Otiositas inimica est animae (XLVIII:1)

CHAPTER XLVIII. Of the daily manual labour
28 Mar. 28 July. 27 Nov.

Idleness is an enemy of the soul; and hence at certain seasons the brethren ought to occupy themselves in the labour of their hands, and at others in holy reading. We think, therefore, that the times for each may be disposed as follows: from Easter to the first of October, let them, in going from Prime in the morning, labour at whatever is required of them until about the fourth hour. From the fourth hour until near the sixth let them apply themselves to reading, And when they rise from table, after the sixth hour, let them rest on their beds in perfect silence; or if any one perchance desire to read, let him do so in such a way as not to disturb any one else. Let None be said in good time, at about the middle of the eighth hour: and then let them again work at whatever has to be done until Vespers. And if the needs of the place, or their poverty, oblige them to labour themselves at gathering in the crops, let them not be saddened thereat; because then are they truly monks, when they live by the labour of their hands, as did our fathers and the Apostles. Yet let all be done with moderation, on account of the faint-hearted.

The first and last sentences of this portion of Chapter XVIII must be read together: “Idleness is an enemy of the soul; and hence at certain seasons the brethren ought to occupy themselves in the labour of their hands, and at others in holy reading. . . .  Yet let all be done with moderation, on account of the faint-hearted.” What wisdom! In the first sentence we hear something of the Desert Fathers’ horror of idleness, and in the last sentence we hear Saint Benedict’s characteristic concern for moderation on account of the fainthearted. Saint Cassian, in the 5th Book of the Institutes, Chapter 39, relates a beautiful story about Abba Simeon that relates to both sentences:

When a brother who was very dear to us, Simeon by name, a man utterly ignorant of Greek, had come from the region of Italy, one of the elders, anxious to show to him, as he was a stranger, a work of charity, with some pretence of the benefit being mutual, asked him why he sat doing nothing in his cell, guessing from this that he would not be able to stay much longer in it both because of the roving thoughts which idleness produces and because of his want of the necessities of life; well knowing that no one can endure the assaults made in solitude, but one who is contented to procure food for himself by the labour of his hands. And when the other replied that he could not do or manage any of the things which were usually done by the brethren there, except write a good hand, if any one in Egypt wanted a Latin book for his use, then he at length seized the opportunity to secure the long wished for work of charity, under color of its being a mutual benefit; and said, From God this opportunity comes, for I was just looking for some one to write out for me the Epistles in Latin; for I have a brother who is bound in the chains of military service, and is a good Latin scholar, to whom I want to send something from Scripture for him to read for his edification. And so when Simeon gratefully took this as an opportunity offered to him by God, the old man also gladly seized the pretext, under color of which he could freely carry out his work of charity, and at once not only brought him as a matter of business everything he could want for a whole year, but also conveyed to him parchment and everything requisite for writing, and received afterwards the manuscript, which was not of the slightest use (since in those parts they were all utterly ignorant of this language), and did no good to anybody except that which resulted from this device and large outlay, as the one, without shame or confusion, procured his necessary food and sustenance by the reward of his work and labour, and the other carried out his kindness and bounty as it were by the compulsion of a debt: securing for himself a more abundant reward proportioned to the zeal with which he procured for his foreign brother not only his necessary food, but materials for writing, and an opportunity of work.

There is much monastic wisdom in this story. Simeon embraced the monastic life in a foreign country, far from his home, his family, and all who spoke his native tongue, which was Latin. Simeon’s plight comes to the attention of one of the elders. In his discernment (and here I use the much-abused word in the monastic sense of discretio), the elder sees that Simeon’s lack of employment is a grave danger to his vocation “because of the roving thoughts which idleness produces and because of his want of the necessities of life.” Roving thoughts! There you have the age-old menace of monks. The secondary effect of idleness is that one falls into a state of need. Need produces sadness. Sadness causes a man to fall into a multitude of sins: anger, envy, bitterness, resentment, and even intemperance, gluttony, drunkenness, and impurity. The elder considers Simeon and thinks, “If I don’t intervene here by finding Simeon something to do, he will succumb to the assaults of the demons who attack the idle, and he will surely not be able to persevere in the monastic life.”

The benevolent elder asks Simeon what skills he has. Simeon replies that he is not very handy. He has no great physical strength, knows no trade and, so it seems, is ill-suited to manual work. There is, all the same, says Simeon, one thing that he does know how to do: he has a fine hand and knows his Latin letters. Straightaway, the kind elder, says, “You’re just the man I’m looking for. I would need you to copy out the Epistles in Latin for me. Thus will I be able to make a gift to a kinsman in the army, who happens to know Latin. Acting out of charity, the elder sets Simeon up in business. He gets Simeon all the necessary supplies and offers him a contract. Simeon accepts the proposal, happy to render some service to a brother, and the elder satisfies his own desire to come to the assistance of a solitary stranger whose monastic vocation was at risk. Both men benefit: the elder from showing charity, and Simeon by getting a contract for steady work.

Simeon is not merely given work to keep him busy, such as moving piles of rocks from one spot to another. He would not, in any case, have had the physical strength and stamina for that. He is given work that is meaningful to him and beneficial to others. The work gives him dignity and a sense of self-worth. It preserves him from roving thoughts. It make him useful to another. It earns his keep. And the work undertaken by Simeon is well assorted to his talents and to his infirmities. It is neither too much for him to bear nor too little to keep him occupied. We see in this story that other great principle of the Holy Rule that Saint Benedict will articulate in Chapter LXIV concerning the abbot: “Let him so temper all things, that the strong may have something to strive after, and the weak nothing at which to take alarm.”

Simeon, by having some work to do is delivered from the danger of dilettantism: dabbling in whatever strikes one’s fancy as one wishes and when one wishes. Simeon is also preserved from pride by working in obedience at a specific task that has both a beginning and an end. In Chapter LVII Saint Benedict warns of the pride that threatens monks with special skills:

Should there be artificers in the monastery, let them work at their crafts in all humility, if the Abbot give permission. But if any of them be puffed up by reason of his knowledge of his craft, in that he seemeth to confer some benefit on the monastery, let such a one be taken from it, and not exercise it again, unless, perchance, when he hath humbled himself, the Abbot bid him work at it anew.

The daily manual labour is a necessary and salutary element of monastic life. Too little work causes a monk to become listless and lackadaisical, like a decadent, bored aristocrat who takes up first one pursuit and then another in a series of fruitless attempts to give meaning to his life. A monk hasn’t the means to swan about from the gaming table to the hunt, and from the hunt to the opera house, but without a defined obedience, a monk risks never devoting himself to a real work and, thus, leaves himself open to what Saint Cassian calls “the roving thoughts which idleness produces.”

Too much work causes a monk to become nervous and weary. It is important that the obedience given a monk be measured to his strength and take account of his infirmities. Enormous ill-defined tasks that have no clear end in sight cause a man to buckle under the weight of a burden too unwieldy and too heavy to bear. The work given to Abba Simeon —to transcribe the Epistles in Latin—had a definite beginning and an end in sight. It remained for Abba Simeon to find his own adaptation of the Pomodoro system, that is fixed periods of work that are neither too short nor too long, with brief pauses in between each period to rest the eyes, the mind, and the hand. In a certain sense, the Pomodoro system is built into the monastic day, which takes its rhythm from the Divine Office. Save on long workdays, no work period is longer than two hours, allowing for approximately three modules of thirty-five minutes, each followed by a brief rest of three or four minutes.

The principal ascetical practices related to work have to do with staying within the defined scope of the task, beginning on time, and ending on time. There are brothers who have the bad habit of dilly-dallying and so struggle to begin a task punctually. Other brothers are easily distracted from the task; they go first in one direction and then in another. Distraction is undisciplined attraction. Still other brothers become so engrossed in the details of a task that they fail to engage with the bigger picture, and so deprive themselves of the satisfaction of a task completed within the allotted period of time.

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