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Benedictine Good Work

Prayer and contemplation, Benedict is clear, are no substitute for work. Nor are they an excuse to detach ourselves from the holy act of human responsibility for making the world go round. 

In fact, it is not just any work—employment, engagement, usefulness—with which the Rule is concerned. It is “the daily manual labor,” the work of the hands, the kind of work that makes things happen. Whatever our motives might be, to absent ourselves from manual labor is to participate in the creation of a servant society in which we give ourselves the right to not serve. But Benedictine spirituality is about equality and community, about service and mutual support.

The Benedictine heart knows that simply staying close to the mechanical functions of what it means to get through a day—running the vacuum, washing the dishes, shoveling the snow, doing the laundry, peeling the vegetables, cleaning out the care, making the bed, bathing the children—keeps us all, men and women, aware of the struggles embedded in every dimension of life.

For the Benedictine spirit, work is not simply work. Whatever kind of work it is—professional or technical, physical or intellectual, financial or social—it is to be good work, work that makes the world a better, more just, more fair, and more humane place for everyone.

“Idleness is the enemy of the soul,” the Rule reminds us. That insight bears pondering. The truth is that work has a spiritual function. It is done for the sake of the soul, not for the punishment of the body or for the gratification of the ego. Good work is meant to build into us a respect for the order and beauty that the cultivation of the spiritual life demands.

Good work is a human being’s contribution to the development of humankind and the fulfillment of the universe. In fact, why we work is the very bedrock of Benedictine spirituality. It is about the bringing of the Reign of God on earth. It is about completing the work of God in the upbuilding of the world. Work that participates in a common project of humanity frees us from total self-centeredness and makes us a prouder, more fulfilled part of the human race.

—Joan Chittister in The Monastery of the Heart