https://www.economist.com/1843/2021/07/14/hell-is-other-people-a-monks-guide-to-office-life

Dreading returning to the corporate environment? Take some advice from the brethren who lived, worked and died with their colleagues

Over the past year many of us have sat at home, confined to the same four walls for much of the day, contemplating the same view, munching the same lunch and wearing the same clothes (at least below waist level). While the key workers of the world actually kept everything running by going out to work, many of us have likened our privileged isolation to that of a monk confined in a monastery, world at bay.

The word “monk” comes from a Greek word meaning “alone”, which is exactly how monks spent their earliest days, living and working anywhere from the sands of the Syrian desert to the banks of the River Nile. One particularly celebrated figure spent almost 40 years standing on a pillar in Syria until his feet exploded and his spine collapsed. (Those missing their ergonomic office chairs may sympathise.)

From the fourth century onwards, the great monkish WFH experiment fell out of fashion and monks flooded into monasteries – just as many employers hope their staff will do this summer, as life reverts to some semblance of its before-covid (BC) self.

A monastic life may sound surprisingly familiar. They put on drab work clothes each day to turn up for duty, same time, same place. They embraced the nine to five (or, to be precise, the 6am to 7pm. Tough boss). If going back to the office reminds you how annoying your colleagues are, spare a thought for the monks who had the same ones – and endured their same noxious habits – until the day they died (and, assuming they’d laid their bet in Pascal’s wager correctly, after it, too). If you hated the way your tablemate slurped his soup or sang evensong, you simply had to keep quiet and offer up your suffering to God.

Once monks gave up their flexi-work freedoms they had to find a way to get along with their brethren. Judging by the outpouring of literature spawned by this move, as soon as corporate monkish life began, brothers started to annoy each other.

To cope with communal life, many wrote rule books. The most famous is the “Rule of Saint Benedict”, written in the sixth century by the man who is widely credited as the founder of Western monasticism. Ostensibly a celestial guide about how to live a righteous existence, in fact St Benedict wrote nothing less than the first self-help guide to corporate life. Want to make the return to the office more palatable? Let St Benedict lead the way.

Provoke not thy brethren

Some of us have become so used to seeing our colleagues only in rectangular frames that we may get a bit over-excited at their presence in real life. Don’t get carried away, St Benedict would say. You’ll soon remember how much they annoy you – and you’ll bug them just as much.

The various books of monastic rules are filled with advice aimed at minimising the many irritating habits of co-workers and advising you how to set personal boundaries. “No one”, snaps St Pachomius, a monk who wrote a rule book in the fourth century, “shall cut the hair of anyone unless he has been commanded.”

As soon as corporate monkish life began, monks started getting on each others’ nerves

As in any office environment, abbots were particularly aware that their staff’s personal-grooming habits – or lack thereof – could irk others. If anyone leaves their washed garment hanging up so that “the sun rises over it three times”, wrote St Pachomius, “the owner of the garment shall be judged on account of it, and he shall prostrate himself in the church, and shall stand while the brethren eat.” (Those who have worked with a lazy cup washer will sympathise.)

Another intriguing law ruled that if anyone wishes to “defecate into a pot or a jar or any other vessel” then they shall first “ask the Male Eldest”. A timeless piece of advice.

Keep the sacred hours

The hours are long in a monkish existence. Monks live at work, eat at work, sleep at work, wash at work, weekend at work and holiday at work. No wonder they had a somewhat tense relationship with their boss-on-high, as well as with each other.

The thing about God is that He never turns off His all-seeing eye. This always-on divine culture was quite new in the fourth century. The Roman world had hitherto been ruled by drunk, debauched deities who were largely uninterested in what mere mortals got up to (think “Mad Men” in togas). Over the course of a century that hedonism was dumped for a single, sober, somewhat obsessive and ever-present deity (imagine a divine millennial, with more dominion).

Methods were swiftly found to deal with this. Then, as now, shared schedules proved invaluable. To ensure that this boss was getting what He needed, monks were rigid about blocking out times to gather – “Seven times a day have I offered Thee praise” – and specified which prayers they would recite (perhaps this was the origin of modern meetings, where people repeat each other and nothing ever actually happens).

St Benedict was a wise one. Setting a timetable for praying meant – importantly – that you could also set “regular hours for meals”. Once stomach and services were catered for, there was time for the usual stuff of life.

Perhaps his greatest lesson for the corporate world was that no one should talk after the evening prayer; failing to observe this rule of silence should be subjected to the “severest penalties”. Colleagues who send emails and Slack messages at antisocial hours take note.

Know thy place

As offices reopen and companies try to create the hybrid workplace of the future, many employers have spied an opportunity to save cash and introduce hotdesking. St Benedict would surely approve of our forsaking of material possessions (has anyone really missed their under-desk shoe collection?).

He would nevertheless have said that sharing desks is for mugs. Or, as he actually put it, “Let all keep their relative places in the monastery.” Where you sit represents the hierarchies of the community in monasteries, as it does in offices (someone has to get the corner office/ pew). We can cope with a lot, says St Benedict, including criticism, if we have a place to retreat to.

But St Benedict warns bosses not to abuse their power and “make any unjust arrangement”. In turn, he chides, each monk must accept with grace, “the places he shall have assigned them”. So if you do get a desk when you return to the office, don’t moan if it isn’t by the window.

The Day of Judgment beckons

It makes sense to be really clear about the rules when you have only one shot at a performance review, and it’s known as the Day of Judgment. Particularly when the price of it going badly is that you end up in “dread Hell” for eternity.

The amount that St Benedict and others write about their deity shows how unsettled they were by this God whom you could never escape from. As one author wrote, God “sees the heart and mind of every person; and He will judge not alone of our deeds, but even of our words and thoughts.” (It gives new meaning to the concept of 360-degree feedback.) Anyone who has taken a call from their boss while in the bath or in bed will have a sense of the unease that this caused.

The Hell that is oneself is harder to bear even than the Hell that is other people

If you follow all the other rules and still find yourself irritated by your boss or your colleagues, perhaps the most useful thing these guides teach is to let it go. Given that the retirement age of most monks is death, it’s not surprising that they were big on reconciliation. Do not, as one law states, “nurse a grudge”; another warns against the urge to “render cursing for cursing”. Above all, “make peace with one’s adversary before sundown.” Just be careful what you do after sundown – as the next rule reminds us.

Wine maketh even the wise fall away

There were clearly some unusual goings on in the early-Christian monastery. One intriguing law in St Pachomius’s collection stipulates that no one “shall ride on an ass alone, or without garments, with another”. The temptations of the flesh are a strong theme in the Rule as they are throughout the Bible (the proscriptions extend far beyond donkeys).

Well aware of the influence of alcohol in such things, St Benedict has an entire chapter “concerning the quantity of drink”, and reaches the generous conclusion that “half a pint of wine per head per day suffices.”

In the tone of one who has seen far too many office parties go awry, St Benedict advises sternly that wine is “no drink for monks”. “Let us at least agree upon this,” he goes on, “that we drink temperately and not to satiety: for wine maketh even the wise to fall away.” A rule to be digested before the surely debauched Christmas parties of 2021.

The #MeToo movement has already cooled the temperature of office affairs but medieval monasteries were well ahead on this one. “Go not after thy concupiscences,” warns one law, because those who do are “delivered to Satan for the destruction of the flesh”. (Many people on Twitter take a similar attitude.) Monks were warned not to have affairs and instead to give people personal space. No one, read one set of laws, should seize the hand of another nor “any part of his body” in the dark. #MonkToo.

Gossip is honey on the tongue but bile in the belly

Offices mean water-cooler moments and tittle-tattle of every delicious kind. This is what some of us have missed more than anything. Yet the brethren are not amused by such amusing things. A monk, states the “Rule of St Benedict”, should “restrain his tongue and keep silence” for “death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Some monks took this further still: Trappists almost never never speak at all, reasoning that all words cause harm. (Their meetings must be bliss.)

There’s another, less elevating reason, for silence in the monastery: if you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing, don’t say anything at all. That holds as true now as it did then. God can open a window on men’s souls. So too can Zoom, so too can Twitter. And they, unlike God, don’t have much truck with repentance. A monkish caution is recommended.

All this silence might feel strange in our noisy world, but lean into it and you’ll find it has a terrible power and pleasure, too. Your first encounter with a socially distanced lift feels almost like a rebuke – like a sinning schoolchild sent to face the wall, you must stand in a corner and think about what you’ve done. But once you get used to it, you suddenly realise that this monastic silence erases all awkwardness, all small talk, all pretence that you really care how anyone is feeling today. Those monks knew a thing or two.

Dress not for a beach party

Oh, the temptation to swan into the office wearing sweatpants and slippers. Don’t do it! The costumes of the corporate world – the heels, the pressed trousers – may seem antiquated and absurd. They all feel so 2020. Spare a thought for monks: their costumes are less 2020 than a bit 1520. Perhaps even a bit 520.

Trappists almost never never speak at all. Their meetings must be bliss

Despite that, there is a power to performance dressing and no one knows this better than monastic orders. Many monkish rules on dress would not be out of place in a modern company handbook. Your clothes, says St Benedict, should “be not too short for their wearers, but of the proper fit” and suited to the local climate. (Anyone who has shivered in summer amid ferocious air conditioning knows what I mean.) Yet he would have disapproved of office fashionistas, too. The material for a monk’s clothing should be obtainable “fairly cheaply”, said St Benedict. Owning “two tunics and two cowls” was practical; anything more was clearly “excess” and “ought to be taken away as superfluous”.

The holy orders also have a healthy respect for dress codes, however. They know that authority often depends not just on personal devotion or the power of persuasion, but appearance. One of the first things a new monk did on entering the monastery was to step out of their old clothes at the door and into new robes. The two worlds were separate, and dressing accordingly helped keep them that way. Now there’s an idea that would definitely enliven the lift experience.

Don’t make false idols of your home

We might think we invented WFH, but for the first monks remote working was standard. After all, God, much like 4G, is omnipresent. Yet the Benedictine guide makes clear that this privileged existence is often a struggle. Some early monks wept, constantly. Many said it was a sign of their faith – but, having experienced several lockdowns, some of us might be more tempted to diagnose the depression of enforced isolation and flat days on repeat, time without end.

As the world speeds up again, it’s easy to look back on the long days of lockdown with nostalgia. But as one wise monkish handbook observed, “Idleness is the enemy of the soul”, and even monks struggled to find ways to fill the unforgiving minute. It’s striking how closely the hobbies of monks overlap with those of our pandemic fervour: we got into sourdough and yoga; the brethren turned to baking and brewing.

Perhaps the greatest lesson the early Christian monks offer us, however, is that it has always been hard to cope with your co-workers. Fifteen centuries on from St Benedict’s first corporate handbook, we are all still just trying to get along. And, however difficult monastic or office life is, and however irritating your colleagues are, it’s worth remembering that communal living is better than the alternative. Because the Hell that is oneself is harder to bear even than the Hell that is other people. Unless, that is, they’ve just defecated in your jar. ■

Catherine Nixey is a Britain correspondent for The Economist and a regular writer for 1843 magazine

ILLUSTRATIONS: PIERLUIGI LONGO

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