I don’t think it’s by accident that universities sprang up around monasteries. If you look hard enough vestiges of it can be seen in architecture (Most campuses have some sort of “quad,” which looks suspiciously like a garth, with rows of buildings surrounding it like a cloister), dress (ever compare a traditional monastic habit with the gowns and hoods Ph.Ds wear?), curriculum (trivium, anyone?), the fact that monasteries were libraries and places of learning, and the attitude of life as a process and formation. No matter how distant the beginnings, academics still need to learn a lot from contemplatives.
On the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (the period after Pentecost and until the day after the feast of Christ the King), in Year C (so once every 3 years) we get this reading:
In the course of their journey he came to a village, and a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. She had a sister called Mary, who sat down at the Lord’s feet and listened to him speaking. Now Martha, who was distracted with all the serving came to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving me to do the serving all by myself? Please tell her to help me.’ but the Lord answered, ‘Martha, Martha,’ he said, ‘you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part, and it is not to be taken from her.’ (Luke 10:38-42, New Jerusalem Bible)
We all know at least one Martha. They’re the ones who have their hands in everything, are “team players,” are part of every committee, do five things at once, and have no patience for Maries. In the Ivory tower, they’re the ones who make every faculty meeting, are on several committees, have at least three papers going at once, and teach a full load consistently. They have little time for anything that doesn’t directly add to their CV. The Ivory Tower needs its Marthas, since they’re the do-ers. I think most academics have a Martha hidden somewhere inside of them, and certainly grad school forces one into that mindset.
That having been said, I think many of the problems in academia stem from the fact that we’re all running around like Marthas with our heads cut off. Burnout happens–whether student or professor–from having too much to do, most of it unavoidable, especially in the days of budget cuts. Interpersonal conflicts happen when burnt out people get sick of being around each other. And the Martha in us all gets resentful when we find a Mary, who isn’t a “team player,” and appears to be loafing around, doing nothing, while we’re distracted with serving.
‘You worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one.’ It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the daily minutiae of the grind. The part Mary took for herself may seem to be selfish and lazy, yet it’s the part that we most desperately need in the Ivory Tower. The best definition of the contemplative life that I’ve heard came from one of the Dominicans at my parish: “resting in the embrace of the Divine.”
I think we can be better teachers, students, researchers, and academics if we take time for ourselves. The cloister isn’t always a physical space, and it isn’t always possible. But it’s about reserving a part of ourselves and taking the time to refresh the rest of us, “resting in the embrace of the Divine.” On first glance, the contemplative life in western monasticism seems overindulgent and impractical. What good are people who pray all day? Why break up a perfectly productive day with the Liturgy of the Hours? But it’s this constant drive for productivity and work which is burning out people and hurting them.
In Benedictine monasticism, one’s life becomes a continual prayer, with the Liturgy of Hours and the Eucharist being central. The offices are a time to recenter and publicly connect with the central reason for being there, in the first place, and the Eucharist forms the source of all aspects of life.
I’m not saying that there should be public time for prayer in the Ivory Tower, but if academics are to survive this time we’re in (which is by no means favorable to higher ed), then they need to consider Mary. It’s only by taking their better part, some time to reconnect with who they are and why they’re there in the first place, that they can find the strength to keep going. And administrations need to realize that this better part is our right, and not to be taken from us.