Virgin Time: in search of the contemplative life by Patricia Hampl was hailed on the cover as “a religious cliff hanger –intimate, compelling, hard to put down.” I beg to differ. I didn’t see any cliffs from which to hang and found it harder to pick up than put down.  Raised in the Catholic faith but in search of both more and less than her spiritual upbringing, Patricia chronicles her relationship with Donnie, Sister Mary Madonna, a trip around Italy and France visiting religiously significant places, and a stay at a North Carolina monastery.

It was worth a read, however, for a phrase that jumped out at me. It’s in the middle of the following section:

Donnie and Bridget [fellow nun] weren’t defensive about the downside of their way of life, even while they were deeply committed to it. In this, they were like wives who speak of their intimate lives: It’s not perfect, but I love him.

Donnie had a keen eye for the negative, too. ‘Places like this,’ she once said, meaning women’s contemplative monasteries, ‘were often the worst kind of sweatshops. Spiritual sweatshops. The workday was endless, all unpaid, doing all sort of menial jobs for a diocese, plus the maintenance of the place itself. And then getting up at all hours to pray and meditate. And everybody sequestered behind the enclosure in a strict cloister. There were a lot of ‘actives’ –men of course, priests—who wanted those nuns locked up to do their piety for them.

Yes, yes, I know. It’s a section that could lead us down certain theological and philosophical paths. Those paths are for a different time and place. I provide it not to ruffle feathers but to show the context and not merely the phrase: Spiritual Sweatshops.

Prior to this passage I had not

  1. Pondered what a spiritual sweatshops was
  2. Wondered how I might have participated in or perpetuated spiritual sweatshops or
  3. Been on the look-out for them

It’s easy to dismiss this is just a “Catholic thing” with all of the references to nuns, priests, monasteries, and dioceses. Surely, we comfort ourselves, we don’t have those. Or do we? I haven’t come to any clear conclusions, but it’s something I have been thinking about this week. What do you think a spiritual sweatshop might look like? Where might we unknowingly (or knowingly) participate in them? Share your thoughts in the comments and let’s see what we can learn from each other.

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  1. Kristi Magi December 12, 2011 at 6:16 am - Reply

    In my own personal experience I am my own worst enemy. As I thought about the questions posed on this blog my mind went first to working in a religious environment such as the school in which I used to teach. Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely loved it, and it was a great blessing to be apart of that ministry for 16 and a half years. At first I tried to come up with something else to label a “spiritual sweatshop” out of loyalty to that ministry and my many friends that still labor there. As I thought about what might make the school a “spiritual sweatshop” I realized it wasn’t really the school itself it was my own ideas of what I had to do to be productive in my ministry. I have lived a great deal of my life in a “spiritual sweatshop” of my own making. I’ve felt like I had to work hard and mass produce lessons, coaching plans, and devotions so that I would receive a morsel of gratitude from parents, peers, friends, and students. I was too busy doing the C life. I hadn’t taken the time to build a relationship with the Creator. I need, at 40, to become the apprentice of the Master in His intimate carpenter’s shop and allow Him to chip off my rough edges and sand away the rough spots. All that I do needs to be with Him and for Him. If I am to be of service to other in any lasting sense I must let Him recreate me. I must use the tools He’s given each of us (prayer, His word, fellowship, etc.) to restore myself each and everyday. Then, and only then, will I ever be fit to be an instrument in the recreation of others.

  2. JoDee December 13, 2011 at 9:57 am - Reply

    I think we protestants are just as guilty of creating sweatshops with our lists of dos/don’ts and pharasaic checklists. I know I have spent a lot of time playing the part I’m “supposed” to play and feeling the guilt of not being “enough”.

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