Few historians suggest that fifth-century Europe was an optimal period in which to live. It wasn’t. The old social order, unequivocally imposed by the Roman emperor through his army—fearsome as it had been—had collapsed. Nothing had yet replaced the fallen order. The flux was dangerous. People were generally nervous in the resulting instability. Yet, despite these uneasy conditions, one of the great figures of Western Christendom emerged to write a document on how to live life properly; a document that remains influential today. That person was Saint Benedict of Nursia. The document is known, simply, as the Rule. The Rule was adopted by Benedictine monasteries across the world, and has persisted down through the centuries. Its precepts have been studied and implemented by numerous communities well beyond the confines of the Benedictine order.
I accidentally discovered, for myself, during my convalescence from cancer, one specific value of Benedict’s Rule, his endorsement of labor as a necessary daily component of the balanced life.
Benedict seems to have been an exceptionally practical spiritual man. Theorizing was not his way. He gave useful advice on achieving balance in one’s life. And he gave instructions on administering community life, as well. With respect to the first, his Rule is sometimes popularly summarized by the words “orare et labore”, for Benedict counseled that an individual’s life should consist of a balance of daily prayer and daily labor.
A prayerful attitude is fostered by an appreciation of “the Other” in one’s life. Humans have sought to understand “the Other” in various ways. I suspect we have managed to misunderstand “the Other” in even more ways. I am blessed with having a keen relationship with whom I understand to be God. I realize that other people may be skeptical about such a notion. For those who are, I would suggest they might consider Benedict’s counsel for prayerfulness as pointing to the importance of self-reflection—not in a self-absorbed or self-referential attitude—but in a humble, objective, consistent and continual evaluation of one’s life on a daily basis.
Benedict’s definition of “labore” is literally much closer to what we, today, call “labor” than it is to what we commonly think of as “work”. Here’s the difference. “Work” consists of tasks and assignments one performs for remuneration. “Work” requires concentration and dedication. It can become addictive for the mental or egoistic satisfaction it provides; just as it can be for the value of the remuneration one receives for performing it. Benedict would likely counsel to not let the work of, for example, administrating a monastery get out of balance with an abbot’s prayer life, or, indeed, of his(her) “labors”.
“Labor” is of a different quality than “work”. “Labor” involves dedication and attention, as does work. “Labor” can also be addictive (perhaps, most especially, as an escape). But “labor” leaves considerable room for being “in tune”. It is usually difficult and manual in nature. It can be restorative.
I’ve already written enough about neuropathy (complained about it too much, is probably closer to the truth). For me, neuropathy is disabling because it interrupted and inhibited my ability to “work” (especially on my computer). It also conflicted with my workshop maintenance tasks. I commented to Monica that it was fortunate that I undertook, early-on, my “screw-sorting” activity. With the present numbness of my fingertips and my poor fine motor control, I never would be able to accomplish that task, today. (I’m assured by my doctors that the neuropathy will pass as my nerves recover from the unintended collateral damage they sustained during my chemotherapy. But the medical experts also caution that it can take months—even years—for the nerves to recover. “It just depends… on a lot of different things.”)
Without blaming neuropathy anew, let me simply observe that while my fine motor control may have been damaged, my gross motor control still functions tolerably well. Gross motion is more forgiving and susceptible to correction than is fine motor control. A few weeks ago I embarked on a little landscaping project in our back yard that unexpectedly became a major one. In the doing, I learned a good deal from Saint Benedict.
The project involved digging some three square yards of stubborn, sticky serpentine clay from a hillside, and shoring up the resulting escarpment with a 5-foot high brick-and-mortar wall. Needless to say, the project took me several weeks, although, at first, I did my best to finish it in one day! The result of my initial enthusiastic (if false) start was a considerable amount of muscular pain in places I’d not felt such pain for years. I began to pace myself and learn when to quit for the day.
As I learned the lessons of labore, I kept receiving little “quizzes” to test my deeper understanding of the subject matter. For example, one morning I came across a little root where I was digging. The little root rapidly revealed itself to be a gigantic one. Dealing with it distracted me for the next two days and slowed me from achieving my intended goal. It reminded me that I was in no race to reach my goal. It helped me find satisfaction in eventually literally uprooting the wayward obstacle. The digging itself, of course, resulted in a excavation pile. The pile had to be bagged for transport, maneuvered out of the back yard and be staged for loading into our station wagon, when Monica had no need of the vehicle, herself. Driving the bags to a permitted disposal destination, unloading them, saving the bags for the next load (and cleaning Monica’s car) were all part of the labor. I won’t go into the details of selecting and hauling bricks the opposite direction, mixing the mortar, and constructing the wall with attention to levelness, consistency and aesthetics. My “little” project turned out to be laborious, indeed.
The undertaking of this labor turned out to have been highly therapeutic. Not only did I experience a great satisfaction, every day, at seeing visible progress towards my goal, but also I was, every evening, physically tired (not to say, exhausted). That improved my sleeping patterns. This was a tiredness of the body in a healthy reaction to exertion; not the stressful exhaustion that came from worrying about my cancer. The labor surely contributed to my physical and mental health, which is improving daily.
Not only did I achieve my goal, but I became more aware that the process was worth more of my attention than was my goal. Concentrating on my goal only stressed me; settling into a pattern of overcoming the individual challenges of the process could be pleasurable. Relaxing into the rhythm of work resulted in achieving my goal. Reaching it, almost came as a bit of a surprise (maybe even disappointment)… the goal, itself ,was far less important than the value of the details, enjoyment and lessons the process provided.
The mental attentiveness to the task at hand—whether it was digging out an inconvenient root or judging the proper viscosity of mortar—absorbed my mind peacefully, driving out unnecessary worries or unanswerable questions. Working with the soil, bricks, shrubs in the comfortable foggy Bay Area weather, or in its bright sunshine, forced me to recognize differences and appreciate the materials with which I was dealing. Picking up a tool—whether a shovel or a spade or a trowel—brought to mind the powerful mystery of tools, per se, in human endeavors and accomplishment. All these (and more) came as ancillary by-products of labor. They could not, as easily, have come from work… or prayer, for that matter.
St. Benedict advised that labor played an important role in a monk’s life, because it provided access to knowledge and understanding in a way prayer did not. Labor had a practical consequence that is augmented by, and strengthens the sincerity of prayer.
The trick, today, is to include “work” in the balancing act of life that Benedict described. Work, since Benedict’s time, has become a dominant necessity in our contemporary culture where money has become a substitute for goods made by hand, or services provided by skilled persons. It’s clear to me, after engaging in my labor, that labor deepened my reflections about myself and my condition, and it animated my prayer life with a certain fresh humility and objectivity. Involving orare et labore with my work should help me not only achieve, but also maintain balance among the three. It feels that way. Surely, I can trust the Saint who wisely counseled making orare et labore central components of life’s balancing act. After all, there are hundreds of communities of men and women who, today, scrupulously (and joyously) continue to follow Benedict’s Rule fifteen centuries after he composed it!