation. Hence the high calling, the truly religious vocation, is one of contemplation, and other work, especially manual work, has lesser derivative value.
Excerpt from Faith and Work - A Thesis in Pastoral Theology, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand, Dec. 1997 by Alistair Mackenzie. faithatwork.org.nz. Content distributed by HisChurchatWork.org > used for non-profit teaching purposes only.