March 28, July 28, November 27
Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore, the monks should have specific periods for manual labour as well as for prayerful reading.
We believe that the times for both may be arranged as follows: From Easter to the first of October, they will spend their mornings after Prime till about the fourth hour at whatever work needs to be done. From the fourth hour until the time of Sext, they will devote themselves to reading. But after Sext and their meal, they may rest on their beds in complete silence; should a monk wish to read privately, let them do so, but without disturbing the others. They should say None a little early, about midway through the eighth hour, and until Vespers they are to return to whatever work is necessary. They must not become distressed if local conditions or their poverty should force them to do the harvesting themselves. When they live by the labour of their hands, as our fathers and the apostles did, then they are really monks. Yet, all things are to be done with moderation on account of the fainthearted.
Here Benedict is encouraging a balanced day. A balanced day does not have in it too much inactivity. Too much inactivity can lead to boredom. Boredom can be a good thing in that it can be a sign that we need to be more creative with time and energy. Boredom that is not heeded, however, can lead to an idleness that runs counter to the expression of energy in life.
A life growing in balance, in harmony, is also a life which has energy more available for living and less available for the fears and anxieties that can cause energy to implode. Spirituality is about growing in a loving, faithful, and stable expression of energy in each day. This is what the rule would have us grow in. This is what this chapter is emphasising.
Prayer, labour, reading, rest. This is the daily round we commit to as we live a Christian spirituality guided by the rule. We will not always be faithful to this because the realities of life ‘in the world’ can ask of us patterns that run counter to this balance. As life goes on, however, perhaps this Benedictine cycle can grow to be the default of our lives – the one we have a natural inclination to return to when we can. In time we see that an abundance of grace can still be active in us even when it seems we are living off leftovers. God is in everything, and nothing is wasted.
The regular practice of attention on a mantra means that the energy of divinity and the energy of our humanity can each be in the other with increasing self-forgetfulness. In these moments a certain harmony with the divine life can renew us for what is to come for the rest of the day. We forget to worry. We forget to fear. The stillness that a balanced day can encourage is what we find ourselves in.
In this chapter Benedict insists that the true monastic – someone seeking God through prayer and work in a community supporting this seeking – is someone who is also living “by the work of their hands.” Most of us do not gather harvests, instead we go to the supermarket for food. Most of us are not self-employed; we work for others. What is our harvest? What is the work of our hands? The monastic, an oblate, who is a mother or father; the contemplative ‘out the back’ in the shed working on fixing that chair for a neighbour; a meal lovingly prepared for family and friends – all these things, are they not the work of our hands?
And in this work, one person’s 100% may be another’s 50%. The rule understands this and makes room for it. The Kingdom of God is a way of life, not a scramble for limited resource. A way of moderation can be generous and inclusive of all in ways that seem unjust to those not familiar with the ways of love. The generosity of grace is not dependent on ideas of justice born of ego and effort.
When the first came, they expected to get more, but they too received one denarius each. They took it, but grumbled at the landowner saying, “The men who came last have done only one hour, and you have treated them the same as us, though we have done a heavy day’s work in all the heat.” He answered one of them and said, “My friend, I am not being unjust to you; did we not agree on one denarius? Take your earnings and go. I choose to pay the last as much as I pay you. Is it not permissible for me to do what I like with my own? Or are you envious because I am generous? Thus the last will be first, and the first, last. (Matthew 20:10-16, RNJB)