Tuesday, February 12, 2008

On the Daily Manual Work, Part 1

Dear friends,
Last Lent, I wrote a more or less line-by-line commentary on Chapter 49 of the Rule, On the Observance of Lent. Response to this and my more recent commentary on the Ladder of Humility were quite positive, so I thought as part of my Lenten discipline this year, I would write another close commentary, this time on Chapter 48, "On the Daily Manual Work." I will do this concurrently with a second essay, a series of four talks for the monastic chapter this Lent, on "Suffering, Forgiveness and Reconciliation."

So let us begin where we ought, with the title of this chapter. This year I will give you the Latin and my translation first.


"On the daily manual work"

One of the Benedictines mottos is Ora et labora: Pray and work; or so it is usually translated. Let me point out here that the phrase is not Benedict's but is a nineteenth-century creation. In English, we are more accustomed to saying 'manual labor' than we are 'manual work'. St. Benedict has reversed these common connections. "Ora et labora" would be better translated, using English cognates, as "Pray/beseech/'orate' and labor" These are two distinct activities: imploring God and toiling physically. Women labor to give birth: it is an activity full of exertion, pain, fraught with the possibility of 'toiling in vain'. St. Benedict later uses the word labor with the distinctive unpleasant connotations I've pointed out. He says that if the brothers themselves have to do field work, monks should not therefore be saddened, but should take a kind of pride in the fact that the monastic Fathers of old as well as the Apostles, lived by the labore manuum suarum, 'the work of their own hands' (not someone else's!).

So why here does St. Benedict use the word opus instead ? Perhaps by giving you the word in its nominative form, I have hinted at the answer. First, what does Strunk and White's Latin dictionary have to say about opus versus labor? Opus also means work, but it carries with it more of a sense of accomplishment, delight, productivity, 'works' that outlast us. Beethoven was the first composer to label his 'works' as 'opera', as in the wonderful Opus 59 String Quartets. Opus also carries the sense of 'service', akin to the Hebrew avodah, the privileged temple work of the holy people of Israel, and especially the priests and Levites. From this sense, we get the phrase, common in Benedict, 'opus Dei' which describes the work of praising God in the oratory.

What St. Benedict has in mind, by using the phrase opus manuum rather than labor manuun, is undoubtedly the slow, untroubled, creative work that monasteries are famous for. This is not primarily meant to be back-breaking, but it might include the hard work of the harvest, of digging wells, clearing land, herding animals. But there also must be room for artisans: for writing icons, writing music, building choir stalls, baking cookies, installing lighting, copying and illuminating manuscripts, sewing, and so on. This is all 'manual work', and some of it takes genuine physical effort, but the primary thing is that it is not principally intellectual work. It is work that engages the body and the mind together, keeping both from otiositas, the idleness which is the enemy of the soul. The phrase also recalls for us that our primary work is praising God, not the work of our hands. The latter serves the former.

Where possible, this work should be accompanied by the continual meditative prayer prized by monks since the desert days in Egypt. In Egypt the preferred work was basket-weaving: it allowed the monk to listen to prayers being read or to pray quietly, meditating over Scripture while his hands produced handiwork to support his withdrawal from the world. Ideal monastic work is gentle, slow, contemplative; but as in so many things, monks must discern. We will see St. Benedict's own wisdom in action in many places in this chapter.

In our own lives, in which more and more people spend their 9 to 5 job at computers or in retail and service, do we make time for real operi manuum? How often I feel better after taking a walk, practicing piano, shoveling snow, baking bread, painting signs, and so on. Such simple work dispels sadness and anxiety, frees our minds from ruminating over the same old sob stories and often produces fruits that others can enjoy. Is there a small hobby that each of us has that can be turned into this type of healthy work? Can we learn to see our 'labor' as productive in this way as well? This is a serious challenge in our world right now.

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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