Welcome to the Eleventh Day of Christmas. Tomorrow, January 5, is Twelfth Night and the end of our journey. Then comes Epiphany and the arrival of the Kings. Since Christmas Day, we have been making a metaphorical journey through a monastery, looking for lessons for our lives in the Christmas season. We visited the monastery gate, the individual monastic cell, the church and kitchen, and the library. We then explored the transitional space of the cloister walk, a space for new beginnings in the novitiate, a space for welcoming in the guesthouse, and a space for healing in the infirmary. From each space we have brought back a Christmas lesson. Today, as we anticipate the end of the season, we will be visiting the workshops in the monastery to learn how to transform our everyday work, so that we might bring Christmas into the rest of our year.
How can we transform our everyday work, so that we might bring Christmas into the rest of our year?
Every monastery has workshops that support the community. Buildings must be heated, bathrooms must be cleaned, the garden must be planted, maintained and harvested. And so there must be workshops for all of this mundane labor that, when it is done well, allows the monastery to function. Benedict is careful to describe much of the work in the monastery: the welcoming of guests, how meals are served and cleaned up after, how the property of the monastery is looked after and cared for, how administration is to be done, even what artisans in the monastery should charge when selling their products. In his characteristic moderation, though, he lays out general guidelines about the character a monastic should have when doing particular work and about the principles and goals of the work. And he says that if the Abbot or Abbess has good reason, he or she should set things up otherwise.
So rather than touring the many workshops, we will ask instead, why is work so important to the monastic life? Isn’t work just a distraction? Wouldn’t constant prayer be preferred? It is by allowing this why we work question to be answered in us that the Gospel turns our world upside down. As we open our understanding of work to the Gospel we will invite the holy one of Christmas into our everyday lives outside the monastery.
The work that monastics do is for the support of the other monastics in the community or for ministry to those outside the community. It is designed to be mutual service by which monastics love others, and grow in love for God. This is love as a policy and commitment to action rather than an emotion. It is, if you will, the horizontal dimension of the life of prayer. Were are commanded to love God and to love our neighbor.
Work Lessons from the Monastery
One loves others by the work one does for them. Indeed, it may be dreary, boring, disgusting work or it may be engrossing, joyful, and heartwarming. But in the monastery, all work is designed to be a way of care, compassion and service for others. In our own lives, we may do our work primarily to bring home a paycheck. But that paycheck itself is a means to support ourselves and to serve others. This is not “do what you love” or even “love what you do” it is instead “do, because you love.” We may not love the work of cleaning, cooking, organizing, writing, or caring for children. But when we can do this work for the sake of loving others, then it becomes holy.
Our work is sanctified in the light of Christmas, and is judged to be of worth, on a shockingly different scale than how economists value it. The work of a parent changing diapers is work done for love. And the work that we often value least, service work, women’s work, is valuable because it is done for others. Some work that is very highly paid is, in these scales, worthless if the pay is not in turn used for others.
Our work is sanctified in the light of Christmas, and judged to be of worth, on a shockingly different scale than how economists value it.
This is not naive romanticism; work can be boring painful drudgery. It is instead a call for us to see the world through the eyes of the Holy one who came as a child, learned to be a carpenter, and who then found his ministry supported by all the logistical work, bathroom cleaning, cooking, and financial support it received as he traveled the countryside preaching. This person saw those who worked, and loved them. We can see that same Holy impulse of love embodied in our work, inviting that Holy one to be a part of our work even after the Christmas season is gone.
What is the inner work we need do to transform our everyday work? It is a constant practicing, a constant remembering, of the presence and purpose of God in our work. A constant awareness of our selves and of others in the light of Christmas. This simple, but difficult practice can produce a revolutionary re-ordering of our work values. This is surely too difficult to do all in one leap. We are too confused about the place of work in our lives to make this a quick transition. Some weeks all we can do is survive our work, and try to remember occasionally that it might have God in it. Even this is a beginning.
Consider your work, all you do for yourself and others, at home, at work, in your family, and ask why you do that work.
How might you see that work, in the light of Christmas, as monastic work of care, service, and compassion for others.
Bring your work life to God and ask for it to be sanctified. It does not matter if today it is dry, fragmented work. Even, or especially, if it feels like cleaning out the stables, ask that you be transformed in your work so that how you do that work may also transformed.
May we receive the eyes to see our work as compassion for and awareness of others, throughout the year.