Dom Jean-Pierre Longeat, OSB,
President of the AIM
Work according to the Rule of Saint Benedict
Before presenting the articles which reflect on administration of persons and goods, and the skills required for this even within monasteries, it is important to anchor our reflections in a radically religious vision, that is, personal conversion and the relationships which this implies. So Fr Jean-Pierre Longeat undertakes to bring together prayer and work, not as two successive conditions but as a single statement of conversion to the service of God and all humanity.
The saying ‘Ora et labora’ is a fairly common characterisation of the monastic order. It has even become one of the slogans of the Benedictine order. According to this saying, monastic life should be divided into two equal parts, prayer and work. However, this leaves important elements out of account. St Benedict certainly never thought to use it as a description of the life of monks. For, according to the monastic tradition, work is a form of prayer and prayer is a form of work. It could be said that according to St Benedict the whole life of a monk is at the same time both prayer and work. Furthermore, the father of monks compares the monastery to a workshop (officina) in which the monk works day and night with the tools of good works, which cover all aspects of the life of the brothers or sisters, including prayer, ‘The workshop where we must work diligently with these tools is the cloister of the monastery with stability in the community’ (RB 4).
The work in question is personal conversion, a work of transformation in which the bodily dimension is fully covered by manual labour. When I entered the monastery in the mid seventies people still talked about the Chinese cultural revolution and the little red book of Chairman Mao. Personally I had little experience of this kind of literature, and even if I did not take it as my guide, I found it an interesting idea to ask an intellectual society to have experience of manual labour. But, when I entered the monastery, that is exactly what I found: even the most manual of the brothers were assiduous at lectio divina. I am convinced that our contemporary societies would gain considerably by cleaning up the field of experience in a way which would make it possible to develop a culture which included all our faculties. By working with one’s hands it becomes possible to participate in a transformation of the material creation, and to share with all in the full consciousness of the treasure which it represents. But to live this out fully, prayer is indispensible. In Greek this process of transformation is called praktike, the practical life, the active as opposed to the contemplative life. By this bodily work the heart is transformed, and vice versa. It cannot be too often repeated that our perceptions of the world originate in bodily movements. It is in these mysterious movements, born at our inmost depths, that we experience the fruitful source which lives within us and delivers its energy, its wisdom and its power in the harmonious spread of our intelligence, rational, intuitive or practical.
According to St Benedict, then, it follows that it is indispensible to arrange the monastery as a great workshop of personal conversion. It is wholly arranged so that the monks are constantly engaged in the work of conversion, ‘as far as possible the monastery should be arranged in such a way that everything necessary is to be found there, water, a mill, a garden for the exercise of various skills. In this way the monks will not have to disperse outside, which is not at all helpful towards conversion of heart’ (RB 66).
In view of this we must examine the way in which St Benedict caracterizes manual labour in the monastery. He devotes two chapters to it; the first (48) concerns the manner in which work is organised throughout the day; the second (57) concerns those responsible for the workshops.
Chapter 48: The daily manual labour
The word ‘idleness’ comes several times in this chapter, and provides the key to its understanding, ‘idleness is the enemy of conversion of heart’, ‘one or two seniors should be appointed who will patrol the monastery at the times devoted to reading. They will investigate whether there is any lazy monk, wasting his time in idleness or chatter instead of applying himself to reading, and thus not only harming himself but also distracting others’, ‘on Sundays, someone who is unwilling or incapable of meditating or reading should take up some work rather than remaining idle,’ ‘sick or delicate brothers should be given some work or trade which keeps them from idleness without crushing them or leading them to seek an escape.’
The word ‘work’ therefore applies to reading and meditation as well as manual activity. ‘Idleness’ applies to the condition of someone who recoils from ordinary work. In those days the notion of idleness applies – according to context – either to a value, that of the classic otium, cultivated by the aristocracy, or to laziness and uselessness. In the latter context an idle person is considered negligent and lazy. Since St Benedict means to promote the idea that the whole life of a monk is a work, there is no question of a monk living out otium of any kind. The fact that idleness is designated as the enemy of conversion of heart (or the enemy of the soul) shows the importance of not falling asleep on the way. St Benedict invites the monk to remain constantly alert, though still avoiding being caught up in any tension, which does no good at all. That is why he makes vigilance the basis of the spiritual search.
The Rule for Monks does not oppose idleness to a profitable and useful manual activity; rather, it contrasts a life which is entirely occupied with work, including prayer and reading, with a life in which this perspective plays no part. Nevertheless, St Benedict presumes that this work will not be too burdensome. Right from the beginning of his Rule he says, ‘In making these arrangements we do not intend to prescribe anything rough or burdensome’ (RB Prologue). He says this again several times with regard to particular circumstances, for example, if the bursar of the monastery has to deal with the needs of a large community, he should receive help, ‘so that with their assistance he can do his work with equanimity’ (RB 31). He says the same for other services. For St Benedict the important thing is to give a special place to the work of the heart. He wants the brothers to work without sadness: no one should be troubled or upset in the house of God (RB 31).
It is really important for us to stress this way of viewing community life as a global work including prayer, reading, manual activity and mutual service. Practical activities are not a supplementary work to be done in a utilitarian or money-making way. These occupations, just like others, such as lectio, the liturgy and contemplative prayer, have in view the transformation of the whole person to allow an approach to Christ and to live the mystery of the Pasch in the flesh. This is true of everyone, even the sick and those who on Sundays have difficulty devoting themselves to reading, and so are in danger of idleness. We should stress especially that for Benedict, as for all the early monks, manual labour was also one of the circumstances for meditation. While working with his hands the monk kept in mind a verse of scripture and ceaselessly meditated on it.
Chapter 57 The Artisans of the Monastery
Nevertheless, St Benedict lays considerable emphasis on the social dimension of work. There have always been currents of the monastic tradition which wanted to give prayer a privileged position at the expense of manual labour. St Benedict on the contrary sees the value of this activity. He goes so far as to say, ‘They will be true monks if they live by the work of their hands’ (RB 48). In Chapter 57 he describes how monks should conceive their neg-otium (business, the opposite of leisure).
The first point concerns those who have a competence to be responsible for a money-making activity. Those who have the advantage of this knowledge must cultivate humility. They receive their charge from the superior of the community; this is a wholly different situation from that of those who themselves choose to develop some activity. In our monasteries a regular evaluation of such charges occurs frequently. Of course some will be given the same charge over several years. But spectacular changes have also taken place solely because of the need to satisfy one need or another. St Benedict details that ‘if one of the monks becomes puffed up by what he does, reckoning that he is bringing some profit to the monastery, he should be forbidden to practise his trade and should do it no longer’ (RB 57). So St Benedict is concerned once more, as always, with the spiritual progress of the members of his community, without nevertheless neglecting the practical organisation of the monastery. Holding together these two dimensions is a major characteristic of the monastic movement. To some extent it is a question of avoiding giving a sort of domination over others by work, or – worse still – a hurt to the community by cultivating one’s own sphere on the grounds that it is essential to the well-being of the whole group.
St Benedict is well aware that work can become a self-justifying means of exalting oneself over others, no matter what the price. That is why he recalls that in all commercial activities monks should keep clear of all fraud. On this subject he recalls the example of Ananias and Sapphira in the Acts of the Apostles, who lied about their property in order to avoid giving it to the community, and in order to hold back a part of it. The text makes clear that both of them were put to death for it. In the same way, monks who commit any fraud will die of it. They are not working with their community to free themselves of possessions for the sake of an enrichment of a different order. St Benedict even goes so far as to require monks to sell their products at a slightly lower price than the market-price, to prevent them giving way to avarice! Even if this requirement is perhaps not too easy to put into practice in today’s world, his intention is perfectly clear: manual labour is part of a greater whole. The formula with which he ends the chapter amply confirms this, ‘that in all things God should be glorified, ut in omnibus glorificetur Deus.’
Two other chapters deal with the fact that no monk should make anything his own (chapters 33 and 34). It would be possible to say that monks live a common life more radical than any socio-political conception could equal. The fruit of the work is part of this sharing: the whole of it is given to the community, and the monk who did the work has no claim on it. In addition, 10% of the common fund is normally devoted to gift-aid to the needy. To justify this practice St Benedict refers to the first community at Jerusalem, ‘No one should call anything his own, or be so bold as to take it for himself’ (RB 33, cf. Acts 4.32). Besides, everyone receives what he needs, according to the formula of the Acts, ‘it was distributed to each as any had need’ (Acts 4.35, RB 34).
Chapter 31 The Cellarer
Every monastery has someone in charge of material needs. He is called the Cellarer because originally he had charge of the cellar, that is, he was charge of provisions and to ensure that no one was in need of anything. Nowadays the job of the cellarer is huge: he is overwhelmed with administration, the management of staff, monastic and lay, and all kinds of maintenance work and investment. Of course he is surrounded by helpers, but his work of supervision remains burdensome. In addition he must attend numerous meetings to ensure that his own knowledge remains up-to-date and to take note of legislation. Equally, he must ensure the improvement and acquisition of resources in co-operation with other monastic activities. The advice which St Benedict gives for the exercise of such a charge is extremely precious and can help people who hold such responsibilities in the world.
These are the qualities one would like to find in the Cellarer: wisdom, maturity of character, vigilance, moderation in food and drink; he must not be haughty or nervous, nor hurtful, nor lazy, nor greedy, nor extravagant, but aware of the presence of God and like a father to the whole community. This is what St Benedict insists on most, qualities which make it possible to establish human relationships and live them out in peace. For this reason he must pay close attention to everything the abbot may say to him, but he will also take care not to treat the brethren in any spirit of harshness. St Benedict gives this priceless counsel, ‘If one of the brothers comes to ask something unreasonable of the Cellarer, the Cellarer will not upset him with a contemptuous retort but will humbly give reasons for his refusal of the unreasonable request,’ and a little further on, ‘Above all he must have humility and if he cannot give what is requested he should at least give a good word, according to what is written, “a good word is worth more than the best present”.’
The rule continues that he must take special care of the sick, of children, of guests and or the poor. Priority is given, then, not simply to efficiency, but above all to care for justice and love. Finally, all his life must be marked by a great respect for everything; for him there must be no artificial distinction between sacred and profane, ‘He will regard the furniture and all the goods of the monastery as the sacred vessels of the altar. Nothing is beneath his attention.’
One of the points on which Benedict insists is the fact that the Cellarer will fulfil his task by care for the common good, with the skill and zeal which this requires, but also keeping a balance and moderation. So he will take care at once of others and of himself with the greatest possible equilibrium.
As for the monks, they will be careful not to disturb him without cause, which would get on top of him. So ‘requests and distribution should be made at a suitable time, so that no one in the house of God is troubled or upset.’ The modern reflex of ‘everything at every moment’ has no place in the Benedictine world even though it is occasionally to be found there.
Thus work has a prime position in the Rule of St Benedict. It is the opposite of idleness. The whole of life is a labour of giving birth, in order to bring into life a new man in Christ. The spiritual attitude gives a good perspective for the management of the whole of community life. To approach the life of a group as a work of conversion is a necessary pre-condition for any advance. It is an indispensible condition to put at the centre of this work listening, vigilance, attention to the Word of God, meditation and silence, in order to build an interior well which gives life to the whole being. Only then can the different aspects of an ‘active’ life in community develop effectively, underpinned by the liturgy and fraternal life, in service and profitable activities, welcome and the generosity required by any life shared in truth and love.
Let us hope that in our communities such a way of management is more important than a preoccupation with passing matters, as the Rule of St Benedict, following the Gospel of St Matthew, advises with regard to the abbot: let him seek first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be added to him.