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  • Immagine del redattoreCristina Bombelli

Organizing and Managing People: Teachings from the Rule of Saint Benedict

by P. Ignasi M. Fossas i Colet and M. Cristina Bombelli


Authors’ Biographical Notes


P. Ignasi M. Fossas i Colet:

After working three years as a physician, he entered the Monastery of Montserrat (Barcellona) in 1986 and professed monastic life on September 3rd, 1988. Since then, he has earned a diploma in archival studies from the Vatican Secret Archives (Vatican, 1995), and a license in Liturgy from the Pontificio Istituto Liturgico Sant Anselmo in Rome (1993-1996). He completed a course in managerial training at the IESE-Business School of Barcellona (PADE 2007), which brought him to the themes of management and organization. Currently, he is professor of theology at the Studium of Theology in Montserrat and the Istitut Superior de Litúrgia in Barcellona. He has been the spokesperson for the Monastery of Montserrat since October 2000, the Administrative Cellarer since December 2005, and vice-prior of the Monastery since April 2007.


M. Cristina Bombelli:


She founded Wise Growth, a consulting firm aimed at organizational development and individual balance. For years, a business school teacher, she is now part-time professor at the University of Milano Bicocca. She is the author of several books and articles on organizational behavior and diversity management and, since early 2009, has been chairperson of the Fondazione La Pelucca, an Onlus of Sesto San Giovanni dedicated to the well-being of the elderly. Wise Growth, with the collaboration of the Abbey of Montserrat, has built a training program to address the problems of modern-day management.

Abstract:

It was in the year 500 and against the backdrop of a dissipating Roman Empire that a young man from Norcia decided to withdraw from the world and enter monastic life. Saint Benedict, after having lived for a period as a recluse, began to dedicate his life to other monks and founded a large community of twelve monasteries, each with twelve monks and one abott who acted as their leader. To organize the community, he later wrote the Rule. Borrowing and reelaborating substantially upon some ideas from the past, he insisted on strict discipline, combined with a respect for human personality and individual capacity.

The two ideas that were pivotal to communal life were: stabilitas loci, a monk’s obligation to reside in the same monastery for his entire lifetime (in contrast with the practice of itinerant monks, which was diffuse at that time); and conversatio morum, or the monk’s lifestyle, which included reciprocal compassion and obedience to the abbot. Together, they formed an orderly life, which alternated between prayer, reading and work.

Two insights from the distant past find resonance in our modern lives, making it possible for us to reflect on them from both an individual as well as an organizational and sensemaking point of view. First, the development of a Rule that proposes unconstraining modes of harmonious and efficient cohabitation to build internal cohesion amongst a group of monks who were subjectively self-sufficient and distant from each other. Second, the inclusion of work in its own right for building individual identity. The precept “ora ed labora” allows monks to overcome the isolation of a life dedicated to prayer, restoring them to a hard-working community that must face the tasks of daily survival, without diminishing the depth of their spiritual lives.

This study will reexamine the contribution of Saint Benedict in a modern context by emphasizing how a social group, prior to the existence of business management schools, tackled constant issues such as defining organizational roles and describing rules that were, on the one hand, reproducible and official, and on the other, open to interpretation. These issues -- linked to the development of a motivational and corrective system, and to the concrete leadership of an Abbot who was freely elected by the group and invested with very high power -- make a rereading of the Rule of Saint Benedict interesting not only from a historical and cultural perspective, but also as a starting point for reflecting on the characteristics of a social community, business firms included.


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Approaching the Benedictine Rule as a business model is not new. Some Benedictine monks, already familiar with the Rule and monastic life, and also knowledgeable of the world of business and management, have promoted this idea for years. For example, one could cite P. Anselm Grün, cellarer of the abbey of Münsterschwarzach in Germany, and P. Dermot Tredget of the abbey of Douai in England. In Italy, there’s the experience proposed by Professor Paolo G. Bianchi in the abbey of Praglia as well as in other Italian abbeys.

Although these proposals have differing approaches and nuances, together they represent a growing interest embodying several positive points. However, it is necessary to consider first whether or not such an approach is merely a fad. Thus, it would be pertinent to ask some fundamental questions about the relationship between Benedictine monastic wisdom as evidenced in the Rule and in monastic life, and business. Is this comparison reliable, plausible, and pertinent? Could it really be useful to managers and those interested in leadership? Is it necessary in today’s world? In other words, the fundamental questions that we have posed here is: to what extent can business men and women use ideas proposed by the Rule to improve their skills and attitudes and, consequently, their own ability to express an original leadership? Is there not the danger of “playing the monk”, thus adding to the long list of odd experiences of little meaning that is being proposed to leaders to stimulate their interests? Such a risk is rooted both in the need of consulting and training firms to offer original experiences, from outdoor training to sailing to solitary climbing; and in the new-age, mystical trends offering spiritual retreats under a catholic model.

In this paper, we will challenge the fad assumption by combining two very different experiences: monastic life and the management of a monastery, and a reading of the organization and management of people. We will show that despite all the years that have gone by, Saint Benedict’s insights reveal a capacity for observation and abstraction that was truly rare in those times.

The idea here is to draw on Benedictine wisdom as expressed in the Rule to help individuals in a process of self-reflection and personal pause in order to review the meaning of life and work. The author of the Rule appears to be a profound expert of the heart, instinct, and behavior – human traits that seem to remain the same over time, consistently reappearing even in their dark and dangerous dimensions throughout the history of mankind. By reading the Rule from an outside perspective, using “secular” eyes, we can discover many “common sense” suggestions that anticipate later studies on the method of managing and unifying an organized group.

The idea of familiarizing ourselves with Benedictine wisdom is also plausible since it is founded on the concrete experiences of Benedictine monks and nuns over the centuries. The monasteries represent a fulfillment in a real place and time of the ideals proposed by the Rule. The term “monastery” often evokes romantic images of solitude and silence immersed in an uncontaminated nature. As a brother of Monserrat once ironically said: “the monk, the cloisters, the cypresses and the moon”, thus suggesting that the idea of withdrawal, silence and reflection echos in everyone’s desires, even though it may be fanciful and unreal. Another point that has often been stressed is that the monasteries saved ancient culture during the dark ages of dissolution, and contributed to the edification of Europe.

To these points we can add others that are less well-known, such as the fact that some monasteries themselves have built up real businesses. These businesses, competing on a par with the laws of the market, have employees, a professional organization, and monks holding positions that require them to act with managerial responsibilities. These are the people who, more than any other, combine ancient monastic wisdom accumulated over the centuries in the tradition of their own communities, with the notions of modern management. From this perspective, it is possible to affirm that a reading of the Rules in parallel to business is not an abstract idea, but has been subjected to the test of reality and substantial grounds in many monasteries. The results seem positive in principle. These monks have been drawn to management schools to learn what they lacked in terms of skills. Now, we propose another exchange: to give managers some ideas derived from Benedictine wisdom so that they can use it to improve their own skills and expertise. In a socially and economically troubled world, contributions that come from different resources can be very useful.

To better develop a comparative perspective between the Benedictine tradition and the business world, we propose reorganizing their parallels on three levels: organizational, social and individual. The organizational level refers to structural design: the rapport between leaders and those who rely on them, political choices, and the extent to which the mode of choosing can be rigid or flexible. The social level, or that of the rules, includes interpersonal relationships of a horizontal dimension, and their consequences within and beyond the organization. Finally, the individual level has to do with all that belongs to the “interior-I”, one’s own personal project, and the individual as seen in his or her entirety. This is an idea that only some organizations have considered in its totality, and which is often limited to the “organizational advantage” of developing so-called high potentials, while other aspects are dismissed as accessories in the life of the organization. An exploration on these three levels will help open up the topic of leadership which, in turn, will refer back to them. Reflecting on Benedictine wisdom and management, we will also highlight the main points of balance that is involved on each of these three levels for the cohesion of a community. Each of them, in our opinion, constitutes the essence of a good organization.

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  1. Organizational Design and the Balance of Management

The very notion of organizing encompasses the main issues that it seeks to address: directing a more or less large group of people towards a common goal, achieving the goal in a consistent manner and with a reasonable expenditure of resources, and ensuring the professional and personal development of persons involved in this effort. This summary may seem utopian, but it involves the three fundamental balances which, if ignored, can invalidate the very life of the organization: that is, the result, the resources that were used to achieve the result, and the people who dedicated their lives to it (fig. 1).


MANAGERIAL BALANCEOrganizational RequirementsIndividual freedomResourcesResultsUnique and centralized modelSpecific conditions of the location – decentralizationDesignation of positions of authorityElection -- followership

Fig. 1

The first managerial balance proposed by the Rule, despite being treated in the last pages of the text, is between the rigidity of organizational requirements and individual freedom. The idea that inspired Saint Benedict was to provide a tool to the various monasteries. This tool would allow monks to act in an independent and disciplined manner by giving them specific points of reference such as their role in the community, but also allow them to have substantial flexibility for adapting to contextual situations. This inspiring principle running throughout the Rule becomes explicit in chapter 65, where it is said that the election of the Prior is left to the Abott’s understanding of local circumstances and choice of organizational improvement. Furthermore, unlike the late-medieval and modern religious orders, the Benedictine choice is to not have a superstructure governing over the monasteries, but rather, a single coordinating authority. Thus, each monastery preserves its independence on all levels, while the higher structure that groups them together (congregations and, finally the Benedictine confederation) carries out assisting functions, such as representation and in some cases, supervision.

This is an important theme, especially in organizations wherein size and geographical spread call for a greater emphasis on the understanding of local contexts, even when it comes to issuing general directives. The current scenario, however, seems to indicate that large multinational corporations are privileging centralization -- distributing precise methods that must be answered to, proposing centralized training tools to ensure so-called transparency; in short, ensuring decision-makers of the consistency and accuracy of information flowing bottom-up, rather than giving real support to achieving results -- a truly risky autopoetic dimension.

The Rule then proposes some specific organizational positions: the Abott, the Prior, the Cellarer, the Doorkeeper, the Master of novices as well as the Council of Deans and the Chapter of the community (that is, the set of all the monks who have made solemn profession). The Abott, as stated by the Rule, is without doubt the central figure, considering the importance of the decisions that have been delegated to him, and the function of role model that has been assigned to him.

First, an important consideration is that the Abott is elected by the community of monks. Thus, the Rule strikes a balance in yet another of the key issues of management: being appointed by a faculty or board of directors, and being legitimized on site. In Benedictine monasteries, the abbot must first gain a reputation; only in this manner, and through subsequent election by the community, can he exercise the power that the Rule has granted him. The Prior is the “number Two” of the community; he is the principle collaborator of the Abbot, substituting him when he is absent from the monastery. The Rule talks about this in Chapter 65, considering the risks that may also result from this figure (and here Saint Benedict demonstrates his profound psychological insight). The Cellarer, described in Chapter 31, is responsible for the administration of the monastery; he must take care of everyone and everything, and act like a father to the entire community, but according to the directions of the abbot. The Doorkeeper (Chapter 66) is the so-called “first face” encountered by guests to the monastery, and who has a direct relationship with the outside world. He must be able to receive and give an answer, and at the same time, be mature enough not to “go wandering”. The Master of the Novices (Chapter 58) must also be an old man who “knows how to win souls”; he will “watch over the candidate with the greatest caution and carefully observe the real reasons that led him to the monastery”. Here, it is easy to find parallels with the management of people. The Deans, as stated in Chapter 21 of the Rule, reflect the organization of the community preferred by St. Benedict; they are brothers who lead exemplary lives and whom others trust; they have the task of helping the abbot govern the community. Here, one can easily develop the theme of delegation. Finally there is the Chapter of the Community. In Chapter 3, the Rule invites the abbot to convene the community to discuss important issues; here, he must personally present the topic in question and listen to the advice of the brothers; and "after reflecting to himself, does he do what he thinks is best”.

Monastic wisdom expresses its vision of leadership through the figure of the abbot -- the leader and highest authority of the monastery. The Rule dedicates two chapters to the Abbot (Chapters 2 and 64). Furthermore, Chapters 27 and 28 complete the doctrine of exercising abbey government by using the metaphors of the good doctor and the good pastor.

The first key element in the leadership of the abbot is to live a consistent life, and to demonstrate to others what should and should not be done by providing examples through one’s own behavior (RB 2, 13 and 64, 2), and attitude towards work, people and situations. Here, one can find the origins of authority. Authority and power should not be confused with each other. The word “authority” has its roots in the latin word “augere”, which means “to grow”. The leader who has authority allows the people around him to grow. This brings us to another point: authority shall be exercised in the service of others (R 64, 8 e 15), who must be treated with equity and fairness (RB 2, 22 e 23). The author of the Rules is very aware of the reality of the human heart, and thus of the psychological and spiritual differences amongst monks. At this point, it is the duty of the abbot to discern the potential and the real needs of each monk. Realism without cynicism. This implies that the abbot has the capacity and skill to listen to everyone, even those who are less valued according to cultural customs which, during Benedict’s times, were the youths (RB 3, 3). Such an attitude is not synonmous with weakness or a lack of clarity in making decisions or conveying messages. Instead, the Rule asks the abbot to make decisions with flexibility (RB 68). One last point to emphasize is faith in personal relationships, which informs each person’s responsibility before a given duty. Although the abbot is accountable to God for all the monks, the Rule urges him to use many forms of delegation, particularly in the area of management.

In this regard, it is interesting how the Rule interprets another of its fundamental balances of management: equity and diversity. When managing an organization, one is sometimes faced with two often contradictory requests: on the one hand, the request to be treated as equals, without discrimination or differentiation, which stems from the individual’s basic need for equity. This is also a primary basis for individual motivation, which can be deeply eroded if people find themselves in what they perceive to be unfair situations. On the other hand, it is necessary to understand specific situations in moments of organizational life, and try to adapt the philosophy of equity to some exceptions that will not undermine it.

In the first place, the Rule calls for the ability to listen (2.31), so as to better support different individuals in their path towards growth: with some it is better to criticize, with others, encouragement or even persuasion works better. Thus, the Rule proposes a diversity management process within the organization that uses different types of individual motivation. Then (34.1), it proposes the use of individual needs as a measure for resource allocation. This is a very risky and complex proposal, but it evokes one of the notions of individual plurality (Bombelli, 2009) that is often overlooked: need. Vague theories of diversity management often lump together, without distinction, two fundamental points that consistently appear in the descriptions of individual traits: on the one hand, individual differences in performance, which are recognized and evaluated as a result of the performance, by the organization and by increasingly refined personnel management tools adapted to recognize and support merit; on the other hand, differences that are expressed during particular moments in life and that are relevant to the needs of the individual.

Here, the Rule introduces a principle that is reminiscent of the Manifesto by Marx and Engels: “from each according to his abilities and to each according to his needs”. This idea certainly did not lead to many accomplishments within the concrete schemes that were inspired by it; but on a philosophical level, it evokes a principle that cannot be ignored: “needs” have a hierarchy and, thus, leaders and organizations must be flexible enough to discern them and to decide which ones to address, especially when they are outside the normal practices given by laws or customs.

The Rule completes this point with chapter 36, referring to duties towards brothers who are sick, and then later, when it speaks about children and the elderly. It is easy to ascribe this choice to Christian duty, but from an organizational point of view, it suggests how and when it is necessary, within a given context, to respond to individual needs.

In relation to today's business practices, this chapter outlines Corporate Social Responsibility, wherein this label is used not for glossy communication, but as a true point of integration with the social context of the community.

One last point that seems important to remember is the inspection of the community’s progress, which is performed externally via the so-called Canonical Visit. Around every four years, two brothers from other communities come to the monastery to interview and listen to everyone concerning the situation within the monastery. It is a moment when everyone can speak their minds freely and when an external control is performed that can lead to advising the abbot of resignations and/or the community about modifying certain attitudes.

  1. Constructing Social Harmony

This refers to interpersonal relationships and to the wholeness of the community. In the Monastery, we need to distinguish between the monastic community, which involves individuals entirely, and the work community, which brings together people from the surrounding area in “business” projects with a more concrete and limited goal. In the Benedictine community, this is a clear distinction that offers insights on the boundaries of managerial activity. In reality, many managers have an almost “monastic” dedication to their organizational mandates. This is perpetuated largely by technology, but also by an inability to distinguish oneself from one’s own role in the organization, wherein spatial-temporal confines disappear, and work invades individual identity in a complete manner. A prime element of the Benedictine community is to serve for the benefit of mutual growth (RB 64, 19). Today, the problem or conflict between the monk’s personal and communal projects is often raised. Solidarity and respect for each person is fundamental (RB 63, 10; 71, 1-3; 72). Here, we return to the theme of dialogue, which must be approached with humility, freedom, clarity, patience and timeliness, and without stubborness, controversy, or exception (RB 3 e 68). One point that becomes current is the seriousness involved in admitting candidates, a point that Benedict does not concede to “doing good”, for he is very demanding (RB 58,8). Faith to tradition, with the aim of learning and improvement is important, making necessary adaptations according to changing times. We will return to this tension between organizational design, community and individual life on the individual level, as one of the points of balance that will be highlighted in this work through a comparison of the Rule with the corporate universe (fig. 2).

Another interesting aspect that the Rule introduces is the route of making decisions. As already cited: "Every time an important decision needs to be made in the monastery, the abbot calls together the whole community and expounds on the issues involved; after having heard the views of the brothers, he will reflect on his own and then do that which will be the most advantageous" (chap. 3).  Thus, there is a difference here between strategic decisions, which involves the entire community, and everyday decisions, which are assigned to those with different roles.

The same chapter advises the brothers to offer their advice and opinions, but then to follow the decisions of the abbot. Thus, for decisions on minor issues and daily affairs, the abbot has the Council of Deans, the Prior and the heads of the various sections of the monastery.

Here, many managers would probably wish to have a similar vow of obedience from their subordinates, but beyond its monastic and religious context, this theme is very timely. In management, it is necessary to design levels of decision-makers as transparently as possible, relating to different areas of strategic and daily choice. This theme of design and rules is always very complex for organizations. But the other aspect, which relates more to organizational culture, is to encourage a balance between conformity and eccentricity. Many organizations today extract obedience through fashions that inspire univocal and often implicit ways of thought and behavior. There is no other explanation for the absence of dialectic and proposition that often characterizes the boards of large companies. On the other hand, there are often hypercritical pockets of dissent, especially at the operational level, driven by people who are more interested in maintaining their status as "head people", than by real collective interests, which becomes a permanent obstacle to the effective life of the community.


SOCIAL BALANCEOrganizational GrowthIndividual GrowthTraditionInnovationConformityEccentricityCollective DecisionsIndividual DecisionsLiturgySpectacle

Fig. 2


  1. Individual Growth

This concerns the monk and his “interior I”. The task of self-knowledge is very present in monastic wisdom, even here realism without cynicism is expressed in the Greek phrase “know thyself”, or in the latin aphorism “operari sequitur esse” (actions and facts are consequences of what has been). Know oneself profoundly in order to develop inner freedom (RB Prologus 1 e 49). This means being aware of one’s inner world, its desires, urges, attachments, skills and the shadowy areas that make it up. In his book Guidare le persone risvegliare la vita, P. Anselm Grün, commenting on chapter 31 of the Rule that talks about the cellarer, shows just how much someone who has received the responsibility of leadership must confront his own interior world. Here, we should remember that the abbot is also a monk, therefore he must start the process of his own personal, spiritual and human maturation, as well as his inner growth. In this task of self-knowledge, which can sometimes be laborious, the “lectio”, or the reading of the Bible, becomes fundamental in confronting the Word, which comes before us, after us, and is more intimate to us than ourselves. Humility (RB 7) and obedience (RB 5) are two more qualities to emphasize, as a personal disposition to improve the enforcement and cooperation within the community, which is more than the sum of its individuals. See what RB 57 says about craftsmen in the monastery. Finally, underlining its profound human view, the Rule tries to organize the work of each monk by searching for the good of the individual and of the community (RB 48); on this point, the abbot must have regard for the brothers’ weakness in sickness or poor health (RB 48, 24).

In this area, the private corporation must choose: aside from the legal contract, which certainly does not imply any commitment to individual development or the search for one’s own profound identity, whether or not to construct a psychological contract that aims to be a journey of both professional and personal growth. It is easy to choose yes, but this is more often said than done. Several factors work against this possibility: the first is purely economic. When the winds of crisis blow at full force, the first contract that is skipped over is the legal one, carrying away greater expectations and bringing people to the level of their most basic needs: jobs and wages that will allow them to survive. And this is a central point in the crisis that currently confronts our world, as illustrated by various behaviors of those in charge of both companies and management: how to act responsibly toward one’s own employees. Some do not care, and take the first step of calling for deep and heavy cuts to the staff. Others seek ways to mediate, try to keep the group together, wait for better times, even thinking that, when the economic engine begins to spin again, it will be advantageous to have retained skills and knowledge.

But even thinking along the lines of better times, how many people at the top are willing to try ways to support people in the path of "knowing thyself", as described above? Yet in Western economies, and at least in areas of employment that are marked with basic needs, this is a point that individuals are increasingly requesting. In companies, there circulates a search for meaning that cannot be ignored and yet, that is often rejected.

A central issue is time. Resounding in Benedictine wisdom, which is the first among the monastic orders to place work alongside prayer, is a temporal cadence advising much reflection on the part of managers. (Grun, 2006).

In the first place, scanning between work and prayer raises the need to move from a concentrated approach to problems, to one that is more distant and large, that considers broader issues. Managers who are always on the go, always connected, concentrated and breathless, can make serious mistakes in their decision-making processes.

Time, for the monks, is measured by the day, the week, and in the liturgical cycle.  It is a temporal condition that permits individuals to meet several objectives: to work, to retreat within oneself to meditate, to discover oneself as part of a community, marking the time of the year and of seasons.  These dimensions have been forgotten in the grayness of a climatized life that is always the same, where even sports has been reduced to running on a treadmill in front of an LCD screen, expressing the same freedom as hamsters on their pathetic wheels.

In particular, individuals lack the time to be in touch with themselves, which is the only basis for building real personal growth. Interestingly, a contemplation that is a "prayer without words, without images and without worries" (Grun, 2006 quotes Evagrius Pontus) is akin to all forms of Eastern meditation: moments to pause, focus on your breath, and go inside yourself to listen and be quiet.

Here's another powerfully suggestive idea: silence. If it can be suggestive outside the monastery, helping to create a romantic image that is not very much grounded in reality, it is equally true that the noise of secular life today is likely to contaminate any attempt at introspection and reflection. Even training courses are often a summation of visual and auditory stimuli, engaging people in complex tasks, while little is reserved for simple observation. Silence means being able to live with oneself which, as every monk knows, is attainable only after having walked a path that is not always easy.  Being silent is also a point of arrival and departure for reading the Scripture (the lectio divina), prayer, and contemplation (Fig. 3).

Benedictine leadership takes this path which, as we have already seen, is example, moderation and mercy. Let’s look again at some advice given to the abbot in chapter 64: "Even while correcting, act with caution and be careful not to overact so that he who desires too much to scrape off the rust does not break the vase too. Never lose sight of one’s own frailty and remember not to step on a reed that is already bent . . . .” "Do not be too agitated or anxious, do not be exaggerated or stubborn, and do not be jealous or too suspicious because you will never have peace. When issuing orders, be cautious and thoughtful, and when giving directives with regard to both God and the things of this world, have discretion and limits, keeping in mind the discretion of Jacob who said: ‘if I tire my sheep from walking too much, they will all die in one day.’ "

The precepts that St. Benedict left to his abbots are an absolute modernity. His words should be reread by every manager for finding inspiration for a fair, equitable and flexible leadership that is grounded in a crucial balance: be strong and exemplary, but do not allow overconfidence drag the community toward an abyss from which it will then be difficult to reascend.

INDIVIDUAL BALANCETime for the communityTime for selfStandardizationDevelopment of individual talentsObedienceIndividual identityDedicationPersonal Objectives

Fig. 3

Conclusion:

The ideas that we have put forth are not intended to overestimate the Benedictine experience as an example of perfection. Our aim was, first of all, to recognize the vast modernity of Saint Benedict’s ideas as expressed in the Rule which, having considered the dynamics of a social group, proposes some organizational measures that are highly relevant to today’s world.

It is obvious that each theoretical proposition, as is the book that has inspired us, then becomes acted upon by the individual or community in discretionary terms, thus giving rise to perhaps many issues in reality.

In this parallel reading between the monastic community and the company, it is posssible to find several useful points for both the organization and the individual. In particular, we have sought to emphasize the notion that there are no automatic patterns or rules to follow in a monastery and in a company, but rather individual choices that everyone must make, both for the people in relation to himself/herself, and for himself/herself.

A seemingly important lesson is that despite the centuries separating us from Saint Benedict, and beyond the different situations that each of us experiences, many of the interactions amongst individual, work, and the paths to achievement and personal growth appear highly similar -- a warning that many who do not take stock in the experiences of history tend to forget.

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