December 5, 2020

Sunday Formation Talk: Work

Laborare est Orare, Herbert

Laborare est Orare, Herbert

Work joins prayer and sacred reading in an integrated and well balanced monastic life.

• Fr. Charles Cummings

For you know that you ought to imitate us. We were not idle when we were with you. We never accepted food from anyone without paying for it. We worked hard day and night so we would not be a burden to any of you.

• 2Thessalonians 3:7-8, NLT

• • •

In this chapter of Monastic Practices, Fr. Charles Cummings encourages us to learn from the long tradition of monks and nuns that manual labor offers “a distinct value to the spiritual life.” From the earliest days of monastic communities, they sought to learn from the example of biblical saints like Paul, who worked at a trade while serving God in his apostolic vocation.

Cummings notes that monastic work has taken different forms and has been pursued for various reasons. The early Desert saints found that keeping their hands occupied gave them greater capacity for concentration on God. Therefore, they took up relatively small tasks, such as basket-weaving or tending small gardens to assist them in their spiritual exercises.

Later, Benedict had to look at work differently. His Rule was for a larger community, one which needed to sustain itself. Yet he also fixed specific limits on the time to be spent daily in manual work in order that they might devote themselves primarily to liturgical prayer.

If keeping a balanced schedule of work, prayer, and sacred reading is a constant challenge for those in religious orders, how much more for those of us who are called to fulfill the daily demands of more ordinary lives? Yet perhaps we can learn lessons from watching the monks and nuns at work.

Monasteries might demonstrate how persons can use modern mechanization and automation without being dominated and dehumanized by it. The fascinating world of science and technology dominates human beings and becomes their idol when they forget that human hands and minds have fashioned these machines and can remain in control of them. Another role which monks and nuns might fulfill is to take responsibility for the short term and long term effects of human intervention with the processes of nature and the fertility of the land. Perhaps monks and nuns can be examples of the restrained and prudent use of energy and alternative forms of energy. In an age when people can scarcely think except in terms of the largest possible scale, the fastest, most powerful, most up-to-date, most expensive possibilities, monasteries might give witness to the value of what is more manageable, poorer, more compatible with the deeper needs of the human spirit. In a society where some consider work merely a necessary evil and would prefer to live on welfare or stock dividends, monks and nuns can be example of motivated workers finding a genuine fulfillment as human beings. (p. 47-48)

Cummings also reminds us that, “Monastic work is often hidden, humble, anonymous, even monotonous” (p. 51). Perhaps we who are required to toil at unsatisfying jobs can take heart from remembering those who are also laboring at assigned menial tasks without notice or applause, yet learning ways to offer their work to God. The author calls this, “the life of everyday routine and quiet, steady accomplishments, like a tree silently growing to maturity” (p. 52). Even seemingly meaningless and impossible tasks can remind us that our human weakness is part of God’s plan and an acceptable sacrifice to heaven.
imageThe balance of work with prayer and sacred reading also relativizes work and reminds us that being precedes doing in God’s eyes. My worth as a person does not come from what I do or accomplish, though it is a strong temptation to see things that way, especially in a capitalistic society.

Indeed, work can be a form of prayer. And the point at which work and prayer converge is when I labor from a heart of love. When I do my work as an act of love toward God and others, I need not be consciously aware of God for it to “count” as prayer. Of course, if my tasks allow me space and freedom to lift my spirit in prayer while I’m at them, so much the better. However, when we are at work, we must be at work. I have seen too many Christians (including myself) who have not been dependable workers, yet they somehow find a way to excuse themselves, imagining that their Christian faith exempts them from the common duty of hard work and paying diligent attention to the task at hand.

Nor is mere activism the answer. There is an addiction that carries a lust for being “in the game” of work, where the action is, always being “on,” constantly engaged in doing things that make one feel important — we call it “workaholism.” Who I am and what I do become indistinguishable. We might think this impossible in a place like a monastery, but Cummings disabuses us of that notion. There are activist monks too, people in religious orders who see themselves as professionals who find their identity more in running the business affairs of the community than in the life of religious devotion. This is a human temptation.

It can also enslave us. An overemphasis on work can shield me from silence, from dealing with other people, from facing God himself. It can steal life from us. “The things that make life worth living can be appreciated only when we slow down and work in a more leisurely, balanced and human way” (p. 65). As a beginning, Fr. Cummings recommends that we revisit God’s gifts of Sabbath and Lord’s Day.

Ultimately, we are called to remember the purpose and meaning of work, which was instituted by God, according to the Bible, in the very beginning. God himself is a Worker. In our labor we join him and ask his blessing in all we do.

Let your work be manifest to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!  

• Psalm 90:16-17, NRSV


  1. “The things that make life worth living can be appreciated only when we slow down and work in a more leisurely, balanced and human way”

    My work is monotonous and uncreative. It’s also extremely physically draining, significantly due to chronic pain with which I struggle and that work exacerbates. Add to this a minefield of work politics, and oppressive management that expects more and more work packed into the same number of hours, in recent years using the economic climate after the recession a few years ago to demand more from workers while not giving more to them.

    Working in a leisurely, balanced and human way is not an option where I’m employed. When I’m able to find spiritual ballast in my work, it’s from the gracious discovery that I sometimes make that my work is carrying my cross, and that the alienation and suffering I experience in it shares in the alienation and suffering of Jesus’ work on his cross.

  2. Thank you for this post on the work-prayer life balance. It is a daily struggle of mine to understand and maintain a way that I can fully live for God, even whilst at work. I have tried to develop a rule/rhythm of life that can help me to achieve a way of ‘praying always’ and find that the following verse is always good to contemplate:

    ‘And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men’ (Col 3:23)

  3. The monks at St Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Mass. built an energy plant on site in 1984. It replaced their “many oil-fired furnaces, which heated the monastery’s various buildings, with a single wood-burning energy center. The center converts hardwood chips into clean burning gases which in turn heat the entire monastic complex with ‘green energy steam.’ The combustion is so efficient that a truck full of wood chips, leaves behind only shovels of ash and a steady output of steam—with little smoke or soot.” They have just built a brewery and are producing ale, part of an aged tradition within their ranks from Belgium. They are working on plans to use some solar energy in that endeavor, leasing out acreage to a solar energy company for placement of panels from which they will receive wattage and eventually putting panels on top of the brewery as well. The work at the monastery is done with focus and precision. I spent more than a month working there as one of them and never witnessed haste or histrionics in even the remotest sense.

  4. I am blessed with a job in a service industry where I actually help people. It is also a job that requires a certain amount of ingenuity and problem solving that is extremely satisfying when I am successful. Most of th

    Most of the time people are glad to see me and are appreciative of the service I provide, DESPITE the cost.

    I often have occasion to thank God for helping me solve a problem and it gives me great satisfaction to complete a job well done. I cam take pride in what I do, even though many people, after seeing what it is that I do, often say “I could have done that!”. Yeah, right! Then why DIDN’T you?

    The downside is that my compensation is just barely enough to get by, what with a small mortgage and living in one of the most expensive areas in the USA, Southern California. And as an additional benefit, the job is not so physically taxing that I cannot continue working into my 70’s (I hope and PRAY!)

    The business is family owned and I have been working for them since 1977. They have been VERY generous to me, helping me buy a home, loaning me money when I have been in trouble, financially, and even paying for my hearing aids.

    God has blessed me! I KNOW that. But human nature always rears it ungrateful head at times and causes me to complain. God help me to be more grateful!

    I do not need the contemplative life of a monastery to appreciate God’s provision and blessings. I see it every day.

  5. Had my first experience away at a monastery retreat this weekend. Spent time with some wonderful Marionite monks, and experienced peace that I haven’t felt in a long time.

    The monks all walked around with these sly smirks like they knew the secret of the universe.

    I get it now. I’m home, and I immediately envy them. They do know a secret.

  6. “the life of everyday routine and quiet, steady accomplishments, like a tree silently growing to maturity”

    sounds like the good Father Cummings would agree with the prophet Zechariah
    that it would be a profound mistake for us to undervalue ‘the day of small beginnings’ . . .

  7. There are no secrets in the Christian life.

    The monks don’t know any. Your pastor doesn’t know any. The Pope doesn’t know any.

    Everything needful has been openly given and taught.

    Just to clear things up lest the temptation to turn ourselves into some sort of quasi-Mormon somethingorother.

    • Hi STEVE

      I certainly hope that there are the ‘sacred mysteries’ . . . and that they are connected to their Source, Who Himself is the one needful thing

      I expect that the monks have discovered the benefits of grace found in lives of humility, service, and simplicity . . . it might benefit all of us to seek out the better way and to humbly admit that we do not now, nor can we ever, fully comprehend the depths of the waters we are being called out into by our faith

      nothing wrong with living a simpler life, and finding out that so much of what we think we ‘need’ is not necessary at all and can be laid aside . . . if the monks are smiling, there is a reason for it and they have embraced it
      . . . if we can’t ‘know’ that reason, let’s not say it doesn’t exist

      🙂 Have a wonderful Sunday.

    • Openly given & taught, yes.

      Practiced? No.

  8. There are mysteries. But there are no secrets that some of us ‘get’… and others do not get.

    It’s all there for us. And none of us lives out the perfect life of trust and peace.

    But He loves and forgives us, anyhow.

    Thanks! Have a great day in The Lord!

    • I’ll assume from the content of your postings that there are things about the Christian life that you don’t yet get.

      • No…I think I pretty much get it. I have an excellent preacher/teacher, theologian of the Cross.

        I don’t claim perfect knowledge. We all see through the glass dimly.

        But I do know this much, there are things that we are meant to know and things above us. All that we need to know has been revealed to us in His Word.

    • I beg to differ. There are secrets that no formula or text can spell out but only allude to. Not everyone “gets” them. God is known to share things with individuals and those individuals are bound with that knowledge. It happens in every generation. It is not the type of knowledge that leads to forming clubs. It is invariably tied to great suffering and great love. There is certainly the ever present risk that ego inflation will lead a weak mind to thinking they are particularly chosen and endowed with that sort of knowledge. In fact it is sadly much more common than true revelation. Nonetheless, let’s not silence the word when it is in fact spoken.

  9. Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says

    I love to work! Work is one of those good gifts God has given us that is not only his normal means of provision for the world, but also serves to build my character and shape my being. Work lets me serve others and serve myself at the same time; a real treat. When it is tough and draining (yes, I had a boss who was a ‘psychic vampire’ before), it gives me the opportunity to toughen up and bear suffering with honor. When it is tough and not draining, it becomes elating, as I realize my own capability to do good in this world. When it is easy it gives me the opportunity to relax and think through how each individual on my team can maximize their potential and be successful. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I think work is one of the greatest tools God has given us for spiritual development. Needless to say, I am not one who sees a very big divide between the spiritual and physical.

    • I’m betting you have a sturdy constitution? You sound like a regular Walt Whitman (insert smiley face here).

      • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says

        Ha! I have six younger brothers, so probably yeah 🙂

        • In that case, you must also be brother to Camus’ Sisyphus, about whom Camus tells us that, despite having to futilely do the work of rolling a boulder to the top of mountain from which it shall roll down and have to be pushed up again and again, eternally, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

  10. When I was young and way in over my head with work that went beyond the ability I had, I prayed. Every morning I went to work asking him to guide my hands and help me for I needed this work and what it would provide. I wasn’t living anything like a Holy life but I still loved Him and knew he loved me. He was faithful and helped me through and I learned. I learned that if I looked there was a way and it was at hand for me to accomplish what I needed to. I learned to ask ” show me Lord “. It has always been in the countless little things that He has been faithful to me. Not so much have I been on my side but that has improved significantly over the years. There have been many large things too and always He provided the way. I don’t see a big divide either and in fact one seems to lead to the other. I still ask for guidance and help on a daily basis. Now when the weather is hot and humid and my age is showing itself and I’ve gone and pushed myself too hard physically again I pray minute by minute and second by second. This past summer being dehydrated and knowing I was in danger and having to finish I asked and suddenly a cool breeze that hadn’t been there all day came through the window and cooled me as the spirit of God fell on me with power and I just knew. How many times can you tell someone that you love them so. It just never seems like enough. This is a relationship worth having forever because it keeps growing and I keep learning and I don’t want to stop learning. I look forward to what He will show me and in this neat way He keeps me interested. Now for a rough construction worker like me that’s about as romantic as it gets.

  11. Shawn Askinosie says

    Loving reading your careful look at this book Chaplain Mike!! While I am a lawyer turned chocolate maker, I am also a Family Brother at the Trappist Monastery – Assumption Abbey near Ava Missouri. Guess what the first book was that the Director of the Family Brother program suggested I buy and read? You got it: “Monastic Practices”. Needless to say, I read it frequently and it’s on my nightstand. I also found it helpful in the preparation of my Rule of Life. Thank you for all that you do!