Wednesday, February 20, 2008

On the Daily Manual Work, Part 4

Ideoque hac dispositione credimus utraque tempore ordinari: id est ut a Pascha usque kalendas Octobres a mane exeuntes prima usque hora paene quarta laborent quod necessarium fuerit.
And thus we believe that this arrangement should be followed regarding the times for each [i.e. manual work and reading]: from Easter until the first of October, going out after the first hour until just before the fourth, they will labor at whatever work is necessary. [RB 48: 2-3]

On aspect of the Rule which has been almost universally ruled out in today's world is the common method of telling time that was used before mechanical clocks were perfected. Benedict's day consisted of the daylight, divided into twelve hours. In summer, these hours were rather long. In southern Italy an hour would be something like 70 of our minutes each. Likewise, the hours of night in the height of summer would have been closer to 50 of our minutes. This would mean, among other things, that the time for sleep in summer would be barely seven hours, given the time alloted to Compline and Vigils, both prayed in the dark. On the other hand, even 'rising at the eighth hour of the night' [RB 8] in the winter, the monks would still manage to have a solid nine and a half to ten hours in which to sleep.

Benedict seems to expect that the brothers will be working outdoors, even if he feels obliged to give them some reason for doing this humble work (remember that a sun tan in his day was not a sign of wealth and leisure, but a sign of a 'blue-collar' laborer!). Midday in Italy is and was too hot for heavy work at midday, so the monks were to work in the cooler morning hours. The above schedule probably allows for work from about 6:00 a.m. until 9:30 a.m.

This sort of foresight is what gives Benedict such a good reputation. He is not interested in pushing his monks for all their worth. His army is not about 'boots on the ground' toughness but about the tough self-emptying that charity requires. The fantastic penances of the desert monks seem to cast Benedictines in a weaker light, and yet it is the Bendictines that have persevered while Egyptian-style monasticism has only made fleeting reappearances throughout history. In any case, St. Benedict is not interested in working for the sake of work. In this, I suggest that he has his precursor in the great Father of desert monsticism, Antony the Great. I close with two anecdotes about Antony's famous discretion.

Cassian writes of a meeting of abbas in which the various old monks gave opinions on which virtue is most important in monastic life. Different monks proposed vigils, fasting, hospitality, or solitude. And finally Antony spoke, "All the things you mentioned are indeed necessary....But...we often see that those who keep fasts and vigils most rigorously [etc]...are so suddenly deceived that they are unable to bring to a satisfactory conclusion the work that they have begun, and they cap off the highest fervor and a praiseworthy life with a disreputable end....For although the works of the aforesaid virtues abounded in them, the lack of discretion by itself did not permit those works to endure to the end." [Conferences 2:2.3-4--tr. Boniface Ramsey]

from the Apophthegmata:
"A hunter in the desert saw Abba Antony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brethren, the old man said to him, 'Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.' So he did. The old man then said, 'Shoot another,' and he did so. Then the old man said, 'Shoot yet again,' and the hunter replied 'If I bend my bow so much I will break it.' Then the old man said to him, 'It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs.' When he heard these words the hunter was pierced by compunction and, greatly edified by the old man, he went away. As for the brethren, they went home strengthened." [Antony 13--tr. Benedicta Ward]

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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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