Archbishop Welby's right - St Benedict has much to offer banking reform efforts
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby is right to look to St Benedict for inspiration in the modern financial crisis. From the sixth century, a dark transitional age that is often compared to our own era, St Benedict still channels us a fresh wisdom. His vision of life concerns how human beings function, what they need to be healthily and happily human and how we come, through both inner stability and self-transcendence, to be part of a community. In addition to leading individuals closer to God the wisdom of his Rule formed a social institution that transformed the economic life of Europe and of the new world.
Apart from generations of Benedictine monks and oblates, many business thinkers (and perhaps some bankers too) have mined his short, non-dogmatic text, finding insights into the art of leadership, team building, self-regulation and the meaning of success and happiness. His simple secret is: balance. Without balance everything goes awry. Benedict shows how balance involves a lived sense of the whole person: body (work), mind (reading) and spirit (prayer). He suggests a range of communal regulation, characterised by compassion and common sense - shrewdly based on the need for self-regulation. Benedict recognises how central personal maturity and balanced human relationships are to any process of justice.
But for Benedict, balance has a distinct mystical wisdom too and requires the interior depth of meditation. What does 'balance' mean in today's world of jostling belief systems? Each system with its own ideas of virtue, can either lead to competition and conflict, or they can manage to co-exist in ways that nourish, stimulate and create new forms of understanding and partnership.
Can bankers and monks, business and spirituality, relate? Wisdom says that when things appear to contradict each other, they may reflect a paradox that releases the energy of wholeness and transcendence.
Business is about wealth creation. But what does it mean to be wealthy? Short-term performance outputs create wealth but they can simultaneously corrupt it. True wealth gives social and communal meaning to our lives and to the common good. Benedict's monasteries were also successful businesses, transforming agriculture and commerce, benefiting society long-term.
Research shows that the main reason for unethical behaviour in business is not greed but the stress created by unrealistic business objectives and deadlines. That is generally why people do bad things. We need balance to be good. How to maintain this mundane virtue daily?
Benedict was a master of the mundane. Prayer for him was his ordinary 'office' work. He understood our need for contemplation. Meditation nurtures the clear, contemplative mind in even the most active person. Buddha and modern neuro-scientists agree with Benedict completely on this.
To recharge business and banks with virtue - as Archbishops Welby and Vincent Nichols have both urged - one of the most valuable means is with the experience of silence and stillness. Silence is the work of attention. Attention underpins all good work, good human relationships, creativity and, ultimately, what protects civilisation - compassion, care and concern for those most vulnerable. Stillness purifies desire.
At a recent Meditatio seminar hosted at Georgetown University Business School, two eminently successful figures in the financial and banking field joined me in recommending meditation as the way to balance in their professions - Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, the world's largest hedge fund and Sean Hagan, General Counsel of the IMF. When they spoke about the interior balance and ethical sense meditation promotes they were addressing one of the great challenges of our economic crisis. Benedict the pragmatic teacher of balance would have approved.
Dom Laurence Freeman OSB is the director of the World Community for Christian Meditation