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Asceticism and Lordship

Somewhere in Southern Florida

I wrote in previous entries about the first two motives of manual labor in ancient monastic theology: self-support and almsgiving. Today and tomorrow, I want to briefly reflect on the other three motives, as identified by Dom Rembert Sorg in Holy Work: Toward a Benedictine Theology of Manual Labor. The three motives are asceticism and expiation, the Lordship of God, and apostolicity.

The manual labor of the monk was ascetical because it prevented idleness and all the trouble idleness brings with it as “the enemy of the soul” (RB 48). Manual labor was also thought to be a “wholesome remedy” against concupiscence, a word not used much in evangelical circles. (We tend to distrust precise words, especially those with Latin roots.) Concupiscence refers to powerful desires that violate reason and are rooted in the lower appetites. Sorg writes that “men who never work poke their noses into mischief; in the spiritual life they have more than the ordinary trouble [with] conscupiscence of the flesh.” Sorg goes on to say that the asceticism of manual labor must be merged with “the obligation of penance and expiation” (speaking of rarely used Latin words). “It means that the sweat of our faces, the thorns and the thistles, the drudgery which are attached to Labor after the Fall, are the punishment of sin. To embrace this punishment is due satisfaction for everyone’s original sin and is therefore an integral part of the whole Christian spirit.” I would go back even further and say that work has been part of God’s plan from the beginning. Yahweh is portrayed from the start as a worker. And after God creates the world, God gives humans the job of cultivating it. “Man is born to labor and the bird to fly,” Scripture says.

What this mean in practice is that I am not allowed to look down my nose on manual labor. There is no such thing as menial work when that work is done well and it benefits the community. Perhaps the division of labor was more dramatic in St. Benedict’s time than in the United States in the 21st-century, but it is still implied in the phrase “jobs Americans don’t want to do.” The division of labor is also monetized in our market, which rewards an under-performing CEO with tens of millions of dollars in golden parachute parting gifts, while paying a dedicated thirty-year veteran of the assembly line $40,000 a year and dangling his job and his pension always before his eyes. I think we can even see the prejudice against manual labor in our culture’s perception of beauty. Three hundred years ago a woman worked her fingers to the bone in the home and in the field, but to beautiful was to be soft and plump, as if she had never worked a day in her life. Today, we sit on our asses all day in an office and in front of the TV, but the women on the cover of our magazines are shockingly, frighteningly skinny, like they ran straight from the sweatshop to the photoshoot, and changed directly from the coveralls into the black Christian Dior. We like the way hard labor looks on us, but not enough to do it.

The fourth motive is the Lordship of God over all things as the Creator. Humans are created in the image of God. Therefore, humans are lower-case lords. Manual labor continues and completes the work of creation when it “produces, develops, processes and distributes the goods of the Earth.”

The particular purpose of man’s lordship is to conscript and direct all other creatures unto the service and glory of God, which is the desired end and purpose of their creation. Therefore, it is rightly said that God and man enjoy intimate union and ‘concreate’ or work together when man does manual labor in the right spirit of obedience and imitation of his God.

This concept really should revolutionize the way I view my work. I can consecrate my work by understanding it first and foremost as service to God. My work becomes one of the ways in which I fulfill the two greatest commandments: “Listen, Israel, the Lord our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.” And “You must love your neighbour as yourself.” St. John Chrysostom said “there is nothing equal” to “spiritual work,” by which he meant labor done with the goal of imparting the fruits to others. Sorg concludes by tying manual labor to the larger mission of the church:

Manual labor therefore, coupled with poverty and wrought in and for some Christian community, is the concrete, practical realization of St. Augustine’s powerful conception of Christianity as “Unus Christus amans Seipsum” – One Christ loving Himself.

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