“The Labors of our Occupation”: Can Augustine Offer “Any” Insight on Vocation? -- By: Megan DeVore

Journal: Southern Baptist Journal of Theology
Volume: SBJT 22:1 (Spring 2018)
Article: “The Labors of our Occupation”: Can Augustine Offer “Any” Insight on Vocation?
Author: Megan DeVore

“The Labors of our Occupation”:
Can Augustine Offer “Any” Insight on Vocation?

Megan DeVore

Megan DeVore is Associate Professor of Church History and Early Christian Studies in the Department of Theology, School of Undergraduate Studies at Colorado Christian University, Lakewood, Colorado. She earned her PhD specializing in Early Christianity from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David in the United Kingdom. Dr. DeVore is a member of the North American Patristic Society, the American Society of Church History, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the American Classical League.

Around the year 401, a curious incident transpired near Roman Carthage. A cluster of nomadic long-haired monks had recently wandered into the area, causing a stir among locals. These monks took the gospel quite seriously; that is, they lived very literally one part of a gospel, “Consider the birds of the air, for they neither sow, nor reap, nor gather into barns … Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they labor not” (Matt 6:26–29). They were apparently not only shunning all physical labor on behalf of meditative prayer, but they were also (at least according to Augustine’s depiction of the situation) imposing such unemployment upon others, namely local barbers. In response, Augustine penned a unique pamphlet. It takes the form of a retort, but as it unfolds, a commentary on the dignity and duty of work emerges—manual labor, in itself significant, as well as “the labors of our occupation” (labores occupationem nostrarum) and “labor according to our rank and duty” (pro nostro gradu et officio laborantibus, De Op. Mon. 29).1

This theme and brief excerpts seem to gesture towards an intriguing and typically unacknowledged avenue in Augustinian thought. They are not alone. Numerous letters written to bishops, civil officials, and friends, myriad homiletic exhortations, and unexpected comments in doctrinal works converge to reveal complexity, connection, and nuance in Augustine’s articulations regarding what we would today designate as “vocation” and work. Yet many chronological surveys in larger tomes on vocation only briefly mention Augustine, if at all; at times, Augustine is starkly depicted as a fountainhead for the supposedly stunted Medieval popular opinion about vocation. As Paul Marshall wrote,

He employed the distinction of an “active life” and a “contemplative life”… The vita activa took in almost every kind of work, including that of studying, preaching,...

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