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The culture of “efficiency” and how to escape it

The culture of "efficiency" and how to escape --FemCatholic.com

Our society is very concerned with productivity and efficiency. As with most social phenomena, there are a variety of factors that contributed to this. One factor that I find fascinating, however, is the so-called “Protestant work ethic”.

I had never even heard of the Protestant work ethic – although it’s got a whole Wikipedia page unto itself – until senior year of college in my Intro to Sociology course (yes, it was a class of freshman + me). Sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) wrote an entire book called The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, in which he claims that Protestant (especially Calvinist) theology, laid the foundation for capitalism. It’s a very fascinating argument, but I can’t do it justice here. The overall (oversimplified) argument is that, in some Protestant circles, there has historically been a significant emphasis placed on hard work and industry as a sign of one’s “election by God.”

Hence, the emergence of capitalism.

I suppose it’s no surprise, then, that American Christianity has elevated “industry” to a virtue. Think I’m exaggerating? I was shocked to discover recently that sloth (the deadly sin, not the animal) is NOT the same as laziness.

Sloth, or acedia, is more accurately defined as spiritual carelessness or apathy. That might seem like splitting hairs, but it’s very different. Dorothy Sayers described acedia as: “A sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die.”

Sloth is… A sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die.

Laziness can be a manifestation of sloth, to be sure, but so can busyness. Indeed, I think we moderns more often manifest acedia in busyness. We are constantly distracting ourselves from things that really matter, either because we don’t care, or we’re afraid to care. The end result? We never address what is actually important.

Now, there are two things I want to clarify before I continue:

  1. Hard work is good. It is good to put in a full day’s work, and doing your work with intentionality and with love is a beautiful way to glorify God. So whatever I say after this point, I’m not telling you to be lazy.
  2. My point here is NOT to demonize Protestantism or Protestants. Not at all. Some of my dearest friends are Protestants, and I think there is a lot that Catholics can learn from our brothers and sisters in other denominations.

Now, it would be easy to blame today’s fast-paced world, the constant stimulation that social media offers, and consumerism (to name just a few) for our obsession with busyness. Yet Blaise Pascal, writing in the 1600s, penned this maxim: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” So it would seem we’ve been struggling with busyness for a lot longer than the Internet has been around.

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So what is there to do?

If you’re like me, there are times when you just don’t know how to escape the busyness. Your brain is so used to being “on” that it doesn’t know how to turn off anymore.

Your brain is so used to being “on” that it doesn’t know how to turn off anymore.

I’d like to suggest that the answer – or at least, a very solid start – can be found by looking to Mary. Specifically, look to Mary by way of the Rosary.

Praying the Rosary forces us to take a good twenty minutes and slow down. It forces us, frankly, to be inefficient. Twenty minutes saying the same things over and over again. Twenty minutes essentially doing… nothing.

But I think that’s exactly why it’s the remedy – the therapy, if you will – that we all need. Especially in today’s world of constant activity.

Because the Rosary is not about activity. The Rosary is about relationship. Relationship with Mary, but above all relationship with God. Speaking for myself, I don’t know how to slow down, so Mary teaches me. She meets me halfway, gives me something to do while I lift my soul to God in prayer. Say this prayer, touch that bead. Say this prayer, touch that bead. All the while, my mind wanders. Sometimes I’m thinking of the people that I desperately want her to pray for. Sometimes I’m meditating on the current mystery. Sometimes I’m focusing on the words of the prayer. And sometimes, yeah, I get distracted.

Efficiency is not a virtue.

Through it all, slowly, I am learning to be still. I have learned that, even in prayer, I don’t always have to be chattering. God wants to hear from me, but He also wants to be with me, and spending time in prayer just being with God is not a waste. It may be inefficient, but efficiency is not a virtue. You know who is efficient? Satan. Satan is constantly measuring, constantly finding fault, constantly weighing costs and cutting his losses. God is not efficient. Not in the least. He loves superabundantly, overflowing with endless mercy for us.

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So why is this a feminist topic? Benedict XVI (Cardinal Ratzinger at the time) said this:

“Activism, the will to be ‘productive’, ‘relevant’, come what may, is the constant temptation of the man, even of the male religious. And this is precisely the basic trend in the ecclesiologies… that present the Church as a ‘People of God’ committed to action, busily engaged in translating the Gospel into an action program with social, political and cultural objectives. But it is no accident if the word ‘Church’ is of feminine gender. In her, in fact, lives the mystery of motherhood, of gratitude, of contemplation, of beauty, of values in short that appear useless in the eyes of the profane world…”

He never says that women are immune to what he calls “activism”. Nor does he say that activity and productivity are innately wrong. What he does say is that we must not reduce the Church to a social activist club. Yes, Christians are called to serve and love our neighbors, but if we lose sight of the reason why, we are not Christians anymore. Ratzinger sees the feminine genius as an integral part of the identity of the Church, without which the Church would cease to be.

He continues:

“Mary is ‘figure’, ‘image’ and ‘model’ of the Church. Beholding her the Church is shielded against the aforementioned masculinized model that views her as an instrument for a program of social-political action. In Mary, as figure and archetype, the Church again finds her own visage as Mother and cannot degenerate into the complexity of a party, an organization or a pressure group in the service of human interests, even the noblest. If Mary no longer finds a place in many theologies and ecclesiologies, the reason is obvious: they have reduced faith to an abstraction. And an abstraction does not need a Mother…

“With her destiny, which is at one and the same time that of Virgin and of Mother, Mary continues to project a light upon that which the Creator intended for women in every age, ours included, or, better said, perhaps precisely in our time, in which – as we know – the very essence of femininity is threatened. Through her virginity and her motherhood, the mystery of woman receives a very lofty destiny from which she cannot be torn away. Mary undauntedly proclaims the Magnificat, but she is also the one who renders silence and seclusion fruitful. She is the one who does not fear to stand under the Cross, who is present at the birth of the Church. But she is also the one who, as the evangelist emphasizes more than once, ‘keeps and ponders in her heart’ that which transpires around her. As a creature of courage and of obedience she was and is still an example to which every Christian – man and woman – can and should look.”

From Mary, the Church and all of her members learn how to live in relationship, how to focus on the whole individual, how to love with a profound, personal, and particular love. Our faith is ultimately not about doing things at all, no matter how beautiful, true, or good. Our faith is about love, and Mary knows how to love. In a way, she taught Jesus how to love. She loves to ponder in her heart the mysteries of her Son’s life, and she loves when we join her.


Emily Archer is a FemCatholic Contributor. She is a recent graduate of Baylor University, having written her undergraduate honors thesis on her three great loves: authentic feminism, faithful Catholicism, and traditional fairy tales.

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