Chapter 48: The Daily Manual Labor

1 Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore, the brothers should have specified periods for manual labor as well as for prayerful reading. 2 We believe that the times for both may be arranged as follows: 3 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. 4 From the fourth hour until the time of Sext, they will devote themselves to reading. 5 But after Sext and their meal, they may rest on their beds in complete silence; should a brother wish to read privately, let him do so, but without disturbing the others. 6 They should say None a little early, about midway through the eighth hour, and then until Vespers they are to return to whatever work is necessary. 7 They must not become distressed if local conditions or their poverty should force them to do the harvesting themselves. 8 When they live by the labor of their hands, as our fathers and the apostles did, then they are really monks. 9 Yet, all things are to be done with moderation on account of the fainthearted.

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

It will take us three days to discuss this Chapter on the Daily Manual Labor. Saint Benedict starts with the principal: Idleness is the enemy of the soul. It should be clear to the monk by this time that a monastery is established as a school of the Lord’s service and that every day we must learn. The monastery is also composed of monks who are will to fight for Jesus Christ and every day, in some form, is a battle to remain faithful to the Lord. In that context, idleness becomes clearly an enemy of the soul which wants to learn about the Lord and which wants to fight the spiritual battle.

Good order, then, is seen as a remedy for idleness. Today there is a huge emphasis in some religious communities on having leisure so that I can seek the Lord. After the Second Vatican Council many communities reduced the amount of prayers in order to have more “contemplative time.” On general, however, these experiments with the tradition seem not to have brought about a vibrant life in communities. One cannot say that the experiments are the cause of the decline of religious life today, but there are many who think that they have at least contributed to that decline.

For us in this monastic way, it is a challenge to lead a strong life. We have a strong schedule of prayer and activities. Yet it is a constant struggle against the present culture and practices to maintain such a schedule.

When we look at the Rule of Benedict, there is no personal time at all. This Chapter gives us the times for work, but in the process also comments on what other things are happening in the monastery. Some are convinced that the normal amount of daily work in the monastic community of Saint Benedict is between five and six hours. The amount of lectio is at a minimum of an hour and a half but generally more than that. They seem to have about an hour’s siesta on work days.

What kind of work did the monks do? Like many monasteries, the did the normal work to keep any institution going. Generally, from the sounds of this Chapter, they had lay people who did the harvesting–but not always!

And at the end we have that really famous statement of Saint Benedict: all things in moderation for the sake of the faint hearted. So it is clear that even in that time, some monks–really monks–found the monastic life to be very challenging and Saint Benedict wants to make sure that it is not so challenging that monks are driven away by it. Let us ask for a strong moderation and strength in our living!

Chapter 48. The Daily Manual Labor 10 – 21

10 From the first of October to the beginning of Lent, the brothers ought to devote themselves to reading until the end of the second hour. 11 At this time Terce is said and they are to work at their assigned tasks until None. 12 At the first signal for the hour of None, all put aside their work to be ready for the second signal. 13 Then after their meal they will devote themselves to their reading or to the psalms. 14 During the days of Lent, they should be free in the morning to read until the third hour, after which they will work at their assigned tasks until the end of the tenth hour. 15 During this time of Lent each one is to receive a book from the library, and is to read the whole of it straight through. 16 These books are to be distributed at the beginning of Lent. 17 Above all, one or two seniors must surely be deputed to make the rounds of the monastery while the brothers are reading. 18 Their duty is to see that no brother is so apathetic as to waste time or engage in idle talk to the neglect of his reading, and so not only harm himself but also distract others. 19 If such a monk is found–God forbid–he should be reproved a first and a second time. 20 If he does not amend, he must be subjected to the punishment of the rule as a warning to others. 21 Further, brothers ought not to associate with one another at inappropriate times.

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

In this second section of the Chapter about Daily Manual Labor, we see about 5 hours of work, remembering that the hours in Saint Benedict’s time are not counted as 60 minutes but during these days of winter would be a bit shorter. There would not be a long period after the meal until Vespers, so Lectio probably comes out again at about 2 hours.

What we know of the library in Saint Benedict’s monastery is very little, mostly supposition. More than likely it was very, very small. Perhaps it had a hundred books? Maybe not. Books were really expensive and each one had to be written by hand. Probably this verse 15 refers to Saint Benedict giving each monk a “book of the Bible” to read, since manuscripts of that time would have been put together with “little books” put together.

Reading a book all the way through is an important discipline. Most of us look for the things that catch our attention, either positively or negatively. Saint Benedict wants the monk to read every bit of the book.

We also find in this section that monks are sent to patrol the monastery. This is the role of Zelator in our community, when we have one. It is not easy to find a monk who willing accepts the task of patrolling the monastery to make sure that things are going along as they should, whether it be in the time of Lectio or the time of Work or at any other time. Saint Benedict basically finds nothing wrong in this practice because it helps the monk stay on course and not become “idle” as we heard in the first part of this Chapter.

Some commentators see in verse 21 a clear reference to the fact that there were times that were appropriate for brothers to associate with one another. It is a sort of reverse argument, but it probably holds some value.

For our spirituality again we can focus on how we use our time each day. We can also be aware in ourselves if our relationships with all the brothers are healthy and supportive of the monastic way of life. Finally, we can look at the quality of our personal Lectio. May the Lord help us be good and strong monks!

Chapter 48. The Daily Manual Labor 22 – 25

22 On Sunday all are to be engaged in reading except those who have been assigned various duties. 23 If anyone is so remiss and indolent that he is unwilling or unable to study or to read, he is to be given some work in order that he may not be idle. 24 Brothers who are sick or weak should be given a type of work or craft that will keep them busy without overwhelming them or driving them away. 25 The abbot must take their infirmities into account.

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

Today we finish the chapter on the Daily Manual Labor. The first sentence is refreshing because it speaks so much about the way in which Saint Benedict has arranged our life as monks. Sunday should be a time of special Lectio–but always there is the reference to those who have other assigned duties. Saint Benedict never tries to create a structure in which everybody does the same thing at the same time throughout the day. He recognizes that a real community is able to have most of its monks together for many activities, but not always can everyone be there. There are other jobs that must be done in the community and sometimes they must be done even in the midst of the common life of the community.

We should note, however, how Saint Benedict wants Sunday to be spent: in more reading or study if that is possible. If a monk is not capable of reading or study, or is really unwilling to read or study, then work should be assigned to him. Again we see the principle: Idleness is the enemy of the soul!!

Saint Benedict presumes that the weak or the sick will be unable to read or study and so they should be given some work or craft that will keep them busy but not cause them undue distress. Always the abbot has to discern what a monk is capable of and not push the monk too far. Neither can the abbot allow the monk to do nothing when he is really capable of doing something.

We are really aware that in the monastery there is no such thing as “free time” as we think of it today. The monk is always engaged in something. On the other hand, as we noted about brothers not associating with one another at inappropriate times, there must have been appropriate times to associate with one another, even though those times are not spelled out.

Saint Benedict seems to want to develop strong and serious monks when that is possible, while still recognizing that not all monks are capable of a very strenuous life. This is a very difficult balance to attain in any community. We must strive for this in our personal lives: to be strong and faithful monks, struggling against our defects of character and against our sinfulness for the sake of Jesus Christ in whom we hope to be transformed.