Today we begin re-reading RB 48, Concerning Daily Manual Labour. It is one of those chapters some like to skip over on the grounds that manual work is something other people do, or at any rate, the provisions of the Rule are rather quaint and outmoded for people living twenty-first century lives. I wonder. One does not have to be monastic, nor particularly ‘alternative’, to recognize that the way in which Benedict divides up the day, allotting time to both manual work and lectio divina (slow, prayerful reading), has some human wisdom in it; but I think one does have to be monastic to some degree to recognize both the spiritual value of work in Benedict’s scheme of things, and the work that needs to go into the cultivation of a genuinely spiritual life.
First, there is that insistence on the value not merely of work but of work with our hands. Even in the sixth century there was obviously some discussion about whether harvesting was to be included in the tasks normally assigned to monks, but Benedict tackles the subject head on and reminds us that our fathers and the apostles lived by the work of their hands, and so should we.(RB 48.7–8) Clearly, the monk must be ready for anything. Getting our hands dirty, doing jobs many think menial or unimportant, has value — so much so that it should be part of our daily experience, not something we do occasionally with self-conscious effort or even a smattering of self-congratulatory ‘humility’.
Then there is that importance attached to lectio divina, which we are to work at seriously and perseveringly. It is not something we do just when we feel like it. Indeed, it is so important that Benedict allows monks to read when otherwise they would be resting. Our habit of speed-reading, flitting from page to page, skimming and failing to digest what we read, is one Benedict would have found alien. St Ambrose surprised St Augustine by reading silently, but for most people in Late Antiquity, reading was a very physical business. The words were shaped by lips and tongue, chewed over, thought about, prayed about. The true monk does not get up from his reading without carrying away with him a word or sentence that will remain with him for the rest of the day. Benedict expected the monastic mind to be well-stocked, but not in a random fashion. To read in this way, day after day, requires effort, application, belief in the value of what one is doing. It is a work of faith no less than the prayer of the Divine Office or life lived in common.
I think there are things here that everyone can take away and apply to their own lives. To recognize the holiness of the ordinary, the blessedness of the everyday and routine, is to recognize that grace comes to us in myriad ways. Cleaning the loo or battling away at that unpromising passage of scripture may not be quite how you thought you would become a saint, but it may be how God makes you one.