Monastic Practices Work


“Put your hands to work, and your hearts to God.”

Shaker saying

“We are not working not simply for ourselves or for our monastic family or for the poor; we are working for God.”


Work, as a Spiritual Practice has for me been the most complex part of Monastic life,  especially Benedictine Monasticism.  Work carries with it all of the negative aspects of labor, drudgery, boredom, and obligation. 

Yet for the Monastic, work is a labor of “love” you might say, certainly a labor of great spiritual value. 

My visit this week with the Jerusalem Community in Cologne, is a typical example of how monks work.  The Jerusalem Community expects all of its Monks Nuns, and interns (they have companions who live with them for one year in the Monastery) to work during the work week.  The work is not full time but half time, in order to dedicate the rest of their time to study, sacred reading, prayer, and practical matters. 

I was invited after my third day visit, to join in the work of the community.  I was asked by one of the brothers (who reminds me of a french version of Sheldon on the series Big Bang Theory) to do some work for the community.  All year long they have been saving the Liturgical Programs or Bulletins they give out to the visitors who participate in their daily liturgies.  Normally there are books and booklets for the midweek liturgies.  But so many people participate in the major feast days that they must make extra copies of the Liturgy for all to participate.  In the sacristy (where most churches and religious communities keep lots of interesting things) was a pile about a meter high of papers stapled together of the all of liturgies from Christmas, New Years, Epiphany, Presentation, Ash Wednesday, and every day in Holy Week and Easter.)  It was my task today to separate all of the sheets that had one side completely white (usually the back page of each program) in order to be used as scrap paper or one side printing in the future. 

My job was to separate each usable sheet from its staple and neatly stack the useable sheets in a pile which would resemble a brand new stack of white copy paper.  Thats how I understood the brother after he asked me in German to unwrinkled all of the separated sheets and put them neatly in a new stack for future use. 

It was a lesson in patience, humility, and exactness.  IN my mind I was thinking of how thorough I thought I had been and after reviewing my work I found many separated sheets still with the staple left in them.  In the middle ages I probably would have received lashes for each staple that I left behind in the booklets.  I counted about 24 staples in all.  It would have been a good lashing. 

What was amazing in this tedious process, was what went through my mind as I was separating each program.  As I saw the titles of the program my mind went back through out the year and where I had been as this community was celebrating the same feasts and Liturgies as I was celebrating in my church in Van Nuys CA thousands of miles away.  As I was trying to do the best job possible I saw how mistakes are inevitable in any work or task.  I also saw how repetition became a tool for learning how to do things better.  As I was completing my work, the Bell rang Noon and I realized that I had been working for nearly four hours on just this one task.  Fortunately, I had finished in time to go to midday prayers. 

Our Author tell us this about work, “as workers, we have the responsibility of shaping and ordering the still unfinished creation in which our lives are set.”  One of the spiritual aspects of Work is that this is the way that we as human beings work side by side with the ongoing creation and creative energy of God’s work and purpose in the world.

“Human work”, says out author, “when it is a harmonious cooperation with nature, furthers the process of universal restoration.” 

“Monastic work is often hidden, humble, anonymous, even monotonous.”  C Cummings. 

In a world where work is highly competitive, money driven, sometimes with un-endless hours with little compensation, the Monastic attitude towards work is completely different. 

“To be ‘hidden with Christ in God’ is the life we have chosen.  (Col 3:2)  It is the life of everyday routine and quiet, steady accomplishments, like a tree that silently grows into maturity.  There is not a great deal of fanfare and commotion as a tree grows, but anyone who sees it after a number of years marvels at it’s height.”

C Cummings 

Self esteem and work

I am at a crucial phase in my life’s journey where I will be leaving the work that I have done as a parish priest for over 26 years.  I have many projects and ideas in mind that I hope to participate in once I am “retired” from Parish Ministry.  But I also am so keen to know how much of my self worth has come not from ‘who I am’, but from ‘what I have done’.     Our author reminds us, “my worth as a person does not come from the positions I hold or the tasks I accomplish in life, but from who I am as a human being and a child of God….simply To BE…to be fully present with calmness, strength, and freedom, is deeper and more central than any activity.”  The most important thing to do, is to be. (Lao-Tse)  I may have to repeat this saying many times over in the months and years to come as I transition from being a Full Time parish priest to a life where my Monastic Vocation begins to take a center stage and purpose in my life’s work. 

I am soon about to be what we call in German, “arbeitslos”.  Without a job!  This is at a time in my life when I am still healthy and fit.  I am 58 years old.  I could easily work as most people in my profession do until I am 72, say fourteen years more.  Everything in our culture says that I am crazy, or lazy, or unrealistic.  Yet, know deep down that I am being called to another kind of work, another kind of vocation.  It will require hours of activity, and most of which will probably not be remunerated financially.  The monastic practice of Work as a spiritual activity will soon take on a life of it’s own for me.

But shouldn’t all of us constantly struggle to not to “live to work”, but,  “work to live” and to live fully!  .  How many of us do not take our day off a week because we feel the impulse or need to be in the office?  How many of us take all of the vacation time allotted to us in our jobs and really get away and relax?  “Monastic life give us license to be creatively inactive and at leisure for God.”  says, C Cummings.  The world today could learn from this Spiritual Practice.   

Work, what ever it is should always be creative and life giving or it is only a “job”.  The Monastic practice of Work, makes all of our efforts day in and day out a “creative enterprise.”  Something we never create alone, but at Gods side as the Creator of all things. 

Finally, Thomas Merton pretty much summed up what should be for all of us who work or don’t work. 

“There is always a temptation to diddle around in the contemplative life, making itsy-bitsy statues.

There is always an enormous temptation in all life to diddle around, making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end…

The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright.

We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.”      Thomas Merton

Pax Benedictina +

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