In the Chapter On The Daily Manual Labor (Chapter 48), St. Benedict makes the bold statement, then they are truly monks when they live by the labor of their hands as did our fathers and the Apostles. It’s one of those sentences I wish he had expanded and “unpacked” beyond the legitimizing precedent. Did he have any insight into why the Apostles and the early monks worked? Did they choose to work? What was the value? What did it contribute to their lives, to spreading the Gospel or actualizing the Gospel?
I would not speculate on what might have been in St. Benedict’s mind but from the time I was a postulant, I’ve found this an encouraging text. Why? There’s never been a lack of work to do. I don’t believe that the monastic value of work is quantitative, as if the more work I do in a single day makes me more of a monk that day. I hope it’s not an exaltation of productivity. Certainly, the immediate context is describing communities that cannot afford servants or serfs to do the work for them. Clearly monks and nuns aren’t gentlefolk, “above” performing manual labor. Social prestige should not characterize our vocation.
Whatever Benedict may have had in mind, this observation also has a life of its own worth considering. More and more I link it with the Rule’s admonition of selling the work of the monastery’s craftsmen at lower than common market price and respecting the property and tools of the Abbey as we would the accoutrements of the altar. There’s more to work than making a profit or keeping us out of trouble when we’re idle (which is a real concern for St. Benedict). The means of work are not detachable from the monastic live, and the tools are not disposable. Work and the media we employ for work can be encounters with the sacred in very banal circumstances. I’m reluctant to be more specific than that or weigh down those few references from the Rule with ideology. Why? The Rule isn’t about theories but living; and in real life circumstances, I find I can get more out of an evocative–even provocative–phrase than a developed ideology. Such open-ended observations allow application in a wide variety of experience and open insights from concrete actions and choices.
I find a phrase, like that above from Chapter 48, a call to awareness and mindfulness when I enter work situations, as important to jobs I enjoy as to the ones I don’t. There’s more than enjoyment or satisfaction, tedium or frustration at work. There is certainly a connection with generations of monks and nuns who served their community members and perpetuated their communities by performing necessary tasks–nothing heroic, mind you, but necessary. At the same time, performing those needed tasks was–can still be–part of their commitment to the monastic vocation, to truly seeking God. How we respond in such situations can bring us closer to God or be part of our flight from God; can test the narrowness or inadequacy of our God image; can surprise us when God, surprisingly, makes an “appearance” amidst our daily challenges or accomplishments.
I feel that this is another example of the Rule of St. Benedict appealing beyond the boundaries of the cloister and applying to various employments, occupations and responsibilities: any of us can pursue our work as a laboratory where we encounter God’s creation, serve others and cultivate that relationship with God which is the soul of prayer. Work isn’t just instrumental, a way to earn a living. Work can express our relationship with the world around us. As such it will not always be rewarding, just as life isn’t. But if I believe it can be no more than instrumental (paying bills), I will never notice what else it could be. If I simplistically equate self-satisfaction with work’s value, I’ll miss what else work, even tedious work, can yield. Conversely, looking for deeper dimensions in work, may motivate me not to be exploited on the job, not to over-work, not to reduce my life to how much I can accomplish or equate myself with my work-contributions, earning power or talents. After all, I own none of those; they are visitors and they may not always call. A day will come when they visit me no more.
As much as some may evade it, work is an inevitable part of life. The Rule of St. Benedict tells us that it can be more than a necessary evil; in fact, work may not be an evil in and of itself. And work can be part of our discipleship, our commitment to the Gospel.