Monastics are not mystics who do nothing but pray, nor are they mendicants who beg for the necessities of life. Rather, monastics, as envisioned by the Rule of Benedict, are persons who live an integrated common life of praying, working and living together. Work is part of this integrated life since it enables monastics to support themselves and to avoid idleness. But work is to be integrated into the total monastic life. Work is not the primary purpose of the monastic life. Work is certainly not the main activity of the monastic day according to the Rule.
The Rule, nevertheless, is realistic about work. Work is a necessary part of human existence, for self-support and to prevent idleness. The work schedule of the monastery may have to vary according to the seasons. At times, the monastics must work harder and longer hours than prescribed in the Rule, because of the economic condition of the monastery, but work times must be regulated and controlled within the context of the whole life and the rhythm of the entire day, which includes not only times for prayer, but also for food and rest.
Furthermore, the Rule indicates that on some occasions a monastic may have to work at some distance from the monastery. If a monastic is traveling or working far away and cannot return to the monastery for the prayer rhythm of the day, the monastic is still to keep this rhythm as much as possible.
Work, in the monastic context, is not for the purpose of self-fulfillment. Rather, it is for the support of the common life of the monastery. Work is the way in which monastics support and serve one another. Thus, whether a monastic is an official, a manual laborer, an artisan or a domestic laborer, the eye is not on self but on the common life: the working together to make the monastic life of love possible.
In various monasteries, it seems, work has been, or is becoming, the primary feature of life. The monastics of a monastery can become so preoccupied responding to the needs of the Church, of society, of the institutions of the monastery, or of the individual monastics, that life simply becomes work: maintaining institutions, for instance, rather than seeking God through the particular rhythm of the monastic day. Monastics can acquire a mind-set for work, and in the process lose the important stance of keeping vigil.
The need to be individually fulfilled in work has caused some monastics to establish individualism as the first principle of monastic life. In other words, the need to be in a job which is self-satisfying determines the lifestyle, rather than the common monastic lifestyle determining the type of work.
On the institutional level, the members of some monasteries find themselves working tremendously long hours in a multitude of jobs so as to continue the many institutional commitments undertaken by the monastery during its history. The focus of life is centered upon maintaining these institutions and, in some cases, in maintaining the institutional standard of living. Institutional considerations begin to outweigh the fundamental and underlying reason for joining a monastery: the peaceful seeking of God within the context of a balanced rhythm of cenobitic life.
When work becomes the most important part of a monastic day, or even the most important part of monastic life, the monastery ceases being a place of shared monastic living and, instead, becomes simply a place of common residence. Work is no longer related to the larger framework of monastic life.
From the Rule and tradition, there seem to emerge some principles which could be used to help establish the rightful place of work within cenobitic life today.
First, the basic principle is cenobitic living: a rhythm of life where persons, with a common vision and meaning, actually live together and serve one another.
Second, work is for mutual support and service within a particular monastery. Service to the larger Church and society is a result of this mutual support and service of monastics to one another.
Third, economic survival cannot destroy the rhythm of cenobitic living since, even during such times of need, the Rule teaches that all things are to be done with moderation. If work becomes so primary and overbearing, the very life which the monastics are economically working for is destroyed by its non-observance. A parallel can be drawn within the context of wealthier monasteries when greater income results in greater spending: a lifestyle is created which requires more hours of work simply to maintain the standard of living to which one has grown accustomed.
Fourth, it may be possible for some monastics to live the cenobitic life at the monastery yet work at daily jobs which are not at the monastery. Nevertheless, the jobs must be compatible with the monastic lifestyle, namely, the jobs cannot become the focal point of life. The jobs must be compatible with the ability to live, daily, the common life, including prayer, silence, private reflection and personal interactions. The monastery must not become merely a residence for commuters.
Monasticism is, at times, described as countercultural. The description serves, not so much as a judgment on society, but as an alternative way of viewing and living life. Perhaps today our society does need this countercultural alternative when it comes to issues like work. Monastics ought to help contemporary society see that a person's true worth is not dependent upon social status, professional competency or earning power, which all seem to be derivatives and driving forces of work. Rather, a person's true worth is based upon the wonderful miracle he or she is as a unique gift of God. A monastic comes to the monastery to seek God, hopefully, and the result of this search should be that the monastic finds healing from brokenness, so that the monastic can move from focusing on self to focusing on God. It is then that the monastic discovers God to be a wonderful gift-giver, and that the gift is the very person seeking God.
There is something beyond work in the monastic life. This something is the seeking of the Giver, and the seeking is the reason for monastic life, in fact, the reason for all life. And so, the monastic must look beyond work to the God who gives. The search for this God is done in monasteries within an integrated life involving more than work or the tendency to allow work to dominate life. Monastics can, and in fact must, live beyond work.