Carl McColman: Contemplative Commerce

Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks


Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks

One CEO's Quest for Meaning and Authenticity

August Turak

Columbia Business School Publishing

The motto of Benedictine spirituality is ora et labora - a deceptively simple Latin phrase that means "to pray and to work." A variation of it, ora est labora, means "to pray is to work" - a sentiment handily embodied in the Latin words, where ora is actually part of labora. Prayer and work: the heart of Benedictine spirituality, and by extension, the heart of all spiritual traditions based on the Rule of St. Benedict, including the Trappist/Cistercian tradition.

Plenty of books can be found on the "ora" dimension of monastic spirituality: from books on lectio divina, to the Daily Office, to meditation and contemplation. But far fewer resources are available to teach us lay-folk not only how to pray like monks, but also how to work like them. August Turak's charming and  insightful book, Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks, goes a long way to redressing that imbalance.

Turak has plenty of street cred as a businessman: an entrepreneur with more than one successful start-up on his resumé, along with a corporate background working for, and with, companies like MTV and Microsoft. But after a skiing accident led to a crisis of faith, he made a retreat at Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery in South Carolina. Like so many of us, he became hooked on the monastic way, and has spent many a night in the abbey since then, not just as a retreatant squirreled away somewhere so he could pray in secret, but as a monastic guest - the most engaged a person can become with monastic life without actually becoming a monk. After working alongside the monks, watching them deal with business problems (including a public relations nightmare when their egg business became the target of a PETA protest), and gaining a sense of how the unique charisms (gifts) of monastic life actually helped the monks to succeed in business on their own terms, Turak wrote this book. What I love about it is that it not only works as an inspirational business text, but it has plenty of spiritual content as well.

The monastic life is countercultural. Most people intuitively grasp this; after all, very few of us outside the cloister choose to be celibate, or to be praying every morning at 4 a.m., or to cultivate silence, simplicity and humility as desired character traits. What August Turak has grasped is how the counter-culture of the monastery not only supports a life devoted to prayer and meditation, but also translates into real-world business savvy. The author leads us through a number of values that he calls the monks' "business secrets," including curbing selfishness by committing to a larger mission, fostering a culture of "excellence for the sake of excellence," and keeping the business running through old-fashioned values like trust and faithfulness (geared not only inward toward the monastic community, but outward toward business partners, vendors and customers).

Although the stories that Turak tells about the various monks he has befriended over the years are charming, he wisely intersperses tales of the monastery with plenty of illustrations from his own in-the-world business career, to drive home the point that the values of monks are not just so idealistic that they cannot work in a secular setting. On the contrary, his stories of fostering community, selflessness, and excellence among his employees and the students he has mentored are some of the most inspiring parts of this book.

Anyone who loves monastic spirituality and also is in business ought to read this book (and not just CEOs!). I think the book is strong enough and fair enough in its depiction of contemporary monasticism that it would work even as an introduction to monastic spirituality for someone not familiar with the contemplative life. I'm quite impressed that Turak has written a book that could just easily be shelved in either the "business" or the "spirituality" section of a bookstore. But that is just what he's done.

Disclosure: a complimentary review copy of the book reviewed in this post was supplied to me by the publisher.

Taken with permission from Carl's blog. Visit his website.