“The Benedictine life shown in the Rule is undramatic and unheroic; it simply consists in doing ordinary things of daily life carefully and lovingly, with the attention and the reverence that can make of them a way of prayer, a way to God,” (Esther de Waal, Living with Contradiction, p. 71).
The main work of the monastic community was the Opus Dei, the Work of God. Today, many may imagine this work to be theological writing, praying, preaching, “church work” but keep in mind that monasteries were not built in urban areas, they were primarily rural and agrarian in nature. Monks worked in the fields planting and harvesting, in the kitchen preparing and cleaning, in the classroom studying and teaching, in the chapel singing and praying. Benedict designed a day that was filled but balanced. When not in chapel for prayer, the monks would be working, praying, reading, eating, or resting.
All types of work are equal and all important. By serving one another, the brothers would promote feelings of respect, not only in themselves but throughout the community (RB 35:1-2). Benedict also gives us a model in which the worker is respected and cared for: the kitchen workers assigned for that week receive something to drink and some bread in addition to their regular portion an hour before they are to serve the meals. Thus, the work is not burdensome and can be done without grumbling or complaining (RB 35:11-12).
Not only are workers respected, the tools used in the monastery are to be treated carefully, as carefully as the sacred vessels on the altar (RB 31:10-11). Benedict teaches that everything is sacred and to be reverenced, from the humblest to the most glorious. The sacred pervades every part of life.
Benedict understood the value of work nut also understood that to define oneself by one’s work was dangerous. Work is a means to glorify the Creator. The skilled may practice their craft, but only with humility. Should they become conceited with their abilities or with the profit they brought to the monastery, their work would be stopped. Only with proper humility could the individual return to his or her craft (RB 57:1-3).
The morning after I preached my first sermon without a manuscript, Fr. Paul Winton took me out to breakfast and handed me a metal vegetable peeler. This gesture was to remind me to remain humble and never forget in a monastery I would be sent to the kitchen to peel potatoes for a week. That peeler remains in my desk drawer and comes out once a week. For Benedict, work was just part of the life of a monk, a life that was to be well-ordered and well-balanced with work, prayer, study, and rest.
Holiness of Work
Jesus wore many hats. He moved from carpentry or stone cutting to ministry. In the latter role Jesus taught the crowds, instructed his disciples, healed the sick, exorcized demons, debated with religious zealots, and endured humiliation. Throughout all this work, Jesus had one purpose: he glorified God. This focus is what grounded him and gave him stamina, courage, and clarity. For us this means that in our work we are not just to do, we are to be. Our real work is to be as we show the presence of the Divine in our daily tasks. If rooted in the Divine, then it does not matter what we do, it is how we do the task before us that is most important. The how calls us to be people who respect whatever work the Divine has given us to do; therefore, all our work is a holy endeavor.
Work is a way we seek God. Work is the way we use our God-given gifts in service to others. Work provides opportunities to be in relationship with others. Work can be an opportunity to listen for God each day. What we do as our work is important; yet our true work is beyond what we do with our hands and our minds.
Benedict provides a model for community labor, family life, workplace harmony where there is no hierarchy of importance regarding the type of work. Each person serves the other in respect, and work is framed by each person’s relationship with their Creator. Instead of complaining that someone cannot do something that we can do, we can simply offer to help. We can respect the contributions that each makes in the community.
The Benedictine view of work has a stewardship component: we are stewards of the gifts, talents, and skills that have been given to us. Everything we have been given has been loaned to us by the Divine and through our work we can find our way to a deeper relationship with the Divine.
Benedict taught balance: manual labor, reading Scripture, corporate worship, private prayer, meals, rest, and sleep. We can keep in mind the importance of our work yet not let work determine the structure of our lives by allotting the time necessary for each task we have before us – no more, no less.
God’s Presence into Your Work
- First thing in the morning, give your day to the Divine by asking yourself, “What is the true Work I am being asked to do today?
- Sit at your desk, pray for the Divine’s presence throughout the day.
- Imagine the Divine, sitting or standing next to you offering encouragement, support, and positive energy.
- Give thanks throughout the day for completing a task, for something new that was learned, for a mistake or error that provides humility.
- Listen for the Divine’s voice through family, coworkers, friends. When you hear that Divine voice, carefully listen and respond (obedience).
- Remember that your work is holy underneath all the vacuumed rugs, buried in the countless string of emails, and entangled in the voice messages and Google reminders your work is spiritual.
Bless the Tools of Your Work
- What are the tools of your work?
- How do these tools allow success in both the big picture and in the small?
- How might reverence be shown for these tools each time they are used?
- Is it possible to give thanks for electronic devices, hand tools, schoolbooks, etc.? How might this impact how I approach my work?
Arrow prayers are snippets of Scripture of prayers that remind us that prayer is the key to unlocking the awareness of grace flowing through us and our work. Below are some examples:
- Lord, you are my shepherd. (Ps 23:1)
- God, you are my light and my salvation. (Ps 27:1)
- My God, I put my trust in you (Ps 25:1b)
- Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev. 22:20)
- Prepare the way for the Lord (Isaiah 40:3)
- Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me (Jesus Prayer)
Your invited to journal for your own edification and/or add comments to the blog feed of what worked or did not work for you when dealing with obedience. Next Wednesday we will complete our study of the Benedictine Rule with the topic of creating a holy Lent anytime.
May you experience a holy Lent that offers you a place of solace and holiness.