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I started reading Dom Rembert Sorg’s book Holy Work: Towards a Benedictine Theology of Manual Labor, the central premise of which – in the words of Brian Terrell, who wrote the preface to the 2003 edition – is that the Benedictine tradition of “work and prayer” offers a “solution to the world’s political and economic problems, not just a way to holiness for certain individuals or religious communities.” Terrell quotes Dorothy Day from The Catholic Worker in May 1940.

Did not the thousands of monasteries, with their hospitality, change the entire social pattern of their day? They did not wait for a paternal state to step in, nor did they stand by to see destitution precipitate bloody revolt…Not being bound by vows and being weak in ourselves, we try, stumblingly, to do our little bit to express faith in the hospitable tradition.

According to Sorg, the influence of the monasteries was tied to their independence, and their independence from the world was rooted in the monastic economy of poverty and the manual labor of the monks. (The word “rooted” reminds me of something else I read in Terrell’s preface. I knew that the English word “radical” comes from the Latin “radix,” meaning “root.” Terrell, writing as both a Benedictine oblate and a Catholic worker, concludes his preface by saying, “Dom Rembert Sorg calls Benedictines back to the radicalism of their founder…When Benedictines are not radical they are rootless, and when Catholic Workers are rootless they are not really radical.” I aspire to both radicalism and rootedness. It is encouraging to find the two of them linked so inextricably.)

The first third of Dom Rembert’s book is on the theology of manual labor found in the ancient monasticism of the East (Saints Basil, Jerome, and Pachumius; John Cassian; and St. Anthony of Egypt, who said “When you sit in your cell be perpetually solicitous of these three things, namely, the work of your hands; the meditation of your psalms; and prayer.” and “Force yourself in the labor of your hands.”) and the West, especially St. Augustine’s De Opere Monachorum, orOn the Work of the Monks, and the Rule of St. Benedict, which gets its own chapter.

Sorg offers this definition of ancient monastic labor: “‘That labor done by the hands which is productive of a livelihood.’ Because it is done by the hands, it is distinguished from intellectual or spiritual work…[It] is concerned with the making, processing or development of some product which either directly supports life or which may be marketed for some exchange.”

He identifies five purposes or motives of manual labor in the ancient monastic tradition, among which the profit motive cannot be found. The first purpose was self-support, the “first step towards, and the lowest attainment of, charity.” Self-support is also a kind of self-love, “which is the image and likeness of God, Who did the work of creation for His Own Glory – out of love for the sake of love.” Paradoxically, manual labor was in the end, not done for individual support. In its perfection, writes Sorg, monastic manual labor came to be purified even of this motive. The key to understanding this paradox is community life. Like Paul says in Galatians 6:2: “Bear ye one another’s burdens and so you shall fulfill the law of Christ.”

In other words, there is no such thing as self-support among those who have committed themselves to each other. It’s not that there is no “self” in community, but that the self can find its perfect fulfillment only in the context of community. Therefore, work also finds its perfect fulfillment in the context of community. In this way work is consecrated to God. Maybe. I don’t know. I’m just guessing.

I’ll try to write more about the other four motives in the coming days.


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