Before considering aspects of work opened up by other chapters of St. Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries, I would like to underline a conclusion that we might already draw. In the previous post, I suggested that owning our limits could lead us to a breakthrough in our experience of work. Such a graced moment could even put us in touch with God at work in our lives. Just think that through. Work is not necessarily how I “earn” free time to give to prayer. If I understand prayer as my relationship with God, work could be the “place” where that relationship is also developed; prayer does not have to be confined to time outside of work. Prayer does not have to be confined to saying prayers or concentrating on one point. Prayer and work do not have to be opposed to one another. That said, I have the responsibility to unpack that claim in some detail!
I am not saying that work replaces prayer. I am not saying “my work is my prayer.” Do you remember, as I do, in the 1960’s and ’70’s busy religious who said just that? I am definitely not saying that vocal prayer or various prayer forms (psalms, rosary, novenas) are not “real” prayer. I am by no means suggesting that prayer takes care of itself or that we can settle into one modality of prayer. I am saying that limiting our expectations or the scope of our imagination can prevent us from recognizing–and, therefore, benefitting from–some surprising occasions of prayer. If I only see work as functional (to get a job done or earn a benefit) I can miss some important facets of work. Not only will I miss encountering prayer through work, I’ll miss whatever fun might be in work, whatever satisfaction and creativity is to be found in work, whatever discovery of the world about me that may be concealed by even the most dull job and bureaucratic routine. For work and prayer not to be opposed experiences, however, I may need a developed prayer life, feeding my prayer with a variety of forms and dedicating time and energy to it. Developing my relationship with God is not unlike developing good bodily health: I don’t confine my meals to one food group. If I discover certain allergies, I may have to cut out something from my diet. I will have to match dieting with exercise. I will feed myself with a variety of foods and complement my nourishment with other disciplines. A classic example is the advice given in the fourteenth century book, The Cloud of Unknowing; the anonymous author teaches the reader a prayer of “unknowing” but also presumes that the reader is paying the Divine Office, is receiving the sacraments, is growing in knowledge of the Faith and is leading a moral life. The particular form of prayer he is teaching belongs in a bigger context, even a bigger prayer context.
Just as prayer is part of a bigger context, so work might actually fit into the context of prayer. Such a notion what have baffled Aristotle or Plato or Plotinus; for them, contemplation would be reserved to the free man who had the leisure and education, the refined mind and soul capable of contemplation. Women, children and slaves, they believed, were closer than free males to the instinctual and material world and were better suited to–or incapable of anything but–physical work. Saying prayers was something else; but saying prayers, even if a duty for all mortals, was palpably “inferior” to contemplation which tasted the sublime and immutable. Christian monasticism stood such a presupposition (prejudice) on its head. For example, when St. Basil the Great embraced the monastic life, his family did the same. His mother and sister, St. Macrina, turned the family home into a sort of convent. Part of the provincial nobility of Cappadocia, his mother was a bit startled that under Macrina’s leadership, their former maid servants and slaves were monastic sisters on an equal footing; and all, Macrina and her mother included, took their share in the bread-baking, carding wool, weaving and so on. But they were motivated by no utopian social vision of a classless society. Rather they were recognizing the simple fact that they were all necessary members of the Body of Christ and it was not the drudgery of some to work but it was a privilege of all to serve the other members. It was not their obligation to keep the plant running but their responsibility (accent on “response”) to serve one another and so serve the Body of Christ. This was their communion with one another and with Christ. And isn’t that another portal, then, to prayer? Unlike the elitist approach of classical philosophy to contemplation, service to the Body of Christ could be communion.
Of course, that’s not to say that these women performed their work in ecstatic joy or floated a foot above the floor as they went about their chores. They did not enjoy visions or consoling revelations as they labored; nor was it any easier for them to love one another than it is for us. And they had to learn the reality of this perspective by working in that perspective. But their orientation was for real and it gave them hope and gave their experience depth because they were reaching into the depth of God’s mercy and love for us. This same spirit permeated the monastic vision of Macrina’s brother, Basil the Great whose Ascetical Discourses influenced St. Benedict. At the conclusion of his Rule, Benedict refers explicitly to Basil as he does to (the very different monastic vision of) John Cassian. His Rule was also influenced by Augustine and Cyprian, among others, but specific reference to these two monastic authors, Cassian and Basil, has to be significant. However, this is no academic foot note! The hinge on which the experience of Benedict, Macrina, Basil–ourselves–depends is the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. This is not a question of psychic hygiene or a formula for feeling at peace with ourselves; even our work, the monastic tradition advises, could be part of the mystery of Christ, the depth and deepest reality of being human.
What about us? Do we talk ourselves into this perspective? Do we suspend our disbelief and cynicism? Do we fling ourselves into pious sentimentality? Or can we actually discover this for ourselves in the grit of our work day? Perhaps St. Benedict can help us here too.
to be continued