Of Work, Idleness and the ‘Benedict Option’

Today we begin re-reading RB 48, St Benedict’s great chapter on work, which is as much about lectio divina as it is about manual labour, and which begins with that wonderful sentence, Otiositas inimica est animae, ‘Idleness is the enemy of the soul.’ As a novice I remember it being cheerfully quoted to me as yet another load of greasy washing-up was dumped in the scullery sink; and I quote it equally cheerfully myself when I hand a visitor or guest a tea towel or duster. The equation of idleness with spiritual vacuity or worse is as old as the hills, and it tempts me to ask what Benedict would have made of today’s leisure industry or our enthusiasm for labour-saving gadgets — which, of course, we have to work hard to afford.

It is, as you will realise, an inadmissable question because we cannot possibly know what Benedict would think, only what he did think; and his thinking about work is certainly worth pondering. We never retire or have days off in the monastery. All are called to contribute to the common good, and Benedict sees a real value in manual work. It keeps us grounded, so to say; but he makes allowances for individual weaknesses and does not want anyone so overburdened that they seek means of escape or run away from the monastery. Work is not to be seen in purely economic or productive terms but also as a spiritual good. Throughout the whole chapter, with its interplay of assigned tasks and reading, there is a tacit acknowlegement of the emptiness within. Either we are to be filled with God, or the devil will rattle through the hollow spaces of our lives. Work and its counterpart lectio divina are given to us precisely so that the interior emptiness can be filled in the right way.

Over the centuries, monasticism has tended to favour certain types of work as being well suited to the demands of the horarium and the dynamics of community life, but for most monasteries today diversity has become the norm. We still have our scholars and our agriculturalists, but increasing numbers of us work alone at tasks our forebears might have found incomprehensible. That places on all of us the responsibility to ensure that our work is carried out in a genuinely monastic way. For those of us involved in various forms of online activity, there is the need for clarity about our objectives and the methods we use to attain them. The computer as scriptorium is a neat idea, but the disciplines of the scriptorium must also be observed: prayer, carefulness, concern for truth, a seriousness of purpose which does not obviate humour or lightness of touch, a sense of the worth of the task on which we are engaged.

What is true of monastics is, or should be, true of every Christian. It is what one might call the real ‘Benedict option’ — not a flight from the world as it is but a commitment to change the world into what it should really be, a deeper engagement rather than a withdrawal. But about that I may have more to say later.