For St Benedict, prayer and work seem to be on an almost equal footing.
Ch 8 – 20 of The Rule of St Benedict deal with the Monastic life of prayer, the Opus Dei – work of God. Ch 48 deals with the, ’Daily Manual Labour”, and I am going to concentrate mainly on this Labora.
Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore, the community members should have specific periods for manual labour as well as for prayerful reading.
When they live by the labour of their hands, as our ancestors and the apostles did, then they are really monastics.
The function of the spiritual life is not to escape into the next world, but to live well in this one. Work and prayer are opposite sides of the great coin of a life that is both Holy and useful - Joan Chittister
Work is not what defines the Benedictine (or a person), but the single-minded search for God. For St Benedict his followers were to earn their bread by the labour of their hand. Creative and productive work is meant to sustain us and enhance the Garden, bringing us close to the marvel of creation as we grow into God.
For the early monastics this manual labour would have been largely the rural activities of self-sufficiency, and the building and maintenance of the monastery.
The Rule does not suggest that St Benedict saw this necessary manual labour as prayer. However, our approach and attitude to work, even the most menial of tasks, can be made prayerful, as exemplified most beautifully by St Therese of Lisieux. The Rule emphasises the importance of work, even stating that the sick and infirm should be encouraged to carry out appropriate tasks.
Pope Francis in Laudato Si highlights that the right to work is integral to the dignity of a person. How often have we seen the disintegration of self esteem by those unable to work, or to provide adequately for self or family?
A question we might also now ask is: How does all of this relate to us in the LCSB, in the 21st century?
We have committed ourselves to a daily ritual of prayer with a modified office. Both within our community and our parishes there are activities that would come under the umbrellas of Opus Dei and Ora, but what about Labora?
Relatively few of us in developed societies do the sort of manual labour of St Benedict’s era. We have become, as a generality, relatively divorced from nature and, instead of working with it and becoming “Co-creators”, we are damaging and spoiling God’s creation.
Status in society is too often defined by what work (job, occupation) is done rather than who the person actually is. Most, if not all, work has at least an element of service to it. In our Lay Community we promise to, ”Offer Holy Service”. A challenge for us then is to make the service element of our work into holy service.
What about after retirement? Well, this offers an opportunity to make more time for the Ora that maybe had been hitherto squeezed by family, work and other commitments. Time can be made for activities with a service element again, as in the Rule, appropriate to age and infirmity.
In an increasingly self-centred secular society, trying to be a witness to the spiritual (Holy Space) is an uphill task. However, it may be initiated by the example of our attitudes to people (Holy Communion) and how we conduct ourselves in our work (Holy Service).