Monastic Practice ~ Work

As I have written before, the monastic life is like a three legged stool.  One of those legs is prayer, the other is divine reading and the third, and the subject of this essay, is work.

Monastic work is very different from the work we might perform in the secular world as it focus is not on us but on the other.  Our work is an expression of our love, not the love of work or the love of money, but the love of the community and of the other.  Self-forgetful service to the community is a movement out of me and a movement toward the other; it is a movement of giving and a movement of love.  If our work loses the intent to serve the other, then it becomes merely a means of support and less a monastic practice.

By our work we intend to accomplish something good for others or ourselves.  If this is not our mission then we are not working we are just simply playing.  We have to put ourselves wholeheartedly into our work and accomplish it fairly well then and only then can we take pride in our accomplishments, not for our won glory but for that of the other.

The early monastics in the Egyptian desert refused alms even from their own relatives.  Rather they worked and earned their bread by their own hands by their own labor.  This form of manual labor offers a distinct value in the spiritual life.  If we rely only on two legs of the monastic stool, that of prayer and reading, the monastic can get restless and start to think about other things.  Manual labor helps to keep us focused on God.  This is true if you remove one of the other legs of the stool.  A balanced life is what the monk strives for.

Josemaria Escriva, founder of the Roman Catholic Opus Dei said this about our work; “Your work too must become a personal prayer, it must become a real conversation with Our Father in heaven.”  Manual labor should not have priority over liturgical prayer or divine reading but for the work to have value there must be balance between our work, prayer, and reading.  They must flow in and from each other.  For one who truly knows how to work their work can be a prayer.

In the monastic life, work and prayer can converge in to a single point.  That point of convergence is a heart that is penetrated with love.  Work and prayer are both expressions of love if they are done for the other.  All of my work can become prayer if I do it under obedience for the good of others and for the glory of the Holy Trinity.  We work for the same reason we pray and practice divine reading; we do this a means of truly seeking God.

Evangelical Counsels ~ Obedience

St. Columba Monastery Fr. Peter Monks“Will you preserve, even unto death, obedience to the Igumen, and to all the Brethren in Christ?”

With these words, asked by the bishop during the tonsure service, the new monk pledges that he or she will obey the Igumen and live with all the other brothers and be obedient to the community.  In other words you no longer live just for you and you alone but for all the members of the monastic community.

Obedience is not an easy thing for us Americans.  We do not like anyone to tell us what to do after all we are free.  Monastic life, like Christianity itself, is a giving up of our will and handing it over to another.  We still make decisions for ourselves and in the end if we cannot “preserve unto death” we are free to leave the monastery.  The hope is that we will persevere in monastic life.

Obedience is not easy.  As a priest I am obedient to my bishop and to my parish community.  I do have the freedom to organize my ministry in the way that I think it should be accomplished but I will ask the bishop for certain things.  Sometimes it is just advice on an issue and sometimes, it is seeking permission.

The monastic life is the same.  When we enter community, no matter what that community may be, we need to be obedient to each other.  Decisions are made by the superior of that community, who we believe serves as the father of the community, but he does so with humility and also makes decisions based on what is best for the community as a whole and not just for one person.

When I entered monastic life years ago, one of the hardest parts was obedience to the bell.  Five times a day the bell would ring to signal prayer.  You drop whatever it is that you are doing and head to the chapel for prayer.  This was not always easy.  Sometimes I was meeting with someone, or just breaking through writing, and the bell would ring.  But we are obedient to the life we have chosen and it is not supposed to be easy.

We do not sacrifice our own freedom in fact I would argue that by being obedient to the Igumen we actually have more freedom.  This is the spiritual gift that we all need to work towards.

As Christians we are supposed to be obedient to Jesus Christ and His Gospel.  We are supposed to be obedient to the Priest and the Bishop in spiritual matters.  We are supposed to be obedient to the teaching of the church.  So in a way we all must practice this discipline, and it is a discipline. 

Evangelical Counsels ~ Chastity

St. Columba of Iona Monastery Fr. PeterThis is the second in a series of articles on the Evangelical Counsels or vows that a monastic takes upon entering the monastery.  I last wrote on poverty and a reader left me a question about why we call these the Evangelical Counsels.  The simple answer is because we get these ideas from the Gospels themselves hence the term evangelical.  I think we sometimes confuse this term with the Evangelical Church and we need to recall the original meaning of the terms as one that made reference to the Gospels.  I hope that answered the question.

Chastity is another one of these things that often gets confused.  Christians of all walks of life are called to the position of chastity.  If you are single you are called to a chaste life meaning no sex outside of marriage.  If you are married you are called to the chaste state in your married life, in other words the sexual relationship belongs in the marriage bed and only the marriage bed.

This applies to the monastic as well.  Called to live in the state of chastity.  We also have live in the state of celibacy.  And there lies the difference.  Again all Christians are called to live in the state of chastity but the monk is called to celibacy as well.  Celibacy is not having a family.  Actually the more accurate statement would be to not have a biological family as the monastery becomes the monk’s family.

Chastity, like the other counsels, helps us to reach that state of perfection that we are desire to obtain.  Whatever our state in life this should be our goal to better follow our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  The monk leaves behind family and the hope of a family to be better able to serve the Lord “fulltime” if you will.  The monk will be free from a divided loyalty to the family and to the Church.  The monastic will be able to devote the hours necessary for prayer and work, not that family life is not work, but free from the obligations of the family.  Free to dedicate their life to God.

Evangelical Counsels ~ Poverty

St. Columba of Iona Fr. Peter Preble MonasticismWhen a man or a woman answers the call to live the monastic life that is the first step is a life long process of living out that call.  Part of the journey is the taking of vows.  The monk makes four vows those of poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability.  Theses are commonly known as the Evangelical Councils.  In this series of articles I will look at each of the vows and the meaning behind each of them.

The vows that a monks takes either eastern or western are not as old as monasticism itself.  In the early years, a person would find an elder and then dress in monastic garb.  This garb would have been different depending not only on the elder but also the geographic location.  Vows came along about the 6th century and have been used since then both in the Eastern Church and the Western Church.

These vows are public and in them they confirm the profession of the vows I have outlined above.  In the Western Church, Benedictines are the only ones who make the fourth vows of stability but in the Eastern Church all Monastics take this vow.

Just a word on Religious Orders.  Orders grew from the elder monk relationship into much larger world wide organizations of Monastics. One thinks of Benedictines, Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits, etc.  In the Eastern Church Orders do not exist per se rather monasteries exist under an Igumen and follow a rule or Typicon that is common to that particular monastery.  Most typicons would be basically the same with some regional variation.

Poverty is one of the lest understood vows that a monastic takes.  Poverty in a monastic sense is that of individual poverty.  Everything is owned in common by the community and no one has more than one needs.  The monastic community will own the land and buildings and such as well as all of the other possessions of the monastery.  This will differ from monastery to monastery.  Cistercians of the Strict Observance, commonly known as Trappist do not even own the clothes on their backs, all is owned in common.

“Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods and divided them among all, as anyone had need.”  Acts 2:44

This is a very difficult concept in out 21st Century materialist world that we would literally sell all we have and give to one another but that is exactly what the monastic vows.

“Will you remain unto death in non-acquisitiveness and in the voluntary poverty for Christ’s sake which belong to the common life; not acquiring or keeping anything for yourself except in accordance with common necessity, and then, only in obedience and for your own discretion?”  (Monastic Tonsure Service)

The monastic has to figure out for themselves the difference between a need and a want.  The Monastics will also practice recycling to find other uses for items that are no longer in use.  Sometimes a broken item and be put to use as something else thus saving the need to acquire another item.

The community should not acquire things that are not necessary as well.  Sometimes one goes to a monastery and the monks are living like kings.  This is not a good idea.  Live a simple life is the watch word in the monastery.

The main thing to remember about monastic life is that for the most part it is lived out in community and not solitary.  The community is one that decides what is good for the community not the individual.  However, account is taken that some may be weak and will require more than others.

 Next time Chastity