Holy work

Daily Reading for July 8

What sort of things do we think are holy? God is holy, so whatever is to do with God is holy too. This leads us very naturally to think about prayer, going to church, acting justly and other spiritual things. All of these are holy and worthwhile, but if we concentrate on them alone, we miss out some very large parts of our lives. Most people spend much of their time working for their living, and working for and within their families. Our daily lives often seem to have nothing holy about them at all. This is a thoroughly un-Christian way of looking at things and the Rule of St. Benedict provides something of an antidote.

In Chapter 48 of the Rule, Benedict makes arrangement for the work of the monks. He begins with a remark that has become a proverb, “Idleness is the enemy of the soul.” He goes on to describe the timetable and anticipates that some communities will be so small or poor that they will have to do quite a lot of work. It is worth reflection that the only practice St. Benedict explicitly commends as monastic in the whole of the Rule is that the monks should earn their living.

Yet work is not often seen as a part of the spiritual life. St. Benedict meets this head on. For Benedict, idleness is the enemy because monks who do not work well will not pray well. Therefore he says, monks “should have specified periods for manual labor as well as for prayerful reading.” Work is given a protected place in the monastic timetable, just as much as prayer and the Opus Dei. This is quite a radical position. The force of St. Benedict’s commendation of work is not simply that it is another good monastic practice, but there is something about work which sums up the goals of monastic, and hence of Christian life.

From “Work” by Laurence McTaggart, quoted in The Benedictine Handbook (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2003).

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