Nearly 15 years after spending a summer at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Connecticut living alongside its Benedictine nuns, Jane Sloan Peters still recalls the tinge of frustration she would feel when the bells tolled, signalling the need to set aside work and head to prayer.
‘I’m the kind of person that wants to just complete something before I move on to something else. And we couldn’t, you know. We had to stop weeding the hill halfway through and go up’ for prayer, she said. ‘And then, you know, maybe you could go back to the task, or maybe it would be time for something else.’
While monks and nuns may interrupt their work to keep the prayer hours of their day, stopping a task at a predetermined time is a common mainstream productivity practice.
Jeroen Kraaijenbrink, a strategy expert and business consultant in Amsterdam, uses the method himself.
‘You stop when the bell rings, and preferably that’s right in the middle of something, because when you stop right in the middle of something, it’s much easier to start again,’ he told OSV News. ‘It's kind of a time management aspect of the monastery life that makes you very productive.’
In the world of time management, monasticism has been touted as a source of tools for achieving a desired lifestyle. Headlines in Forbes, Fast Company, Business Insider and elsewhere in 2023 highlighted the productivity hack of going ‘monk mode’—a period (hours to weeks) of deeply focused work, often particularly free of social media. While at least a decade old, the idea appears to have had a resurgence, and alludes to monks in either Western or Eastern religious traditions.
Kraaijenbrink himself drew from the Rule of St Benedict for his 2019 book No More Bananas: How to Keep Your Cool in the Collective Madness. Unlike his other strategy-focused books, he said No More Bananasbelongs in the self-help genre and grew out of his personal efforts to find peace in a world that often feels ‘out of control.’
In the world of time management, monasticism has been touted as a source of tools for achieving a desired lifestyle.
Kraaijenbrink and others, however, are sceptical about approaches that aim to reduce monastic wisdom to techniques and ‘hacks.’ Rather, that wisdom is rooted in principles and practice, he said. In his own search, he spent time in a nearby Benedictine monastery, and said he still draws on what he learnt—the importance of obedience, practising silence and speaking less.
‘It’s not about the grand gestures,’ Kraaijenbrink said. ‘It’s about living life in a humble way’ with appropriate flexibility—an approach that might resonate with people as they consider how to shape their lives in 2024.
St Benedict of Nursia (480–547) and other monastic fathers and mothers were concerned with using time well. Often considered the father of Western monasticism, St Benedict outlined the monastic day in his rule, organising periods for individual and communal prayer, sleeping, eating, spiritual reading and study, and manual labour. The rule—often summarised as ‘ora et labora’, prayer and work—continues to shape the rhythms of Benedictine monks and nuns, as well as Trappists and Cistercians.
It’s not about the grand gestures. It’s about living life in a humble way.
Fr Christian Raab, a Benedictine monk of St Meinrad Archabbey in southern Indiana, suspects the ubiquity of the smartphone and the upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic have kindled new interest in monastic habits as a potential panacea for widespread challenges.
The smartphone has ‘heightened the level of our distraction significantly,’ he told OSV News. ‘It’s a wonderful tool that connects us to so many things. It can also rob us of our interiority. And so, we’re never bored; instead we’re scrolling. We don’t take the time to be reflective. Some people get addicted to various things on their phones and they end up feeling like a slave.’
Meanwhile, pandemic-related upheaval also prompted many people to re-evaluate their priorities and ‘question the rat race’, said Father Raab, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at St Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, and Associate Pastor of St Joseph Parish in Jasper, Indiana.
‘I think it’s the call of freedom that attracts people to monasticism,’ he said. ‘They want more freedom from distraction and noise.’
He thinks, however, that some time-management approaches that highlight monks romanticise monasticism, or are founded in a vision of monasticism that doesn’t actually exist.
Monasticism is a form of religious life, and as such, it includes prayer, community, service and the proclamation of the kingdom, he said, noting that Benedictines have the particular value of stability and charism of hospitality.
I think it’s the call of freedom that attracts people to monasticism. They want more freedom from distraction and noise.
‘That’s what I think the right definition is, but if you talk to most people, what they mean by monasticism—they’re thinking mostly in terms of people who leave the world and are really trying to make a break from noise and distraction in order to perhaps heighten their spiritual connection,’ he said.
While the ‘fuga mundi’, or ‘flight from the world’, is an aspect of monasticism that allows monks to pursue God in a more concentrated way, Father Raab said, ‘it’s perhaps not as total as some people on the outside imagine it is, or it characterises maybe part of our day, or certain phases of our life, like the novitiate.’
If an aspect of monasticism deserves more attention, it’s stability, Father Raab said.
‘We have a very rootless, mobile society and … it's really culturally impoverished and people feel that,’ he said. ‘I think they’re depressed by the fact that every stop on the [highway] looks exactly the same. People just want a richer experience of community and culture and identity.’
Kraaijenbrink said listening well is another monastic practice worth adopting.
‘As a consultant, as a mentor, one of the key skills is listening, and not just listening to the words, but being very sensitive to also what is not said,’ he said. That also applies to what one hears interiorly, he added.
‘We have a very rootless, mobile society ... People just want a richer experience of community and culture and identity.
Likewise, he applies ‘lectio divina’—a way of slowly reading and rereading, open to divine inspiration through a text, usually Scripture—to all reading, including social media.
‘Whenever you read a post, don’t just scroll to the next one, but wait until something really resonates. Stop, let it sink in, so that way, even social media can be used in a Benedictine fashion,’ Kraaijenbrink said.
Peters, now Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Mount St Vincent in Riverdale, New York, said her time at the Abbey of Regina Laudis helped her connect prayer and work.
‘The stuff you’re doing with your hands and the things you’re giving attention to can inform and give a kind of a shape to your spiritual life,’ she said. Pulling garden weeds, for example, makes space to ask ‘What does it look like to pull the weeds in your heart? Your imagination is fuelled in very concrete ways to bring that back to your spiritual life.’
The stuff you’re doing with your hands and the things you’re giving attention to can inform and give a kind of a shape to your spiritual life.
Peters’ experience also influences how she thinks of time and interruption. She aims to better accept interruption for the purposes of prayer or charity—an approach she finds especially helpful as the mother of two young sons.
‘It proposes a kind of humility,’ she said, ‘like, what you’re doing right now is important, and there are things that are more important, and you’re kind of putting your work in its proper perspective in the grand scheme of things.’
This story is an abridged version of the original story published on OSV News.
Banner image: A Cistercian monk is pictured in a file photo reading from a Bible in the dining hall at Santa Maria Abbey in Nunraw, Scotland. (Photo: OSV News/Jeff J Mitchell, for Reuters.)
Lucy Davison11 July 2023
Andrea Cano Botero27 September 2023