On a recent trip to upstate New York, my family and I visited the Abbey of the Genesee, a Trappist monastery overlooking the green, rolling countryside south of Rochester. In its gift store, loaves of bread made by the monks were prominently displayed. “Monks selling bread?” my son asked. “Why do they do that?”
One answer, of course, is that monks, like everybody else, need to make a living. Religious houses often operate businesses, from cheese making and dog training to raising chickens. In my home state of Iowa, Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey sells delicious caramel candies while New Melleray Abbey makes finely crafted wooden caskets.
These enterprises do much more than bring in income, however: they are also a way to craft souls. Through long experience, monastics have learned the importance of balance in a spiritual journey. No one can pray every waking hour, and no one should work every waking hour either. The mind and body need the alternating rhythm of contemplation and labor, the yin and yang of rest and effort.
Labor Day is a fitting time to reflect on these lessons, for the holiday was inaugurated in 1882 to celebrate American workers. These days the lingering economic downturn has put intense stress on many of these workers, of course. Millions of people suffer because of unemployment, while millions more are hurting because of jobs in which they must work too much. Both conditions can be deeply damaging to people’s souls.
Monastics have some surprisingly relevant insights to contribute to a discussion of labor issues. Fifteen hundred years of practice have taught them that work is best when it’s balanced with prayer and that labor itself can be sacred. The motto of St. Benedict, the sixth-century abbot whose Rule still shapes monastic life, was Orare est Laborare, Laborare est Orare—to pray is to work, to work is to pray. Benedict believed that an integrated life required a balance of intellectual study, prayer and work. “To the Benedictine, work and prayer were the two hinges on which the gate of Heaven would swing open,” writes Louis B. Ward, a scholar of Benedictine spirituality.
The problem for those of us who labor outside the monastery walls is that our work today doesn’t naturally lend itself to these rhythms. Our places of employment don’t have bells calling us to prayer or like-minded companions encouraging us on our spiritual paths. For most of us, our days are filled with frequent interruptions and tasks requiring focused concentration, not the steady, meditative work of carpentry or farming (and those who work at home raising children or tending the sick, of course, face constant interruptions as well).
I remember reading several years ago of a monastery that struggled with this very problem. The monks had created a thriving webpage design business that at first seemed like a perfect fit for the monastery, for it was well-paid work that they could do on their own schedules. Eventually they gave it up, however, because it was the wrong kind of work. While the mind can lulled into contemplation during manual labor, computer work left the monks little energy for prayer.
We who spend much our days in front of computer screens needn’t give up trying to integrate spirituality into our work, however. One helpful resource was created by Phyllis Tickle, who has made the monastic rhythm accessible to the secular world through her Divine Hours series of books. Each features simple, brief prayer services designed to be read every few hours throughout the day, litanies that can be silently prayed during a mid-morning coffee break or on a park bench at lunch.
While very few of us are called to the monastic life, contemplative monks and nuns have much to teach us. By following their example of interweaving our days with prayer, we learn the paradoxical truth that sometimes by doing less we can do more of what is truly important, both in our inner and outer lives. They provide a model as well for how our labors can be as much an offering to God as the prayers we say on Sunday mornings. That’s something to think about this Labor Day, whether our days are filled with baking bread, raising babies, or designing websites.