Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Laborious Theology

Here, a final look at the question I've posed: what would it mean for theologians to learn from the Cistercian commitment to an "ordinary, obscure, and laborious" life? In this third meditation, specifically, how (and why?) might theologians seek to be "laborious"?

Perhaps we should admit at the beginning that there hardly seems to be a need to address this at all. Despite the continued perceptions that those involved in study and teaching aren't "really working," most of the theologians I know are incredibly busy. Class preparation, reading, writing, meetings with professors, meetings with students, job applications, tenure applications, work connected with conferences and the larger guild, email, committee meetings, collaborations of various forms, Facebook, and a thousand other projects—almost all of them very worthwhile. I myself have now begun to participate in the following ritual of greeting: "How are you?" "Busy!" "Right!" [exchange of wan, knowing smiles]

There is only one problem here. The Cistercians have not urged us to be "busy," but rather to be "laborious." And discerning the distinction between the two makes all the difference. Great spiritual masters have long spoken of simplicity, focus, an inner unity of purpose that marks the movement toward holiness. It is, in other words, the very opposite of distractedness, dividedness, and confusion. It is the opposite of "busy."

This is not to say, of course, that the one who labors does so effortlessly. As is often noted, this word for "work" is also the word we use for bringing a baby into the world. Surely we all know that this involves a little effort, and—almost always—suffering. As those who have experienced "good labor" can attest, though, this effort and suffering can be attended by a profound sense of focus and of purpose. Indeed, in moments of intense pain, the greatest danger is to lose that sense of purpose. Working  hard accomplishes much good, and even accomplishes good in us, but this is only truly insofar as it is ordered in this way.

So, just a practical question to bring this little meditation to its end. What would it mean for you, theologian-budding-theologian-or-hopeful-theologian, to work very hard in the good and worthwhile vocation with which you have been blessed, but not to be busy? Would it mean  simply taking on fewer projects? Would it mean, coming full circle, to anchor your work in silence and prayer? Is there a way to do very much the same tasks you are doing now, but with a quite different inner reality?

"Laborious" and "busy" may, after all, look similar in many ways. They may, however, indicate the dividing line between vocations of completely different kinds. 


  1. It might mean doing the work without the pursuit of employment at the forefront of one's mind- for employment demands all of the accoutrements of busy-ness (publications, teaching, extra service, etc). Of course this is not possible for all of us, employment being what is needed to keep one's family afloat. An interesting paradox in theology, at least. Also, the job market requires the doing of a certain kind of work- one which does not always jive with your call to obscurity.

  2. You've just helpfully named the elephant in the room: can you pursue any of these ideals and actually employed in the field? There's a particular onus on those who already hold power in the situation to work for change... but all of us have to ask what we can and cannot, in good conscience, do. Sometimes there are creative ways to suffer and resist.