Of the daily manual labour (XLVIII:3)

30 Mar. 30 July. 29 Nov.
On Sunday, let all occupy themselves in reading, except those who have been appointed to the various offices. But if any one should be so negligent and slothful, as to be either unwilling or unable to study or to read, let some task be given him to do, that he be not idle. To brethren who are weak or delicate, let there be given such work or occupation as to prevent them either from being idle, or from being so oppressed by excessive labour as to be driven away. Their weakness must be taken into account by the Abbot.

For Saint Benedict, Sunday is the day of lectio divina par excellence. “Let all occupy themselves in reading, except those who have been appointed to the various offices”. The place of Psalm 118 at the Little Hours on Sunday suggests that the whole day is to be illumined by the contemplation of the Word of God.

Saint Benedict recognises that in every community there will be brethren who are “so negligent and slothful, as to be either unwilling or unable to study or to read”. Saint Benedict makes the distinction between the “unwilling” and the “unable”. There are brethren whose constitution is such that they find it difficult to concentrate for any length of time. I have known monks who are, in fact, psychologically incapable of spending any length time in the cell. Brethren such as these must be encouraged to spend time outdoors with a book or rosary beads in hand, reading a little bit, walking, and praying as they are able to pray. Many times I have said to a brother, “Pray as you can and not as you think you ought!”  I have also known brethren for whom fifteen minutes of reading represent a real accomplishment. Nothing is gained by imposing on such brethren a burden too heavy for them to bear.

For some brothers, at least at certain seasons of life, it will be impossible, or seem to them impossible, to pray for long stretches of time. I have known brothers for whom time flies when they are busy with things in the course of the day. When, however, those same brothers go to pray quietly, five minutes can seem to them like a hour, and one hour like half a day. The worst thing one can do when suffering from this sort of inability to pray is to cut one’s prayer short or to flee from it altogether. Mother Mectilde wisely counseled one of her spiritual children to hold fast to a quarter of an hour of prayer each day. One who follows this counsel will, over time, discover that he has been cured of his inability to pray and, almost imperceptibly, become capable of praying for longer periods of time. Mother Mectilde writes:

A soul who lives in the spirit of our holy Gospel [Mother Mectilde refers here to the Gospel of the Good Shepherd read on the Second Sunday after Easter, John 10:11–16) has only joy and repose in God. Nourish yourself on Jesus Christ; and for love of Him, do not refuse me the quarter of an hour that I ask of you, to expose yourself in His holy Presence each day, so as to receive in you the impressions of His grace and enter into a disposition of faith, of love, and of respect concerning that infallible and powerful truth that contains all: God is. That is enough for a Christian soul.

If you want to bind yourself to this little practice every day, I will take the liberty of writing you to tell you how you must go about it. I am assured that your soul will receive great graces from it, and that if you continue, you will be able to spend several hours in quiet prayer [oraison] without difficulty.  Grant me this favour, and let your humility allow me sometimes to ask you for an account of it, so as to see if Our Lord is making an impression on your interior.  If you enter into this as you ought, you will pass lightly amidst the world and all it contains.

I dare not hope for the honour of seeing you today: this is why I am sending you a letter . . . asking for news of your health and if the quarter of an hour continues. You must not give it up for any reason whatsoever. It is for God to God that you give it directly, and it is this that obliges you to be faithful to it. Use it, please, during this octave [of Pentecost] to surrender yourself to the power and the love of the Holy Spirit, simplifying your thoughts so as to remain in a simple attention and abandonment to His grace and to His operation, adoring Him in silence. Receive passively what it will please him to operate, and make yourself flexible to His impressions; He will not fail to give them to you, to enlighten your spirit on the truths of the Gospel, and to warm your will to put them into practice generously.

The holiness of Jesus wants to work within your soul; that is why your soul must separate itself from its own thoughts, to adhere strongly to His love. Let us live only for that love, which will transform us wholly in Jesus. I have a great desire to see myself at your feet, to speak of this, and by this sweet exchange, to chase away your troubles. Courage, continue the quarter of an hour with more care than ever before.

I am certain that if we had but a little more faith we should often see miracles in our affairs, but the greatest one of all would be peace and tranquility deep within. I have an ardent desire that you should possess this state, that you should be so intimately united to Jesus as to be unalterable in the midst of the vicissitudes of this life, which is composed of vanity, inconstancy, and affliction of spirit. This is why one must cling to it but in passing, making use of things as if not using them, remaining free in the midst of obstacles, leaning on this infallible truth: God is. It is on this truth that I humbly besought you to spend a quarter of an hour each day, occupying yourself with it in faith. This is how: at the hour of the day that is most free and convenient, you must shut yourself up in a room where, kneeling, or seated if you cannot do otherwise, and by a simple act of faith, believe God present in the inmost part of your soul, believe in Him without making distinctions, in all His attributes and divine perfections. One can say, “My God, You are, I believe that You are, and I believe myself to be utterly nothing in Your holy Presence.” After these words, or others that the Holy Spirit inspires, remain in silence in a profound respect of His infinite grandeur, humbling yourself profoundly, leaving aside every operation, reasoning, and consideration, so as to allow yourself to be plunged into this adorable All. During this quarter of an hour, hold captive the acts of the mind, so as to feel only the delicate touches of the Holy Spirit in the intimacy of the heart. Do not think this a waste of time. You will see that this quiet prayer [oraison] contains an inexhaustible treasure of grace but, as the beginnings are a little difficult, you will do it for only a quarter of an hour, but this must be without fail, and if you do me the favour of coming to visit, we will speak about it more particularly. Let us learn to live here below like the saints in heaven and do on earth the exercise that we hope to do throughout all our eternity.  Let us love, adore, and possess within us the same God who is the glory and the felicity of the blessed. So be it.

When the wound is uncovered, the sickness is half cured, at least if it is not too dangerous. . . . You, novice, are disgusted with yourself and find consolation in nothing. It is true also that nothing human is capable of consoling you, but the things of God can strengthen and encourage you to bear the crosses that are in the order of God’s good pleasure. You must do a little violence to yourself and the impossible will become easy; with grace one can do anything. I am holding back my sentiment so as to not to scold my precious novice too harshly. But I beg you very humbly to come to see your mother mistress, if you do not want to undergo a little correction, if you delay you will forget her lesson, and then what will become of the quarter of an hour, not rendering an account of whether you do it or not? I, however, am committed before God to push you gently even into the Heart of Jesus Christ where you must find the life, repose, and joy that the world and creatures cannot give.

There will always be necessary work on Sundays, Thursdays, and the feasts of precept. The sacristy, kitchen, refectory, guesthouse, and care of the sick, among other things, cannot be neglected. The custom of assigning “Sunday work” to certain brothers is authorised by the Holy Rule. This can be light work in the garden or a craft such as making rosaries. In all of this, the abbot must help each brother to recognise his weaknesses without becoming diminished by them, and to recognise his strengths without becoming self–sufficient and prideful.

Saint Benedict also speaks of the brethren who are weak or delicate — fratribus infirmis aut delicatis. Such as these are to be given a light work lest they begin to feel useless and become dejected. The chapter ends with one of Saint Benedict’s characteristic principles: “Their weakness must be taken into account by the Abbot”.