The Daily Manual Labor
Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore, the community members should have specified periods for manual labor as well as for prayerful reading.
There is little room for excursion into the quixotic in the Rule of Benedict. If any chapter proves that point best, it may well be the chapter on work. Benedict doesn't labor the point but he clearly makes it: Benedictine life is life immersed in the sanctity of the real and work is a fundamental part of it. The function of the spiritual life is not to escape into the next world; it is to live well in this one. The monastic engages in creative work as a way to be responsible for the upbuilding of the community. Work periods, in fact, are specified just as prayer periods are. Work and prayer are opposite sides of the great coin of a life that is both holy and useful, immersed in God and dedicated to the transcendent in the human. It is labor's transfiguration of the commonplace, the transformation of the ordinary that makes co-creators of us all.
We believe that the times for both may be arranged as follows: From Easter to the first of October, they will spend their mornings after Prime till about the fourth hour at whatever work needs to be done. From the fourth hour until the time of Sext, they will devote themselves to reading. But after Sext and their meal, they may rest on their beds in complete silence; should any members wish to read privately, let them do so, but without disturbing the others. They should say None a little early, about midway through the eighth hour,and then until Vespers they are to return to whatever work is necessary. They must not become distressed if local conditions or their poverty should force them to do the harvesting themselves. When they live by the labor of their hands, as our ancestors and the apostles did, then they are really monastics. Yet, all things are to be done with moderation on account of the fainthearted.
Benedictine spirituality exacts something so much harder for our century than rigor. Benedictine spirituality demands balance. Immediately after Benedict talks about the human need to work, to fill our lives with something useful and creative and worthy of our concentration, he talks about lectio, about holy reading and study. Then, in a world that depended on the rising and the setting of the sun to mark their days rather than on the artificial numbers on the face of a clock, Benedict shifts prayer, work and reading periods from season to season to allow for some of each and not too much of either as the days stretch or diminish from period to period. He wants prayer to be brief, work to be daily and study to be constant. With allowances for periodic changes, then, the community prayed and studied from about 2:00 am to dawn and then worked for a couple of hours until the hour of Terce at about 10:00 am. Then, after Terce they read for a couple of hours until Sext before the midday meal. After dinner they rested or read until about 2:30 and then went back to work for three or four hours until Vespers and supper in the late afternoon. After saying a very brief Compline or evening prayer they retired after sundown for the night. It was a gentle, full, enriching, regular, calm and balanced life. It was a prescription for life that ironically has become very hard to achieve in a world of light bulbs and telephones and cars but it may be more necessary than ever if the modern soul is to regain any of the real rhythm of life and so, its sanity as well.