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Monastic Work. From origin and practice

Monastic workMonastic work

It was the monasteries that significantly changed the way work was valued in the West. In Greek antiquity, it was considered - from agriculture to handicrafts - the lowest level of human activity, incompatible with the dignity of free men. In the Old Testament, it was imposed on man as penance; by the sweat of thy face he should eat his bread. The New Testament gave work a natural place in life, but it should not and must not become an end in itself or an idol. Jesus of Nazareth went ahead with humility, he was Zimmermann, worked with his own hand, made himself common with the people - a cultural break, a change of times. Paul toiled as a tentmaker, Peter, James and John were simple fishermen before their calling, Matthew a tax collector. Because of their craft, the other apostles became patrons of miners, shepherds, masons, carpenters, walkers, tanners and woodcutters. What on the one hand again underlines the humility, but on the other hand testifies to a self-confidence of the professions to assure themselves of such powerful patrons. Manual labor was for the first monks of the Egyptian desert not only ascetic exercise - "wholesome food" - and a basis for existence, but direct discipleship of Christ. Humility in action, mind and hand, inner and outer freedom. Ropes, baskets and mats were woven and sold, and were used to support oneself and to care for the sick. The former soldier Pachomius led the monks around 320 in Upper Egypt into a communal living together (Greek Koinobion) with rules and structured economic activity; he thus founded the first monasteries of Christianity. In them, the monks lived in "assured poverty," were all treated equally regardless of origin and status, and simple manual labor had significance as an "external aid to meditation."

Means of freedom from worldly coercion

The monastic community as a whole participated in the economic activity; the goal was self-sufficiency: work as a means to freedom from worldly coercion. A basic means of subsistence had to be worked out, as well as the means to help the poor. A common work ethic and work organization soon made the Egyptian monasteries very successful. Convents grew to several hundred monks, and there were houses assigned to individual occupational groups within the monasteries: potters, linen weavers, bakers, cooks, tailors, carpenters, shoemakers, or gardeners. The monasteries became rich in land, livestock, ships, in short, in earthly goods. Around the year 351, individual abbots and monasteries rebelled - a poverty dispute broke out because the spiritual dimension was in danger of being lost. Since then, the consensus of all monastic reforms - the greatest and most important of which, also in the context of the value of work, is certainly that of St. Benedict - has been: priority in a monastery is given to the search for the kingdom of God, the true work in the vineyard of the Lord - spirituality. Only after that come the worldly things.

Ora et labora. The Rule of St. Benedict and its work ethic

In silence, medieval monasticism accomplished feats that are among the most difficult and magnificent in world history: the artful copying of books. Monks have handed down to us not only the Bible, but most of ancient knowledge and the writings of the early Middle Ages. The most copied book is and remains the Holy Scriptures, but in second place of the preserved manuscripts follows: the monastic rule of St. Benedict from the 6th century!

The Rule of St. BenedictThe Rule of St. Benedict

Ironically, its triumph as the monastic rule of the Occident was helped by a personality who could hardly write himself: He wanted Benedict's Rule to be followed in all the monasteries of his empire. And this had consequences. Even today, we use a common saying as a synonym or sum for the Rule of Benedict, which is not found literally in the text of the Rule: "Ora et labora" - "Pray and work! But the ethos behind it is far more differentiated.

Find the right position!

First of all, work is not absolutized. The rhythm of monastic life is the worship service in the church: "When you hear the sign for worship, put everything aside. Nothing must be preferred to worship" (ch. 43:1-3). Our thinking today suggests that we see worship as an interruption of everyday business, but for Benedict, the opposite perspective applied. He was concerned about how intervening times could be filled in such a way as to be of the greatest possible benefit to the individual: "Idleness is the enemy of the soul; therefore let the brothers be occupied at certain hours with manual labor, at certain hours with sacred reading" (48:1). This makes it plausible to extend the Benedictine motto even further: "Pray, read and work," and this is precisely what one finds more and more often in recent times. To be sure, work in the monastery has the last place in this paradigm. But it is not the ivory tower position of disdain for physical activity; a few verses further on we read, "They are truly monks when, like our fathers and the apostles, they live by the work of their hands" (48:8). Already in early Christianity, there were idlers who frittered away the day under spiritual pretext and hoped for the support of the congregation. Such are not welcome in the monastery either: "If anyone is so careless and indolent that he is unwilling or unable to learn or read anything, charge him with some activity so that he will not be idle" (48:23).

Find yourself?

What does the Rule say about professionalism and self-realization? Astonishing: "If craftsmen are in the monastery, they can exercise their activity in all humility, if the abbot allows it. But if one of them becomes arrogant because he is conceited about his skill and thinks that he brings something to the monastery, his work will be taken away from him" (57, 1-3). For life in the monastery, the work performed is not decisive. With a newcomer, one should pay attention above all to whether he "really seeks God" (58, 7). At the same time, the abbot is advised to "keep moderation in all things, so that the strong may find what they desire and the weak may not run away" (64:19). Accordingly, Benedictine work ethic means to classify everything soberly; work is a necessity for subsistence, hospitality and charity, and, beyond that, for the maturing of the concrete personality. But even from this point of view, creating and having are never only means to an end, but demand to assert the spiritual dimension again and again. And even the simplest tool has to submit to this when the Rule inculcates in the administrator of the monastery: "All the utensils and all the possessions of the monastery he considers as sacred altar utensils" (31, 10).

Water power and contemplative time

Benedictines and Zisterzienser, the protagonists of "ora et labora," can confidently be considered economic pioneers with considerable influence on the cultural and economic development of the Occident. Their monasteries were havens of education, research and science - and the first major economic enterprises. Historians speak of "monasteries as centers of innovation," citing mill logistics, salt production, mining and monastic industrial buildings from the 12th century as examples. In Vaulerent near Paris, a 72-meter-long granary has been preserved; such granaries were part of every larger monastery complex. The forge of the Zisterziensermonastery of Fontenay measured more than 50 meters, a room with two naves, an early industrial cathedral. There were water pipes in monasteries when people still went to the Brunnen outside the gates in the cities. Already in the Egyptian monasteries of the 4th century, water power was cleverly used - for the sake of facilitating work and thus increasing contemplative time. The Benedictine rule wants, where possible, water mills near the monasteries. The "Oberharzer Wasserregal" (Upper Harz Water Regal), declared a World Heritage Site in 2010, also has monastic origins; the Zisterziensermonastery of Walkenried played a major role in the construction of the system of ponds and canals. Part of the Upper Harz mining industry was entrusted to it, and the sophisticated water management system ensured that the mining industry had water power even in drier months. Monasteries were involved in the trade in salt, the "white gold" of the Middle Ages, and in England the Zisterzienserorder dominated the wool market for a time. Monasteries were inventive and influential in many areas, such as agriculture and plant breeding with improved farming methods such as three-field farming, drainage or fertilization. Monasteries were not only pioneers in education, art or hospitals, but also in the division of labor and highly specialized crafts. Theologians and scientific researchers, architects and engineers, farmers, millers, bakers, brewers, butchers, wagon and barrel makers, blacksmiths, carpenters, nurses, and doctors with healing skills lived in the monastery. The Lorsch Pharmacopoeia, which documents the wealth of medical experience of the time, was written in the 8th century. "On the Care of Gardens", known as "Hortulus" and one of the most important botanical works of the Middle Ages, was written by Walahfrid of Reichenau in 827.

The oldest variety of apple still cultivated today, the Borsdorfer Renette, was mentioned in 1170 in the directory of the Pforta monastery, and a wall built by Zisterziensern around 1330 still surrounds the Clos de Vougeot, one of the most famous vineyards in the world; it can be described as the oldest experimental vineyard in the world. Whether in Burgundy, on the Rhine or Danube, in South Tyrol or in the Rheingau, it was often monks who introduced viticulture, first planted slopes and took advantage of the terroir. The importance of bees for the monasteries is shown by the "Lorscher Bienensegen," an Old High German rhyme from the 9th century, which is supposed to call back a swarm of bees that had escaped.

Keep the balance

Material success has always had its dangers, and monastic history bears witness to this with many a literal case. Rafael M. Rieger gives a contemporary example of how the contemplative life of a community can be damaged by the establishment of a monastery store: "Instead of being responsible for prayer, as is tradition, the sisters or brothers must now inform themselves about the range of goods, place orders, make calculations, advertise, plan the use of materials and personnel, conduct sales talks, and so on..." Keeping a monastery in balance as a productive community requires a weighing of goods of far more than just a material nature. Many religious orders have centuries of experience in this. This is also reflected in the answers of the nuns and monks further down the page. Benedictine abbeys in German-speaking Switzerland, Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg have an average lifespan of around 500 years, according to Zurich-based researcher Margit Osterloh. Only a quarter of the closures are due to poor management. At best, universities are similarly consistent over such a long period of time. In international business, the most successful companies often only last 40 to 50 years, and less than a third of family businesses survive the second generation. Alf Mayer, Martin Erdmann

What does work mean to me? Nuns and monks answer:

**I am a religious sister in the Bread of Life Community. We live here with the poor and the homeless, whom we have welcomed into our community, with Christ in the Eucharist. We always work in the encounter with Christ. We see our houses as meeting places where one can come closer to peace and the meaning of life. We live in the village. Many women here have no work, and unemployment borders on hopelessness. These women are first class cooks who have their cooking skills handed down from family tradition, from their mothers and grandmothers. We have built a business where our specialties are created, we all work together. From this work several families can earn their living. The hope described in the Gospel has reached very concrete forms here. Sister Małgorzata; Bread of Life Community, Poland

From work we do not make our gods. "We live in the city and in the rhythm of the city, which naturally shapes us. And we also like to say that our monastery is the city. There are two things of great importance for us: we go to work outside, but we consciously work a limited time: as a half-day activity. We do not make our gods out of work, but first we earn our living with it. We have other priorities. We are not enclosed by walls, but we live an interior enclosure: we have certain times for solitude, silence, study of the Scriptures ... For us it is not a question of being separated from the world, but of living in a different spirit, but also not in the sense of contempt for the world" Sister Anne-Claire; Community of Jerusalem, Cologne Great St. Martin

**The by-product is ourselves. "I tell the employees: we create products, and beyond that, we also create a by-product. Then I let them think about it, figure out what that by-product might be.... The by-product, much more important than the product, is ourselves! We and peace among ourselves, with our customers and beyond that with the whole world. Cost: attention, patience ... Fruit: Joy, yes, but also sometimes broken pieces, because it does not always succeed for a long time and does not always have to succeed." Sister Sabine OCSO; Trappist Abbey Maria Frieden, Dahlem/Eifel

**Idleness is the enemy of the soul. "Monastic work has several meanings: It should allow the community to meet its needs as best it can and to live from its own work. It should help the monk, besides his life of prayer, to avoid any form of idleness, which is "the enemy of the soul," as St. Benedict puts it. It should also be considered as a penance for the forgiveness of sins; this is just as it was imposed on the first man by the expulsion from the earthly paradise. In short, work is an integral part of the monks' life" Father Raphael OSB; Benedictine Abbey Le Barroux, France

**For the disciple of St. Benedict, "idleness is the enemy of the soul", and therefore work, beyond its economic aspect of providing for our sustenance, is above all a way of being united with all those who have to go about their work, sometimes with great difficulty, and also a means of providing for more than our needs in order to be able to help others. If the nature of the work fortunately allows one or the other to develop spiritually, that is more than good. However, more thoroughly, it is a way of encountering God, who created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day" Father Robert OSB; Benedictine Abbey Ganagobie, France

**Expression of my love for the world and the community. ** "For us monks, work is first and foremost relationship. In manual labor, I enter into relationship with matter, with the cosmos. In collaboration, I enter into a relationship with the neighbor. The work should always be structured in such a way that I can enter into contact with my divine source. Then the work becomes prayer, becomes a creative expression of my love for the world and for the community. "Brother Axel OSBCam; Camaldolese Abbey Camaldoli, Italy