Today the Church celebrates St. Benedict, the patriarch of Western Monasticism.
Benedict was not the first western monk; there are numerous examples of monks and hermits in the west (particularly in Ireland).
But Benedict founded a style of monasticism with a rule of life that modified the extreme ascetic practices of many monks and hermits and offered “a school of the Lord’s service” that has endured to this day.
Prayer and work were the ways the monks sought to serve God.
Benedict’s rule, chapter 35, is clear on the dignity of work and the need that all work.
Let the brethren serve each other so that no one be excused from the work in the kitchen, except on account of sickness or more necessary work, because greater merit and more charity is thereby acquired.
In the course of history, a distinction arose in many monasteries between the choir monks who prayed (and were mostly ordained priests) and the lay brothers who did the manual labor.
Gratefully, this has changed and the value of all work and of non-clerical monks has been revived.
The Benedictine monastery of Mount Saviour, near Elmira, NY, played an important role in my life. During graduate school I drifted away from the practice of my faith. A friend, who had spent some time at Mount Saviour, helped me return – first of all going to Mass at the apartment of the Little Brothers of the Gospel on New York City’s Lower East Side and then a retreat at Mount Saviour.
At Mount Saviour I saw the equality that Benedict proposed. My friend told me about his first visit there. He saw a monk working in the garden and asked to speak with Fr. Martin, the prior. “I am the prior,” the monk answered.
No work, that is honest, is below the dignity of any person – even the prior. Manual work has a dignity for many reasons and should not be despised.
In a world where many of us flee manual labor, the example of Benedict – and of monks like Fr. Martin – should inspire us to “pray and work” as our way of advancing on the “school of the Lord’s service,” preferring nothing to Christ.