Dear monks, artists, and pilgrims,
During this Jubilee year of sabbatical we are revisiting our Monk Manifesto by moving slowly through the Monk in the World retreat materials together every Sunday. Each week will offer new reflections on the theme and every six weeks will introduce a new principle.
Read on or click below to listen to an audio version of this reflection.
Principle 5: "I commit to bringing myself fully present to the work I do, whether paid or unpaid, holding a heart of gratitude for the ability to express my gifts in the world in meaningful ways."
We live in a culture where “work” almost seems to be a bad word. We trudge to our jobs, complain about the hours we keep, work ourselves to exhaustion, and come home and buy more things so we need to work longer hours to sustain us. For many of us, work is a way to pay the bills, and nothing more.
For others, our work may feel like a calling, but perhaps we go underpaid, underappreciated, and are moving towards depletion and burnout, especially if we are also trapped in the cycle of overconsumption the world around us lures us into. The giving that once enlivened us may be starting to wear thin, we may be feeling frayed.
But the monastic tradition invites us into a radically different perspective on work. Joan Chittister writes in her book Wisdom Distilled in the Daily that “(W)ork is fundamental and necessary and physical and holy and spiritual and creative.” Fundamental, necessary, physical, holy, spiritual, creative.
And St. Benedict wrote in his Rule that “When they live by the labor of their hands, as our ancestors and the apostles did, then they are really monastics.” So to be a monk means that work is integral to our lives, earning our way in the world, laboring with dignity are all essential.
This is a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh about doing household chores, and what he says applies equally to our attitude toward our work:
“To my mind, the idea that doing the dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you are not doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in warm water, it really is not so bad. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to go and have a cup of tea, the time will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and the fact that I am here washing them are miracles! Each bowl I wash, each poem I compose, each time I invite a bell to sound is a miracle, each has exactly the same value. . .
“Each thought, each action in the sunlight of awareness becomes sacred. In this light, no boundary exists between the sacred and the profane. I must confess it takes me a bit longer to do the dishes, but I live fully in every moment, and I am happy.”
The essence of what I receive from his words is that if I am incapable of showing up to my work in the world with full presence and awareness, then I will be incapable of showing up to any part of my life in this way. Work consumes so many hours of our day, that if we are always wishing for the time to be over, always dreaming about what comes later, then we are cultivating a habit of not staying present to ourselves.
What would it mean for you to bring yourself fully present to each moment of the work you do, aware of the sacredness of it, conscious of the miracles happening all around you?
And what would it mean if your work were not just a means to an end, that is a way to pay the bills, but also a practice in itself of bringing yourself present to each moment, even when the experience doesn’t feel radiant and charged with meaning?
The path of the monk in the world is to cultivate this kind of relationship with all tasks and objects, they are each holy, nothing is profane when we bring the eyes of awareness and a heart of presence to what we do and how we move through the world. In the Rule of Benedict, all the tools of the monastery are considered as sacred as the vessels of the altar. Each plate and fork is holy, each object that serves us with its function worthy of reverence.
What are the sacred tools of the work you do? Is your computer a holy vessel? Is your phone a portal to the divine?
In the Rule, Benedict mentions that the monks should "not be downcast" if they need to gather the harvest. In Benedict’s time much of the monk’s labor was considered to be the work of slaves. And yet everyone who came to the monastery, whether wealthy or poor, shared equally in the labor. How can we find contentment in whatever situation we find ourselves?
Work was and is a holy gift. Benedict considered the opportunity to earn one’s daily food and shelter to be an honorable task. Not all work feels meaningful, some of it may feel more like drudgery. And not everything that is considered work is paid labor. Even if we have a job we love, we still need to do dishes and laundry and clean the bathroom. Sometimes we have work we dread and still have to come home to the tasks of daily living. Some of us take care of children or aging parents as full-time work or in addition to our day jobs.
Just in the way the desert mothers and fathers reminded us that our cells can teach us everything, so can the work we return to day after day be a place of inner transformation. The call of the monk is to bring absolute attention to the work at hand. When we lose this attention, we also lose our freedom. When we spend our time wishing we were doing something else, we forget that the sacred is right in our midst. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “Sufficient to today are the duties of today.” He called us to “spend yourself on the work before you; / well assured that the right performance of this hour's duties / will be the best preparation.” When we are performing a task, the monk is invited to let it be enough, all that is needed in a given moment for fulfillment and transformation. Part of the contemplative path is recognizing that growth happens in any context and that any situation we find ourselves in can offer us the fullness of grace.
We may be tempted to think that we are working now so we can retire later and finally enjoy life, but the monastic way reminds us that if we do not cultivate contentment in this moment now, we will never know how to savor life later on.
Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast offers this invitation:
"Work, if we don't approach it consciously, will suck us into its demands. Then we become slaves, no matter how high up we are on the ladder . . . Even people who have jobs they don't like and find meaningless can still be free within them. . .by reminding themselves deliberately and often, why they do them. As long as we do work out of love for those whom we love, we do it for a good reason. Love is the best reason for our labors. Love makes what we do and suffer rise like music, like a soaring line of chant."
What would it mean for you to find freedom within the work you do and not feel trapped by its demands? What would it mean to bring love to your work?
Even in work that feels creative and rises out of our call to be artists involves period of challenging intensity. As a writer, I always find the editing process one of the most difficult aspects of the work and yet I also recognize it as one of the most valuable. Writing the words feels like grace most days, flowing with ease. When I feel blocked a long walk or some time spent cooking often is enough to shift something open. But I always encounter the most resistance to the editing process, even knowing it is so important to refine the creative work. In working with my resistance, this experience is part of my own inner transformation. As I listen for what the work needs in this stage and how it wants to come to birth in the world, I discover my own places which need releasing or ways to express my ideas with more clarity. We can engage this process in any place where we feel blocks in what we do.
Consider whether there are tasks in your life that you do grudgingly, whether working at a job you dislike, or having to care for a home and family with all of the distractions that entails, or other ordinary life demands. Then consider whether it is possible for you to remember why you do the work. Can you do it out of love recognizing that transformation occurs even there? Are there ways to bring love to things you find challenging and reframe them so that they rise like music and lift up your creative heart?
What is the love that calls you to your labors in the world? Do you need to maintain a job to earn a living? Does this work support your ability to also create and rest and dream? Does it offer shelter and nourishment to the people you love, including yourself? How might you bring more love and delight to all of the tasks you are called to?
Joan Chittister also shares these words about work: “In Benedictine spirituality, work is what we do to continue what God wanted done. Work is co-creative. Keeping a home that is beautiful and ordered and nourishing and artistic is co-creative. Working in a machine shop that makes gears for tractors is co-creative. Working in an office that processes loan applications for people who are trying to make life more humane is co-creative. . .We work because the world is unfinished and it is ours to develop. We work with a vision in mind. . . Work is a commitment to God’s service.”
Human work is the primary way we care for the world given to us by the Creator. Through work we help to usher in the unfolding of God’s Reign among us, we have an impact on shaping the world around us. We also cultivate ways of seeing this reality already present among us. Our attention to compassion and creativity is a commitment to laboring alongside the Divine Worker in bringing a more just and beautiful world into being. The work is so large we may be tempted sometimes to despair or abandon our part, but humility reminds us to honor our gifts and limits. We are called to do something and to bring our whole hearts to the task, trusting that a greater source than ourselves weaves those tasks together.
What difference would it make if you truly believed that your work makes a difference in the world, that the world needs what you have to offer? Monastic spirituality reminds us that God invites each one of us in every moment to respond to our unique call.
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE
Photo © Christine Valters Paintner