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The Monastic Way of Work

Visitflanders Trappist

Colin O'Brien - published on 05/20/14

A more balanced life between spirit and sweat.

The memorial of St. Joseph the Worker provides the Church a rich opportunity to reflect on the meaning and dignity of work in the Christian life. On that occasion especially, we are reminded that the Son of God came to redeem even our work by learning a trade from the man Joseph. This work of redemption is completed in the course of the Passion, when we see Jesus put to death using the very implements of His trade; through this we ought no longer be alienated from our work, but rather restored to dignity, because Jesus has incorporated even our labors into His life, death, and resurrection.

For many of us out in the world, it can be quite difficult to see our works, our jobs, as a participation in God’s kingdom, particularly in a time of very difficult economic circumstances such as the one in which we currently live. The monastic tradition, however, gives us a different perspective on work, one in which work is an essential yet not all-consuming part of life. A crucial aspect of the monastic perspective is to note the distinction between "work" and "labor." The primary "work" of monks is not, as we might imagine, the economic activity of the monastery; rather, the "work" is instead the "work of God," the opus Dei, which is the liturgical prayer of the divine office at assigned hours throughout the day. For the Trappist monks at New Melleray Abbey, this work begins with Vigils at 3:30 a.m. each morning and finishes with Compline at 7:30 p.m. each evening; the community gathers a total of seven times each day to sing Psalms, read lessons from Scripture, and to celebrate the Mass. The entire life of the community is structured around the daily prayer schedule. The "labor" of the community, on the other hand, is the physical, economic activity of the monastery; this includes the housekeeping, maintenance, cooking, gardening, and production of items for sale that constitute the community’s means of self-support. Self-support through one’s work is one way in which monastic life differs from life in the mendicant religious orders, which support themselves through donations.

In the Trappist tradition, the preference has been for communities to support themselves by the production and sale of agricultural products rather than by other means such as operating schools or colleges. Today, Trappist monks and nuns around the United States produce and sell products such as cheese, fruitcakes, wine, beer, honey, candies, vestments, and caskets. In addition to these economic activities, the monks also perform the various tasks required for the ongoing needs of the community, such as cleaning, cooking, tending the gardens in which they grow their food, tending to the guests of the monastery, and the various administrative and maintenance tasks that must be done. Not only do these tasks contribute to the well-being and the support of the monastic community, but the physical dimension of most of this sort of labor proves to be a good way for monks to get exercise after spending long periods of time in silent, solitary prayer.

This is especially true of the morning work period, which lasts for about two hours following the office of terce, at about 9:30 a.m. The monk has, by that time, been awake for over six hours, mostly in silence and solitude. There is also a two and one-half hour afternoon work period, following the community midday dinner and preceding the evening office of Vespers. This results in a total of about four and a half hours of daily labor, or roughly one-third of the monk’s total day. This sort of time balance between manual work, prayer, and private prayer and study is radically different from the way things work out in outside life, but there are ways in which certain monastic approaches to labor can be lived advantageously in the world.

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