January 27, 2021

Merton Week: Ora et Labora

Barn at Gethsemani 2014

• • •

I asked Reverend Father what made Brother [Gregory, who had just died] so saintly. I don’t know what kind of answer I was hoping to get. It would have made me happy to hear something about a deep and simple spirit of prayer, something about unsuspected heights of faith, purity of heart, interior silence, solitude, love for God. Perhaps he had spoken with the birds, like Saint Francis.

Reverend Father answered very promptly: “Brother was always working,” he said. “Brother did not even know how to be idle. If you sent him out to take care of the cows in the pasture, he still found plenty to do. He brought in buckets of blackberries. He did not know how to be idle.”

I came out of Reverend Father’s room feeling like a man who has missed his train.

• Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas


  1. Hmm. The elder brother in the prodigal son parable comes to mind. Or Martha.

    Maybe there’s something lost in translation, or lost in the abridged version…?

    • Rick, do you think Jesus was denigrating work and devotion to one’s work in these stories?

      • –> “He did not know how to be idle.”

        I don’t read sainthood in that. I read “unhealthy.” I know a few people like that. They don’t know how to relax. They CAN’T relax. I do not envy them, nor do I think I’ve “missed the train.”

        • That’s a possible reading, but I doubt that’s what is being expressed here, nor would Merton have had the reaction he did if that were the implication.

          • That was why I wondered if something was “lost in translation” (so to speak), like maybe Brother Gregory was always whistling while he worked, or singing hymn and praises while out in the pastures, etc.

          • Idk, CM. Merton struggled with deeply rooted unhealthy psychological tendencies, and there was much considered laudable in monastic life at the time The Sign of Jonas was written that would have exacerbated those tendencies. Merton’s earlier monastic writing tended to tow the somewhat masochistic theological line of the subculture as it existed; it wasn’t until the late 50s and the 60s that he started to openly rebel against orthodox culture and expectations, and free himself from some of the more unhealthy psychological tendencies they supported in himself and others. He could easily have been accepting unhealthy workaholism as a sign of sanctity on the word of a superior or senior in the monastic life; that’s partly what the vow of obedience meant, accepting the word and interpretations of superiors and seniors as if they were from God. I wouldn’t doubt that poor Brother Gregory worked himself to death trying to fend off inner demons he didn’t know how to deal with; it happened to monks quite often, from what I’ve read. Merton was not a great reader of other men’s conditions at this time in his monastic life; he was too busy upholding orthodoxy, because the thought he needed it to survive, and he interpreted everything through that orthodox prism.

            • This says really well what I was thinking…LOL. Nice job of articulating it, Robert.

            • It’s interesting to me, though, that “workaholism” doesn’t seem to factor in the maladies that are identified in the monastery so far in what I’ve read. Merton hated singing in the choir more than most anything and mentions that the monks were horrible at dealing with conflict, but the work itself is written about with benign descriptives. A work day interrupted by seven times of prayer and periods of study and prayer, meals, and sleep sounds like a pretty good balance to me.

              The way I read it Brother Gregory was one of those temperamentally active people who liked to keep busy, in a way that set him apart from others. No doubt those people can need Jesus’ admonishments to Martha, but we can also learn from their energetic approach to life. Especially people like me, for whom low energy is a constant problem.

              • –> “Especially people like me, for whom low energy is a constant problem.”

                Low energy AND procrastination are my constant companions. Safe to say that becoming a Martha will never be my problem…LOL.

              • Of course my analysis may be wrong; after all, I wasn’t there, was I? Just two things and I’ll let it go.

                1)Many liked the work because it allowed them to escape the oppressive atmosphere of the enclosure, and the relationships they couldn’t negotiate there. My father was like this. He worked like a horse from the time he was a peasant in Italy until a year or two before his death in the central Jersey suburbs. He would much prefer to have his hands in a physical task, however hard, that was tangible and manageable than deal with the emotional hell in our home (which he had in large part created).

                2) The monks were discouraged from talking, except under certain circumstances (though Trappist don’t take a vow of silence ); and they were always discouraged from forming friendships with the other men. How would Merton have even gotten to know Brother Gregory’s degree of sanctity without getting to know him? Perhaps Br. Gregory was thought to be saintly because he never complained, never made a fuss, never communicated dissatisfaction or expressed personal needs or limits, etc. Perhaps Br. Gregory denied himself in the worst possible ways, ways that Merton ultimately rejected for himself; and perhaps Br. Gregory would’ve rejected them too, if he’d had the inner energy and creativity and rebelliousness of Fr. Louis.

  2. flatrocker says

    And then there’s …”The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” 2Cor 9:6-7

    Maybe what separated saintly Brother Gregory from the older son (and alot of us fwiw) is what’s contained here.

    • Christiane says

      could be that the saintly Brother Gregory’s way of communicating with God WAS to ‘work’;
      maybe his ‘ora’ WAS his ‘labora’; and his ‘labora’ WAS his ‘ora’?

      imagine being in a wheel-chair or stretcher-bound and being unable to move or work …… then comes a miracle and you can get up and walk and move . . . . . do you sit back down and do nothing? ….. or do you lie back down on the stretcher and do nothing? Or do you RISE and give thanks with movement and action and connection with what is around you and with joy?

      when people don’t take the ability to work for granted, then work can become for them a celebration of the gift of life and their work is their testament of thanksgiving for that which many take for granted

      Imonk has told the story of Henri Nouwen who was famous and yet sought to reconnect with God spiritually, and so he left the Ivy League world of his fame and went to work at a facility run by his friend, Jean Vanier, for the disabled. And there, ‘working’, he found peace caring for disabled people. His ‘work’ consisted of acts of caring, and kindness, and mercy. And in ‘giving’, he received. ‘Work’s of love, ‘Acts’ of love, ‘Work’s of mercy ….. a kind of prayer? Absolutely. And wonderfully so.

  3. Well, yes, if you are running an institution you are going to speak very highly of a workaholic who devotes all life energy to the institution without being coerced. Brother Gregory didn’t miss the train, he was up front in a big squirrel cage hooked up to the wheels while shucking corn and sorting beans at the same time. Makes me tired just reading about it. Even Jesus tried to take a break now and again. I will admit I could use some of Brother Gregory’s energy and motivation, but if it would mean never an idle moment to smell the roses or watch the clouds, I’ll pass.

    Not sure of the selective process behind these excerpts from Merton but they seem to carry a common thread of self-flagellation for being imperfectly human. I know there are positive moments to be found in Merton, even encouragement for seeking God within. Someone already pointed out the piece by Richard Rohr on Contemplative Christianity up in the sidebar. It mentions Merton as being an early positive influence in reawakening Christians to their real heritage. Highly recommend you give it a read.

    • IMO, folks are reading way to much into this, and perhaps we are revealing our common human lack of appreciation for the blessing and sanctifying nature of work. It is ironic to me that people in our culture, who do less manual labor than anyone in history, are so tired and in need of rest. Perhaps, in some strange way, our soul-fatigue grows out of the lack of hard work we do?

      • That Other Jean says

        Chaplain Mike, I’m more inclined to think that much of our exhaustion comes from the fact that most of us never get to see the end product of our work, however hard it was. We are cogs in the machine, passing our work on to the next unit, completing our part, but never seeing the whole. Manual labor, for the most part, has an end point that can be seen: the truck is loaded, the pothole is filled, the strawberries are picked. It is possible to take satisfaction in such work, I think, that is difficult to find in work of other kinds.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          “How could you be tired? You just sit in a cubicle and stare at a screen all day!”

          I work in software under constant “IS IT DONE YET? IS IT DONE YET? IS IT DONE YET?” pressure.

          Since there is no physical feedback (only abstract logic, spaghetti complexity, Occult bugs and logic flaws that hide themselves, and the Gnosis of Microsoft’s interfaces), we have to expend a LOT of mental energy projecting our consciousness into this abstract cyberspace.

          I keep comparing it to Magical Knowledge of a fantasy Wizard, requiring such esoteric knowledge/Gnosis (with its own language/vocabulary) and mental concentration upon spells and castings that you sort of drift away from “meatspace” reality into your own Altered State of consciousness. And hopefully find your way back at the end of the day (hello, working from home and 168-hour minimum workweek!).

      • I think our “soul-fatigue” is more akin to feeling like we’re being used/abused than out of the lack of hard work. Putting in the daily grind for any business – large or small – can often drift toward resentment and burn-out, especially when you feel underpaid and/or under-appreciated.

        Additionally, many of us here at iMonk have experienced that at our churches. The push to “do more, try harder” when accompanied by “our church needs to do better” has led many of us into “soul-fatigue.”

        So when I read about someone being praised as a saint because he couldn’t sit idle…well, I apologize, but for me alarms and bells go off…LOL…

        • I get that, Rick, I really do. IM has tried to be a haven from that kind of abuse for years.

          But this truly is different, and what I think we can learn from these monks is that prayer and work belong together; indeed that they are organically related, and that, paradoxical as it may seem, there is a kind of rest to be found in this prayerful work, this active contemplation, this labor of love.

          • There was much that was physically and psychologically unhealthy in the monastic culture of the West before Vatican II. I think Merton was caught up in that unhealthy aspect at the time of the writing of The Sign of Jonas, because he thought that his own rebellious nature could be brought to heel by strict obedience to that culture as embodied by his superiors. Thank goodness his rebellious nature was too strong, and he failed to stymie it, otherwise we would have been denied much of the richness his work offers.

            • I smile when I read that, Robert, because you can see while reading The Sign of Jonas that there’s no way Merton is going to be reined in – no chance! – no matter how much he tries to submit.

              • No doubt the rebellious Merton was the one who rejected “normal” life by taking vows, who defiantly tried to tame his own nature by obeying the rules and the spirit of the Trappist order as much as he could (all the while maintaining another inner life, developed and communicated in his writing and prodigious, continuous correspondence with the outside world), and who finally rejected the alternate conformity of the monastery for following the Spirit as it led him to liberty (while not formally revoking his vows). That rebellious Merton wrote The Sign of Jonas as surely as he wrote The Asian Journal; but there were nonetheless stages that he went through, and his maturity was reached and best expressed in those last ten years of his life, when he came to real and deep understanding of himself.

  4. A one time event brings notoriety and fame. What makes a person great is not a one time act, though, but a lifetime of consistency of purpose.

    • “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” Matthew 11:28-30, The Message.

      “Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.” Best line ever.

      • Aidan Clevinger says

        Of course, it’s interesting that Christ tells people that they will find rest for their souls by means of taking on His *yoke* – a symbol of labor if ever there was one. A light yoke, perhaps, an easy yoke, but a yoke nonetheless.

    • I agree Oscar. I think Merton’s point was that there was no grandiose action on Brother’s part; he just did his vocation with passion over many years. And that was seen as saintly. It brings great hope, because most of us will never have the chance to do anything else.

  5. I don’t know how saintly Thomas Merton was. But the photography that he practiced in the last years of his life shows me the world the way he had come to see it, full of spirit and freedom; and it helps me sense the deep humanity of the man himself . I love Thomas Merton’s photos. Looking at them I feel like I’m put in touch with our world the way it really is, if only I had eyes to see. Looking at them lifts my burdens, and makes me catch my breath: This….this is the world I live in!


  6. I agree with Chaplain Mike that we are reading too much into this, and that the rhythm of monastic activity incorporated enough time for prayer, eating and rest that it would be difficult to become a workaholic even if one were so inclined.

    I think other things are going on here, aside from whatever difficulties there may have been at Gethsemani at the time:

    – First of all, Brother Gregory may not have been a person who is inclined to the intellectual and/or contemplative aspects of monastic life, and he may also not have been inclined to be a rebel – or if he were (which we don’t know anything about), he directed that energy differently.

    – In addition to the vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and stability, monastics from ancient times until now have always tried to keep close to the main ascetic values – which are the same for all Christians, monastic or not, and help keep people from veering off into an unhealthy imbalance: fasting (this is actually abstinence to varying degrees), almsgiving (all sorts of charity, not just giving money) and MANUAL LABOR. This last is not simply the same as “work” – it’s doing something physical toward a goal, even if it’s simply cleaning your house or tending to a window garden, and it can be something that gives one pleasure as well, such as puttering in your garage woodworking shop, or knitting.

    We need to get out of our heads, especially in this day and age when so much of our work is oriented toward cognitive abilities, and manual labor is very good at helping us with that. It’s also very good at providing a context for the brain to work in the background, like when we dream, toward solving knotty intellectual or relational problems. I’m sure we’ve all experienced stepping away from the frenzied activity of the brain for a while in order to do a chore or two, and afterwards noticing that “out of nowhere” a solution to a problem has appeared. Perhaps Brother Gregory came to a deeper understanding of himself the same as Merton did, but precisely through his manual labor; we don’t know anything about this, either, as it seems he didn’t have a need to write about it the way Merton did.

    Please – give poor Brother Gregory a break!


    • Dana,
      It may be exactly as you say. I even hope it was so. But even if it was the way I’ve suggested in my comments, my criticism would not of Br. Gregory, but of the monastic system that could be so harsh and dehumanizing. I think it’s just historically inaccurate to romanticize the character of monasticism down through the ages. Many of the monks suffered severely from monastic culture in ways that were not sanctifying or humane; they gritted their teeth and got through it because there really was no other choice for many of them. Because so many orders discouraged friendship between the monks, there was extreme loneliness along with the physical toll; in cenobitic orders, there was the torment of seeing people day after day for years with whom one could not have normal human relationships — at least the few hermits were spared from that!

      • Sure, I know all of that. There were not all of the same kinds of problems in the eastern monasteries, but they have had problems, too; sometimes all of the monks in some eastern monasteries have lived very dissolute lives. All I’m saying is, the problems didn’t cancel out the good that came from the monasteries; when the monks, individually and corporately, drew close to living out their basic ideals, that mitigated some of the problems and enabled the monastics to serve God, one another, and the people near their communities. The monastic life should not be romanticized, but in the same way, its benefits should not be written off.


  7. As a farm kid, I can relate to actual going out and picking raspberries or mulberries or weeding or picking up sticks—-tending the area and checking on the animals……..it’s rather like tending the garden (of Eden). There is the work, but it includes a pleasing rhythm and communing with God at the same time, and an appreciation of all that He has made. Some days, one comes back to the house with a renewed spirit, and 10 lbs of asparagus. 🙂

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