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.