Chapter 48.3: The Daily Manual Labor

contemplation in Bonnevaux

On Sunday all are to be engaged in reading except those who have been assigned to various duties. If any are so remiss and indolent that they are unwilling or unable to study or to read, they are to be given some work in order that they might not be idle. Those 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. The prioress or abbot must take their infirmities into account.

It is significant that throughout this chapter on the daily manual labor Benedict continues to emphasis reading. Could it be that, in his time, his communities (like us) were also forgetting to read? The activity of each day includes reading. This is also the case on a Sunday, the day of rest. On Sunday though, there is a risk that community members might conflate rest and idleness.

Resting is not being idle. Idleness could be defined as a lack of focus on the present moment. Fantasizing, for example, is one way to be unfocused with attention removed from the present moment. To fantasize is to be idle. On the other hand, resting on your bed for 20 minutes after lunch can result in an energized afternoon. In the present moment you are tired, so you rest.

In idleness we lose our anchor in the now. Any kind of activity that helps a focus on now is not idleness: going for a walk, washing the car, ironing, going to an art gallery, seeing a good movie, having coffee with friends, and of course reading – all this is not being idle. All of these can be a way of resting from the stress and routine of the week; a practical activity asking that attention be now with what is being experienced. In these the mind can rest; the spirit be refreshed.

Idleness is like the idling of a car. As a car idles its gears are not engaged, it remains in neutral. Too much of this neutrality in life is life wasted. Perhaps we have spent too much time in front of the TV watching nothing or have wasted time vaguely swiping our way through Instagram. Anything that has us unengaged is idling. Benedict teaches us that it does not take much to engage. In this engagement attention is on what is being done now and we are living consciously. Do a spot of gardening, spend some time with nature, make a sandwich, sweep the floor, knit, or crochet, and yes, it’s ok to rest for a time watching your favorite TV show. If we are not idle, we are engaged, we are awake – to ourselves, each other, and God.     

To meditate is to gently engage first gear – this is saying the mantra. As this is done, we rest in the moment with attention falling into the heart of God. This is being relaxed and awake. However, when distractions claim attention and the mantra is forgotten, it is then that the meditator has slipped into neutral, we have become idle. The present moment of the heart has been temporarily overlooked. Attention on the mantra is consistent with the rule’s response to idleness: it anchors attention now, being an alternative to that unengaged and vague life that Benedict so disliked.  

“Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:35-37, NRSV)

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