One way to consider the role of work in Benedictine spirituality is to look up references to “work” mentioned in the Rule. The previous post considered how St. Benedict’s teaching in his time and circumstances was not necessarily the final word on work; what he has to say does not explicitly deal with creativity in work. I think it would be a false conclusion to say, then, that a true interpretation of work in the Benedictine tradition precludes any expression of creativity. Granted, some would disagree with me and insist that I should just accept that limitation and that creative solutions to work situations are leading me astray. But I would suggest reading the citations on work in the context of the entire Rule and within the context of the Gospels (which the Rule claims to express in terms of monastic living) is another way to understand work in the Benedictine tradition.
So that is an alternate perspective from which to tease out the potential of Benedictine insight. How does work fit into the life described by St. Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries? In Chapter Seven on Humility, St. Benedict provides a foundation for the practice of mindfulness, though that is not the subject of the chapter. In a variety of ways, he motivates humility, interior and exterior, through our awareness of God’s awareness of us; that what we say or do is not unknown to God and that we should be cognizant of God’s awareness of us. That could leave us terribly, embarrassedly self-conscious; or could lead us in a whole other direction. We could relax into God’s loving awareness of ourselves and respond by being alert to God’s presence in creation, in ourselves, in the events of our life, in being itself. Such mindfulness means that just being alive is a potential for prayer. Just conscientiously performing a job can be the arena for awareness of God. Well, that would be a pretty creative use of routine work, wouldn’t it?
Chapters Eight through Twenty-One consider the nuts-and-bolts, if you will, of common prayer in choir. When the various offices are celebrated, what psalms are said when, how the Psalter is divided, when to use or not use “Alleluia”–all that is pinned down without much theory or a theology of prayer. Those Chapters read like rubrics. However there’s the very important Chapter Nineteen that tells us, We believe that the Divine presence is everywhere and that the eyes of the Lord behold the good and the evil in everyplace. Especially should we believe this, without any doubt, when we are assisting at the Work of God. And how does the Work of God, as Benedict calls the Liturgy of the Hours, function in the day? It interrupts the activity of the day. In the busy monastic life, monks and nuns very unproductively put down their work and not only go to pray; they stop, take a breath, so to speak, and actually make art. They just don’t rush through a prayer formula: they sing! In an efficient and production-driven world, this makes no sense. But in a life offered to God this either re-enforces the mindfulness of God or get’s us back on that track. The interruption of routine re-enforces mindfulness. The Japanese Carmelite friar, Augustine Ichiro Okumura, used to talk about the joints, the rings of the flexible bamboo that make it strong and enduring as a simile of prayer that interrupts the continuity of the day and strengthens our prayer, our relationship with God.
Isn’t this a practice that can illuminate anyone’s work? Aren’t we told, on an entirely other level, to take a break from work on the computer after twenty or thirty minutes, to walk around, to do some other kind of work for a while? Physically, it is healthy to interrupt our work. Spiritually, it can be just as healthy to interrupt a job–in a responsible way, of course–and… And what? Probably not celebrate pontifical Vespers in cope and with incense! But there might be enough time to recite one of the minor hours. However, if I’m just going to rush through it and get it off my check list, I really haven’t interrupted work but have just added on another job. It might be better to pause briefly and catch my breath. Perhaps support the moment with a physical prop–a pebble I picked up on retreat, a small cross, a knotted prayer rope–something that puts me in touch (literally!) with the sacred so that for a few brief moments I’m reconnected to God. I’m not guaranteeing that I’ll attack work with new vigor and energy. I might, but that’s not the point. I may be reminded that the job itself isn’t the point but my place in God’s life, in God’s plan is what it’s about. Even at work.