This Labor Day, I think about the work I do and have done. Not all work is pleasurable, but it is usually necessary. When I work at something, I can only get better, but if I don’t work at it, I have no chance of getting better. This reminds me of my novice year as a Benedictine oblate. There were lessons I was encouraged to complete each month, but they were not required. If I didn’t do this work, I could still become an oblate. But would I have grown in wisdom and faith? No. The choice is mine. Working in the Presbyterian Church, I have chosen to include Benedictine wisdom in my life.
Joan Chittister speaks of work as “fundamental and necessary and physical and holy and spiritual and creative.” She then goes on to explain work in the Benedictine tradition:
The days are gone when the family that tilled the field also planted and harvested it together. Now owners own and planters plant and sprayers spray and pickers pick and sellers sell….The implications of a Benedictine spirituality of work in a world such as this are clear, it seems:
- Work is my gift to the world. It is my social fruitfulness. It ties me to my neighbor and binds me to the future. It lights up that spark in me that is most like the God of Genesis. I tidy the garden and plant the garden and distribute the goods of the garden and know that it is good.
- Work is the way I am saved from total self-centeredness. It gives me a reason to exist that is larger than myself. It makes me part of possibility. It gives me hope.
- Work gives me a place in salvation. It helps redeem the world from sin. It enables creation to go on creating. It brings us all one step closer to what the Kingdom is meant to be.
- Work, in the Benedictine vision, is meant to build community. When we work for others, we give ourselves, and we can give alms as well. We never work, in other words, for our own good alone.
- Work leads to self-fulfillment. It uses the gifts and talents we know we have and it calls on gifts in us of which we are unaware. It makes us open to new dimensions of our own personalities and talents as yet undiscovered.
- Work is its own asceticism. A Benedictine spirituality doesn’t set out to create hair shirts or debilitating fasts as a pledge of commitment or a badge of spiritual discipline. No, Benedictine spirituality simply faces the work at hand, with all its difficulties and all its rigors and all its repetition and all its irritations – and accepts it. What today’s work brings is what is really due from me to God.
- Work, finally, is the basic Benedictine way of living poverty and being in solidarity with the poor. The Benedictine doesn’t set out to live off of others. The Benedictine doesn’t sponge and doesn’t shirk and doesn’t cheat. Benedictine spirituality gives a day’s work for a day’s pay.
Life is an exercise in co-creation, and that requires work…The purpose of work in Benedictine life is to carry others, to care for them, and to see them safely home. ~Joan Chittister, O.S.B. (Wisdom Distilled From the Daily)